No. 18 October 2002
The authoritative source
early churches in New Jersey
We've created a database and photographic inventory containing more than
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an illustrated guide to stained glass in the area's churches, especially
those with Tiffany or John LaFarge windows. For a sample of some fine
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Protestant Union Chapel Pomona, Atlantic County
photo of the month
Sacred Heart Church
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of the month
Wren-Gibbs style: tradition born in the London fire of 1666
have had a concept of an "ideal church," a building that embodies
the traditions of the denomination, and, in previous centuries, of the
ethnic stock of the congregation. Early Dutch settlers built hexagonal
or octagonal churches in the Raritan Valley area, modeling them after
a design that came into vogue in 17th century Holland; Quakers brought
their own distinctive style from the English midlands; in New Mexico,
Franciscan friars adapted Spanish designs to the adobe construction methods
that their Pueblo Indian "converts" could manage. The concept
of the ideal may change over time, as we see in the many Greek Revival
churches erected in New Jersey by Dutch Reformed congregations in the
1850s. By the close of the Civil War, most of the Protestant denominations,
here and elsewhere, adopted the Gothic or Romanesque as the appropriate
ideal, following the Episcopal church, whose leaders in this state settled
on the English Gothic Revival as the only appropriate design for an Episcopal
Perhaps the most enduring of the "ideal"
churches in this country, and certainly in the mid-Atlantic and New England
states is what is usually called the Wren-Gibbs style. It is a
[Trinity-St Phillips, Newark;
Old Swedes, Swedesboro]
symmetrical arrangement with a rectangular tower centered on the box (nave)
which contains the auditorium. That auditorium is almost always shorter
and broader than in Catholic and Episcopal buildings. Instead of the sacraments
emphasized by those denominations, Protestant congregations wanted to
hear (and read) the Word. Interior galleries are common, and, originally,
the windows were of clear glass. The intent was to maximize light and
acoustics, befitting congregations that wanted to see and hear the minister.
A cruciform building was considered too Popish, and the deep, fully articulated
chancel of traditional English churches was inconsistent with proximity
to the minister.
The Wren-Gibbs style gets its name from
17th-early 18th century English architects. Christopher Wren designed
dozens of churches in London after the city was destroyed by fire in 1666,
a few of which became models for American churches in the eighteenth century.
James Gibbs, a later Scottish-born architect, who followed Wren's basic
principles, was actually more influential in this country because of his
Book of Architecture, published in 1728. A Gibbs church, such as
Trinity-St. Phillips  in Newark
and the Presbyterian church in Allentown
[right] (Monmouth county) , is fundamentally
a shallow basilica design with the entrance centered on the front of the
building. Whereas Wren pushed the tower in front of the box, Gibbs built
the tower inside the church, which allowed him to design a full classical
portico across the facade. The multi-tiered tower, with several elaborate
stages, is characteristic of Wren-Gibbs designs.
Naturally, that basic design underwent some
modifications. The Swedish minister who was to take charge of a Lutheran
congregation in Swedesboro (Gloucester county) spent time in London studying
the Wren churches (and learning Englishand according to his letters,
kissing girls) before coming to this country. Not long after his arrival,
his congregation commenced building a church  to his design, one
clearly based on the Wren model, with the tower extending fully in front
of the building, and there is no portico. The Old North church in Boston
 and St.
Presbyterian churches in Elizabeth, Newark, Bloomfield and Rahway]
George's Chapel in New York  also follow the model. Old North, in
fact, was probably the model for Old First in Newark
 and for the First Presbyterian church in Elizabeth
. In all of those examples, the tower thrusts forward and projects
from the front wall of the church; the pediment may be emphasized or non-existent.
A majority of American Protestant churches
of the 18th and early 19th centuries follow the basic principles of a
Wren-Gibbs church, although the exterior ornamentation may employ Gothic
or Romanesque elements, and the portico is usually absent. In New Jersey,
the form found simpler expression in most areas: Rockaway
 and Chatham have scaled-down versions
of Old First, and St. James Episcopal church in Delaware
Station (Warren county)  and the Reformed church at Six
Mile Run (Somerset county)  have stripped away many of the decorative
elements and replaced the Georgian style windows with Gothic arches.
The Wren-Gibbs tradition as an ideal persisted through
century and was carried out west, through the great plains into Colorado,
Nevada and California. I have photographed a number of simple frame buildings
thereMethodist, Baptist and Presbyterianthat are clearly representative
of the Wren-Gibbs ideal.
The First Baptist church in Plainfield,
erected in 1869, hearkens back to an earlier Wren-Gibbs model, including
even the scrollwork over the front entrance. The Calvary
Baptist church in Hopewell, erected in 1872 adopts the full portico,
but with a modest tower and steeple. Perhaps the dominant characteristic
of the Wren-Gibbs church in this country is the unrelenting symmetry of
the front elevation, which borrows the classical portico as well from
the Palladian tradition, which had a strong influence in England at the
beginning of the eighteenth century.
the 20th century, while most mainline Protestant denominations shucked
the Wren-Gibbs tradition for a more contemporary design, Christian Science
churches picked up the model in several communities in the state and elsewhere.
Their motivation, according to a recent book: to try to fit in more and
gain acceptance as a mainstream denomination.
St.James, Delaware Station; below: the Dutch Reformed church at Six Mile