No. 18  October 2002
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Protestant Union Chapel Pomona, Atlantic County

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Sacred Heart Church
New Brunswick

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Feature of the month

Wren-Gibbs style: tradition born in the London fire of 1666

All denominations 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 church.
      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 two late 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 [1810] in Newark and the Presbyterian church in Allentown [right] (Monmouth county) [1837], 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 English—and according to his letters, kissing girls) before coming to this country. Not long after his arrival, his congregation commenced building a church [1784] 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 [1723] and St.       
              [left-to-right: Presbyterian churches in Elizabeth, Newark, Bloomfield and Rahway]

George's Chapel in New York [1752] also follow the model. Old North, in fact, was probably the model for Old First in Newark [1791] and for the First Presbyterian church in Elizabeth [1789]. 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 [1832] and Chatham have scaled-down versions of Old First, and St. James Episcopal church in Delaware Station (Warren county) [1869] and the Reformed church at Six Mile Run (Somerset county) [1879] 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 the 19th century and was carried out west, through the great plains into Colorado, Nevada and California. I have photographed a number of simple frame buildings there—Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian—that 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.

In 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.

top: St.James, Delaware Station; below: the Dutch Reformed church at Six Mile Run


First Baptist, Plainfield


Copyright © 2002 Frank L. Greenagel