No. 6  September 2001
The authoritative source on
early churches in New Jersey

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Burlington's St. Mary's Episcopal church

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South Park Presbyterian, Newark

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Feature of the month

A traditional, but strictly regional design

In 1862 the Presbyterians in Westfield (Union county) built a large traditional-looking church near the center of town. The tower and steeple is aligned with the center of the nave, preserving the symmetry of the front elevation. The shallow pitch to the roof is characteristic of the Greek revival, and there is a strong Greek revival pediment, interrupted by the tower, which is marked by an elongated window with a round, rather than pointed (gothic) arch. The central window is mirrored in two side windows of the same shape flanking the tower, which has a Tuscan arch just below the base of the belfry section. There are three front entrances, with the principal entrance being through the tower. None of these elements are unique, but the particular combination was, apparently, thought to be so appropriate that the design will be echoed, almost intact, in fourteen central Jersey churches as late as 1878. Except in the case of the Simpson Methodist church in Perth Amboy, the architect is unknown.
     In the seven years following 1862, at least ten more congregations, all Methodist, Presbyterian or Reformed, lying in a narrow swath through the middle of the state from the Hudson to the Delaware River built identical churches. The design is not found in any other part of the state, nor in churches of any other denomination, as far as I have determined. It has been worked in stone and brick, as well as wood, but the major variation from one church to another is the design of the belfry and steeple and in the window treatment.
     The Reformed church in Pottersville (Somerset county), (1869) follows the Westfield church very closely. Many of the steeples were replaced by shorter ones, less prone to wind damage, but the belfry and Tuscan arch are persistent features.
The Tuscan arch is sometimes shallow, as in the Methodist church in Clinton (Hunterdon county), erected in 1863 along the south branch of the Raritan; the well-articulated dentils here are not always incorporated in the arch, but invariably are part of the pediment. Pottersville's church has three front doors, but Clinton's only a single central entrance.

     The Presbyterian church at Liberty Corner, built in 1869, (Somerset county) added a small round window in the tower, and the lower of the two Tuscan arches is shallower still, but in other respects, the design is extremely faithful to Westfield's church.
     The Simpson Methodist church (1866, but completed in 1881), built of brick, is credited to architect Charles Graham. It, too, has a round window in the tower and has replaced the two side entrances with windows. The clock in the belfry is almost certainly a later addition; although common in New England, tower clocks are unusual in New Jersey. Like the Westfield church, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
     The Fairmount Methodist church in Tewksbury Township (Hunterdon) built in 1868, a year prior to the Pottersville church which lies only a couple miles away, incorporates rectangular windows, but carries out the round top with false arches in the window surrounds. The original tall spire was replaced, probably in the 1880s, by a shingled dome in the Queen Anne style.  The belfry tier shows some Italiante influence, which was  fairly common in the period and especially in this design.
      Another Methodist church built in 1867 in Whitehouse (Hunterdon)
incorporates all of the elements found in the Westfield building and is remarkably similar to the Pottersville church and to the Oldwick Methodist church (1865), both only a couple miles away.  Nine churches of this design were built in Hunterdon county, including the Annandale Reformed (1868), the stone Milford Presbyterian church (1868), Three Bridges Reformed (1873), High Bridge Methodist (1873), and the Quakertown Methodist (1878). It strikes me as curious that the design was confined to a narrow region, including only Hudson, Middlesex, Union, Somerset and Hunterdon. The Reformed church in Bayonne, built in 1866, is the lone example in Hudson, and only Somerset, with Pottersville, Liberty Corner and Mt. Horeb Methodist (1867) has more than one. Equally curious is the fact that no denomination other than Methodist, Reformed and Presbyterian, adopted the design, which leads me to suspect it was a very enterprising local architect or builder, rather than a plan book, that was responsible for this regional variation on the traditional Wren-Gibbs church.



Copyright © 2001 Frank L. Greenagel