No. 71   September 2008
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250



   
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Feature of the month

St. Mary's Church, Burlington

William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies) tells a story of the construction of a tower for a medieval cathedral in his book, The Spire. The cathedral's dean, Jocelin, driven by a vision he insists is divinely inspired bullies everyone connected with the community—from the master builder to the wife of the lowly caretaker, to submit to his goal of erecting a 400 foot spire over the crossing of the cathedral. All but Jocelin understand that the cathedral's ancient foundation is not strong enough to support the spire, and he will not listen, insisting that his faith and will are sufficiently strong to complete the project. As the spire slowly rises and the doubts of others grow stronger, Jocelin becomes fanatical; he hasn't lost all reason, but insists his vision is worth whatever the cost. In the face of their arguments he says, “It is simpler to believe in a miracle,” and later explains to the master builder that “a man knows a little perhaps of the purpose, but nothing of the cost.”

I think of that book whenever I visit one of my favorite churches in the state, (new) St. Mary's Church in Burlington. There is no doubt the four massive piers can support the tower and spire, as architect Richard Upjohn well knew, but they remind me of Golding's novel just the same. They have a solid heaviness that contrasts with the exquisite hammerbeam trusses of the steeply-pitched roof, explicit testimony to their role in supporting a tall stone spire. There is a second association, as well—the driving force behind St. Mary's was another strong-willed churchman, Episcopal Bishop George Washington Doane. Doane spent time in England in the early 1840s where he sought out leaders of the “high church” movement—those who would restore some of the ceremony and mystery to a denomination they felt was becoming too informal. This movement was grounded in a distaste for the classical revival in architecture, and a belief that the fourteenth-century English parish church was the only appropriate design for Christian (that is, high church Episcopal) worship. They promoted those views in lectures, a magazine and by sponsoring accurate measured drawings of a few of the better (in their judgment) late-medieval English Gothic churches, which they presumptuously supplied to “the colonies” (that is, to Canada and the United States).

Doane pushed the Gothic mode on St. Thomas' parish in Glassboro about 1840, and on the chapel of the school he controlled in Burlington (Chapel of the Holy Innocents) in 1846; in that year he also engaged Upjohn, who had won considerable acclaim for Trinity Church in New York City, to design an authentic English Gothic church based on plans supplied by the Cambridge Camden Society. Those plans were of Saint John Baptist, in Shottesbrook, Berkshire, prepared by English architect William Butterfield. It is a lovely building. Phoebe Stanton's excellent treatise, The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture, describes it:

St. Mary's is a cruciform church. . . .There are three entrances—an unpretentious west door, a south door covered by a porch, and a door which opens into the south transept. . . . The rectangular masses of which St. Mary's is composed are bound into one by the tower and the grave and graceful spire. Upjohn used a continuous transition from the rectangle to the polygon upon it, suppressing the pyramidal masses usual at the corners of a broach and using inward-curving surfaces instead.. . . . The comfortable feeling of authenticity and the charm of the exterior derive from the stone of which the church is built and the even, unostentatious rhythm of the buttresses and lancets along the walls of the nave and transepts. . . . The eccentric arrangement of the paired windows in deep embrasures is dramatic.

Stanton concludes her description by asserting that Upjohn's deviations from the Shottesbrook plans were imaginative and an improvement. More importantly, that church and a few others “raised aesthetic possibilities and demonstrated architectural refinements which invited a reconsideration of the fundamentals of architecture.”

Doane had an enormous impact on the architecture of Episcopal churches in New Jersey for several decades—so much so that one would be pressed to find an Episcopal church erected after 1846 that was not in the Gothic mode. He apparently was relentless in pushing his concepts of church design on Anglican vestrys to the point that several remodeled their churches, added well-articulated chancels and even re-oriented the altar so that it was located at the east end. I am not suggesting that he was fanatical in the way Golding's dean was, but that a strong personality may shape a community's architecture as much as anything in the liturgy, the popular culture of the times, or the financial condition of the congregation.

 

 
 

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