Recalling the Grand History of the City’s Presbyterian Church

History and Landscape
Published April 2, 1998

Recalling the Grand History of the City’s Presbyterian Church

| Published April 2, 1998

The Second Presbyterian Church, built in 1810, known as 'the church of the blue steeple,' was one of Newark's most imposing Gothic buildings. The Newark Public Library

One of Newark's most handsome Gothic buildings is the Second Presbyterian Church at the corner of Washington and James streets overlooking Washington Park. While you might think of it as having been there forever, it was actually one of the three buildings belonging to that congregation.

The first was a federal-style structure with a cupola referred to as the church of the blue steeple. The second was a heavy-hewn Romanesque stone pile with a soaring pencil-like bell tower referred to by local jokesters as 'the church of the Holy Smokestack.' The present building, a solid 1930s English Gothic structure with an auditorium designed to seat more than a 1,000 worshipers, has been referred to as 'The Church of the Lighted Tower.' In 1996 Second church closed. The building has been occupied since then by the Central Presbyterian Church.

The rise of Presbyterianism

The same year the Great Fire wiped out London, 1666, the Township of Newark was founded by Congregationalists. In 1720 the nation's first Presbyterian Synod emerged in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter Newark's Old First Church was formed as members changed from Congregationalism to Presbyterianism. By the 1750s, the Newark church also separated from the political township and applied for a charter from King George II. On June 7, 1753, the church was incorporated and a new legal unit was born. In the 1790s, the Great Revival was sweeping America. Church attendance was increasing by leaps and bounds, and Newark's population was on the verge of doubling from its Revolutionary War days. Old First, the mother church of New Jersey Presbyterians was prospering too. From its membership was founded the Mountain Society, later the Orange Presbyterian Church in 1716 and First Church of Bloomfield in 1794. In 1809 another church in Newark's 'north division' was needed. On June 20, 1810, the Newark Sentinel of Freedom reported that '… the cornerstone of the North Presbyterian Church in Newark was laid by the Rev. Samuel Whelpley with a solemnity, simplicity and fervor of devotion peculiarly appropriate to the interesting occasion and illustrative of the power of godliness which we trust he has experienced with the God given him for the extension of usefulness of his church.'

Second Presbyterian Church

The first of three church buildings erected on the site of the present church was known as 'the church of the blue steeple.' It was built of blue-tinted stucco covering a stone facade. Washington Street was still West Back Street across from the Upper Commons. Later it became Washington Park on the site of the old Vesuvius Furnace, an ironworks which once stretched all the way back to Plane Street, today's University Avenue. When the first church was built, this section of Newark was referred to as the Market Place. Later, two generations of townhouses, of which only the Ballantine House survived, were erected. Church land was purchased for $2,000 by Moses Ogden and John Noble Cumming on June 5, 1810. Just a few days later, the church's cornerstone was laid with the admonition that 'May the Lord, without whose blessing no plan, however well envisioned, can be accomplished, smile upon those engaged in erecting this house to His praise. …' A contemporary history of the church tells us that the ceremony took place just 35 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and only 11 years after the death of George Washington for whom both the street and park were later named. The cupola of the Blue Church rose 90 feet at the building's highest point, and was supported by an exterior stone wall running 62 feet along Washington Street and 82 feet along James Street. The building's interior was relatively simple, designed to accommodate 900 worshipers with several galleries and a balcony. The church was lighted by oil lamps, had no organ and was unheated. Its first congregation of 93 adults originally had been worshipers at the Old First Church, and were largely residents of the Washington Park neighborhood. Of the early trustees, perhaps the most prominent was Theodore Frelinghuysen. Others were from the Hedden, Baldwin, Doremus, Cumming, Douglas and Conly families. The church's first minister was Hooper Cumming, an Andover Seminary graduate and son of one of the first trustees. His annual salary of $1000 was paid in quarterly installments. While still in the original building, the church organized its first Sunday School and became active in several city missions, including one at Jay Street. Members also were associated with the activities of the Third German Presbyterian Church. For the next 75 years, the church continued to be one of the busiest in the Newark Presbytery. But eventually the first building was outgrown, and a last service was held there on July 11, 1886. Within two years its replacement was completed, dedicated on Feb. 16, 1888.

The Holy Smokestack

The church of the lighted tower, or Holy Smokestack served its congregation from 1888 until 1930. Constructed in the Romanesque style with Gothic highlights, its two chief decorative features were a large rose window above its double doors that opened onto Washington Street and an 180-foot campanile which dominated the adjoining park until the construction of a nearby insurance skyscraper. Unlike the first building, the interior was well decorated with more 'modern taste' in mind. At first, as was the custom in the 19th century, Newark and the rest of the country, pews were rented. Later they were available for anybody. On November 27, 1926, a Moller pipe organ was installed by the M.P. Moller Co. of Hagerstown, Md. Vestments came into use by the choir at the same time. The other unique feature of the structure was its lighted tower that was lined with sheets of galvanized tin and lighted with a hundred light bulbs to produce the 'effect of a flowing lighted tower.' The structure was also illuminated with external lights at its base and the small pencil-like windows in the tower reflected colored lights. A two-ton bell that had hung in the original building was reinstalled, and later relocated to the third and present building as well. The second church building cost $75,000 and was in use until the 1930 fire that totally destroyed it—one of the worst fires in Newark's history. During its 42 years of existence, two major additions were made to the Newark landmark. The first was Hunter Hall, or the adjoining parish house, completed in 1910 to celebrate the church's centennial anniversary. It was also built of brownstone, designed to match the facade of the second church, at a cost of $90,000. Its primary purpose was to provide room for the growing Sunday School as well as a second auditorium. The next expansion was the Community House, built just 20 years after the completion of Hunter Hall and to its rear at a cost of $300,000. This imposing facade stands today. With the growing size and influence of the church, its very existence was evidence of Second Church's emphasis upon its young people and programs. With the completion of this structure, hundreds of youngsters were drawn into dozens of community programs—religious and secular. Included in the building was a 900-seat auditorium, theater facilities, a well-equipped gymnasium, bowling alleys, a billiard room, meeting rooms and fellowship halls, and a five-room apartment for a resident superintendent. With the completion of the building literally armies of youngsters regularly called Second Presbyterian another home.

On December 2, 1930, the second church building was totally destroyed by the fire, which left intact only the precariously balanced tower at the intersection of Washington and James streets, Hunter Hall and the Community House. At first, efforts were made to save the tower but those plans were abandoned with the understanding that a new tower would be incorporated into a new design. Fortunately, when the second building, designed by J.R. Thomas of New York was lost, Second Presbyterian was in the hands of one of its most dynamic clergymen, Dr. Lester H. Clee, who served as pastor from 1926-50. Originally called to the pastorate of a Baptist church in Rutherford, Clee's dynamic ministry at Second Presbyterian rivaled his political leadership in the city and region as well. Under Clee's leadership, the institution became a seven-day-a-week facility. Bible classes were extended, radio broadcasts were begun, missionary programs were revitalized, conferences at Lake Minnewaska became part of the church's summer schedule, religious and secular dramas were introduced into the church's theater as were musical programs involving singing groups and operettas. Crafts were developed, bowling activities were encouraged, and the church magazine 'The Lighted Tower' was printed. All in all the medieval concept of taking the church into the community was being played out at Second Church. So the rebuilding of a great downtown house of worship was not considered an impossible task. 'The ruins of this structure were scarcely cool before plans were started for the erection of a new church at the same place, and a restoration of its activities.'

The third church

The third and present building, designed by New York City architect William Bayard Willis, was begun in 1931 and was ready for use early in 1933. The Gothic-style building was intended to seat 1,400 and boasted of a sanctuary designed as a house of worship that had the excitement of a movie palace. The church's exterior incorporated a Gothic tower on the same spot as the old tower. Its exterior walls are of split-faced granite from West Townsend, Mass., trimmed with Indiana limestone. The roof is a vari-colored Vermont slate. The bell tower is home to the two-ton bell made for the first church and previously hung in the second campanile. It bears the inscription 'to the Glory of God and the Good of Man.' Perhaps the most impressive feature of the interior is its stained glass. When the second church burned in 1930, the famous 'Christ in Newark' mural above the pulpit was lost. However, the idea of the mural was incorporated into the awe-inspiring Brotherhood Window located over the great front doors. The stained-glass masterpiece, designed by P.J. Reeves of Philadelphia, is 191/2 feet wide and 39 feet high. The window, which depicts the thought of all nations drawn to Christ, was inspired by the peace movement of 1932. The World Court is represented in one of the medallions and the central figure is Christ surrounded by figures representing the races of the world.' The story windows represented Christian leadership in the arts and science, and included Pasteur for medicine, Da Vinci for art, Shakespeare for literature, Eliot for missions, Calvin for theology, Galileo for science, Aristotle for philosophy and Bach for music. The glass curtain wall that separates the north end from the sanctuary includes seals of Newark, N.J., and the Presbyterian church at home and abroad. In 1933 a silver baptismal bowl, a replica of an earlier vessel, was presented to Second church by Old First Church in the memory of Newark settler Azariah Crane, who died in 1730. He was the last of Newark's original settlers. The bowl was viewed as a symbol of Second Church's revival, and the survival of Presbyterianism in Newark. At 18 James St. is 'The House Across the Way, ' the one-time home of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley. In 1950, it was purchased as a residence for Dr. Clee. Indeed, a phoenix had risen out of the ashes of an earlier day, and a new era had come for an old Newark institution.