No. 29 November 2003
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Variations of the Gothic

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Feature of the month

Variations of the Gothic, part 2

In the first of two articles on the Gothic idiom, I sketched the varieties of Gothic, which to my photographic eye, includes four major themes: (1) the early Gothic, covering the period from the 1820s to the mid-1840s, (2) the Gothic Revival, introduced by the Episcopal church in the 1840s and which remained popular well into the twentieth century, (3) the Catholic Gothic, which seems to me distinct from the English Gothic of the Gothic Revival, and (4) the permutations of the Victorian/romantic Gothic, which started out as board-and-batten and evolved into the Carpenter Gothic and then into the Stick style by the end of the century. I have already treated the second and fourth of those variations (see Less is More, The Beginnings of Gothic, and Board-and-Batten), so this month's issue will focus on what I call the Catholic Gothic (which includes many urban Lutheran churches).
     Let me be clear that Catholic Gothic is not a term you will see in any of the works on American architecture. It is simply a label I have attached to a number of churches that are clearly within the Gothic style, but often pick up elements from French buildings and graft them on to what is often a Wren-Gibbs type church. Many of the Catholic churches, and most of the Lutheran churches in Essex and Hudson counties, have little in common with the Gothic Revival style popularized by Notman, Upjohn, and others.
     The common features of these Catholic churches include: (1) more often symmetrical than not, with the main entrance centered in the nave. Any asymmetry usually was based on towers that were of different height, as in St Bridgits (below) and St Paul the Apostle (right), or from the placement of a single tower to one side, as in St Patrick's (Jersey City) (2) All the churches have Gothic arch windows and buttresses, at least on the towers, although it is much less common to buttress the walls of the nave, as we see even for the smaller wooden Anglican churches where it is wholly a design element of no structural use. (3) The most important difference from the Gothic Revival of the Episcopal churches is the scale—the Catholic churches are generally massive buildings, seating several times the capacity even of the larger Anglican churches. (4) There is usually more texture to the facade of the Catholic churches—variegated color stone or brick, massed windows, arcades, niches for statues, decorated window and door surrounds, and belfry openings. Brick was as likely to be used as stone, where brick was discouraged by Anglican prelates.

Two architects in particular are responsible for several of the most important Catholic churches: Patrick Keeley, who designed more than 600 churches in the country, and Jeremiah O'Roarke, who, like Keeley, was born in Ireland and emigrated after serious training and practice in England or Ireland. O'Roarke settled in Newark about 1850, and later served as the Architect of the United States, responsible for the design of all federal buildings during his tenure. Among his buildings are: Church of the Immaculate Conception in Camden (1864), St. Mary's in Wharton (1872), St. Joseph's in Newark (1878), and the initial design for the great Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark (1899).

Of the 60 Catholic churches I have photographed that were erected between 1849 and 1900, only 15 were not clearly Gothic in style, and that includes the several modest wooden frame buildings that have survived from the mid-nineteenth century. Although the Romanesque style was apparently easier to build because the rounded arch required less-skilled artisans, the church hierarchy, mostly foreign-born (first German and some French, then Irish) preferred Gothic. And that is one of the major differences, along with the scale of the buildings, between the Catholic churches and their mainstream Protestant counterparts.

St Patricks Pro-Cathedral in Newark is one of the most stylish churches in the state. This is the description of the building, written in 1883:
   The Cathedral, located on the corner of
   Washington Street and Central Avenue,
   is of Gothic style, built of brick, and painted
   on the outside. The interior of the church
   is purely Gothic, the nave arches groined,
   and having fine plaster decorations; they
   rest upon beautifully carved capitals of
   light gray, which are supported by heavy
   cluster columns of solid brown stone. The
   side arches are also groined and
   decorated. There are several mullioned 
   clear-story windows on each side.

Surprisingly, it is also probably the oldest Catholic church in the state, begun in 1846 and completed three years later. It was designed by the priest at Saint John's, Father Moran, in the French Gothic style, very likely with the assistance of Patrick Keeley.

In New Brunswick, there are several large Catholic churches, but the mother of them all is St Peters (above). The cornerstone for the church was laid in 1856, but the building was not completed until 1865. It sits across the street from Rutgers University, and is the second church erected by this parish, which was organized about 1829 when they built their first church. Keeley was the architect, but the design owes much to the early work of Richard Upjohn.

The Church of the Assumption is the oldest religious building in Morristown, erected in 1872. It is built of red brick, with Ohio sandstone trim. I understand that portions of it burned sometime in this century; if so, the restoration seems to have been carried out with respect for historical authenticity. The parish was organized in 1848, although there were Catholic services in the area as early as 1743. The architect was L. J. O'Connor, whose name doesn't appear on any other church in the state so far as I have determined.

When it was built in 1875, Our Lady of Grace in Hoboken was reputedly the largest church in the state. It's a red-brick beauty, with much statuary and carving on the entrance. Frances Himpler was the architect, although one source attributes the building (mistakenly in my reading of the record) to Patrick Keeley. The building is listed on the National Register.

Located on the Old Bergen Road in the Greenville section of Jersey City, Saint Paul the Apostle (top) was organized by 1861, when the congregation built a wooden church on the site. In 1887, this fine red brick church was erected. Except for the towers, it is a symmetrical design. I suspect it was also designed by Keeley.

This large church (left), the second built by St. Bridgit's congregation, was erected in Jersey City in 1890. The architect was Keeley, who also designed St. Patrick's in in this city. St. Bridgit's was founded in 1869, and their first church, a small wood frame building, was erected in that year. Together with its school and other buildings, St. Bridgit's today occupies most of an entire city block.

For the rest of the century, most Episcopal churches in the state followed Gothic Revival precepts, several of which were taken up by mainstream Protestant congregations, although not the east-oriented altar or the separate chancel, which were largely for liturgical rather than design reasons. More importantly for the New Jersey churchscape was the influx of Catholic immigrants from Germany in the 1840s and, shortly thereafter, from Ireland. After a few modest frame buildings, Catholic parishes began to build substantial churches, and ultimately compounds including schools and residences, in both Gothic and Romanesque fashion, but clearly different from the Gothic churches the Anglican congregations were erecting.
      In the last decades of the century, the substantial immigration from Italy, Poland and middle Europe resulted in an even richer architectural diversity—in the cities, churches marked ethnic neighborhoods, each of which wanted a distinctive church in a familiar idiom, and so we have Polish Catholic, a German Catholic, and an Italian Catholic churches only a few blocks from each other in Trenton, Jersey City, and Newark. The Gothic style in America was eventually was transformed by exploitation of wood (where fire codes permitted), by construction techniques that permitted ever larger structures to be built of (actually, faced with) brick, and by the unavailability of stonemasons skilled enough for the demands of Gothic detailing. So the destiny of the Gothic idiom in this state was probably shaped as much by economic forces and realities as by architectural preferences and liturgy.



Copyright © 2003 Frank L. Greenagel