Thursday, August 6, 2015

Going to church: the amazingly well-preserved Old Broad Street Presbyterian

I've long been of the mind that keeping a historic building in continuous use is the best way to keep it from deteriorating. An impressive structure on West Broad Street in Bridgeton proves that sometimes, the direct opposite is true.

Standing on a full city block along the main road, surrounded by scattered gravestones from the late 18th century to the present, the Old Broad Street Church owes a good part of its fine condition to the fact that it was largely abandoned in 1836, just over 40 years after it was built. According to the church's website, it may be the most pristine example of Georgian high ecclesiastical architecture surviving in the thirteen original states.

We visited on a recent Sunday afternoon, when the congregation generously opened the doors to a curious public. From the outside, the two-story brick building appears both stately and simple, designed in the manner of the Philadelphia churches of the day. Doors on three sides of the rectangular church welcome visitors; curiously, the only side without a door is the one that faces the road. One of the side doors was open, and as we walked past, I noticed what appeared to be a metal beam running from a metal box diagonally up to the ceiling. Was this some sort of reinforcement, added during a restoration attempt? Hopefully we'd find out.

A bit of neck strain for the folks in the expensive
seats? Photo courtesy Library of Congress. 
Walking inside, we were welcomed by a member of the friends organization, who gave us a brief history of the church, the first Christian congregation organized in Bridgeton. Its original members had been worshiping at far-flung churches and wanted their own meeting place in the growing town. By 1795, they had their own church, complete with box-style pews. The more prosperous congregants usually purchased pews closest to the front of the church, but as our hostess observed, prominence may have come with a cost. Sitting so close to the elevated pulpit, the rich folk had to strain their necks to see the minister in his elevated pulpit. Meanwhile, the view from the back pews was just fine.
 
The building's simplicity reminded me of a lot of Colonial-era Presbyterian churches I've visited, but unlike those, I could easily imagine early Americans sitting in Old Broad's pews to worship. Instead of wood floors, this church had brick, and the white paint on the pews both looked and felt sturdier -- more durable -- than what you usually see in a building that's been converted to central heating. The only concession to weather extremes is that curious metal contraption I'd noticed earlier, a two-stove and piping system constructed at nearby Atsion and installed in 1809. No other modernization has been done to the building since then: no plumbing, no electrical work, no mechanical systems.

This plaster medallion adorns the center of the ceiling.
It's a wonder the ornate plaster ceiling details have lasted so long, given the lack of climate control. That said, the absence of complications like plumbing and a constantly-working furnace may be what saved it. Uneven heating and leaky pipes have been the downfall of countless neglected historic structures.

As our hostess shared the history of the congregation, another docent told us we absolutely had to check out the balcony level, especially the east side. Religion had been part of the curriculum at the local school in the early 1800s, so students were brought to the church for instruction. Separated by gender, the girls sat in the western balcony, the boys opposite. How can we know for sure? The wood of the western pews is pristine, while those on the east are marked with carved initials and names. Come to your own conclusion.

So why was the church abandoned so early in its history? The growing city's population shifted eastward in the early 19th century, and Presbyterians understandably wanted to worship closer to home. They built a new church on the east side of town and left Old Broad Street. As will happen over time, the congregation has seen splits and mergers over its 230 plus year history, but they haven't forgotten their roots. Family plots in Old Broad Street's sizeable churchyard still take in new burials, adding to more than 10,000 graves that include resting spots of several members of Congress, New Jersey Governor Elias Seeley and a good number of veterans of the American Revolution and the Civil War.

The living are welcome, too, just a little less often. The doors of Old Broad Street open for worship during August and a special service on Thanksgiving Day. And if you're lucky, as we were, you'll happen by when they're having an open house. Between the truly striking architecture and the welcoming spirit of the church's friends and congregants, you'll be glad you stopped by.


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