Of the over 200 ecclesiastical structures on the National and State Register of Historic Places in New Jersey, about two dozen have transitioned out of primary active religious use and have found a purpose beyond worship. Ecclesiastical structures have been a mainstay of New Jersey’s register since the first, the Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church in Union (Union County), was listed in 1970. Most of the listed structures are still active houses of worship. Their preservation is supported by the contributions of their parishioners and their overarching faith organizations, alongside grant funding. But what happens when the congregation moves on, and a historic and listed ecclesiastical structure is left to be preserved without the funds from the tithe plate?
A few have been preserved as an historic artifact of the communities they were built to serve. The famous Church of the Presidents in Long Branch, where seven United States presidents worshipped during their summer vacations to the Jersey Shore, has been under a preservation program since 1999 led by the Long Branch Historical Museum Association. The plan is to make it a museum dedicated to Long Branch’s presidential history and rent it for weddings and events. The Mount Bethel Baptist Meeting House in Warren Township was replaced with a new building in the 1960s and was deeded to the township in the 1970s for preservation. Today it serves as a museum, telling the story of what was once one of the largest Baptist congregations in the area, and has benefitted from several rounds of grants on both the county and state level. Woodbine Brotherhood Synagogue in Cape May County has become the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine History, which focuses heavily on the history of Russian Jewish emigrants who built a community there.
Several churches have become community and cultural centers, utilizing their large gathering spaces to maximum advantage as secular structures. The Old Manahawkin Baptist Church in Stafford, Locktown Stone Church in Delaware Township, and Fisk Chapel (Bicentennial Hall) in Fair Haven all act as cultural and events centers. They host community gatherings and concerts and continue to serve as local touchstones. The Old School Baptist Church in South River and Methodist Episcopal Church in Hibernia both serve as library branches for their communities, with stacks of books replacing rows of pews. These buildings have municipal funding to help with their upkeep, and many of them have been supported by county and New Jersey Historic Trust grants.
As large and subdividable spaces, a few churches have become office buildings. The Holmdel Dutch Reform Church now serves as a branch of Weichert Realtors; the only hint of its new use being doors that are painted Weichert’s trademark yellow. The Pan-American C.M.A. Church and St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, both in Newark, have been transformed into office buildings, hosting several tenants each. This has allowed them to thrive in the long-term and has saved the exteriors of the buildings even if the interiors are modified.
One of the newest trends in New Jersey ecclesiastical preservation is housing. The First Baptist Church in Hoboken and Polie Zedek Synagogue in New Brunswick have both been converted to condominiums in the past few years. Their exterior shells are retained, while the interiors have been completely reconfigured. Polie Zedek is now known as the Lofts at Neilson Crossings and was redeveloped into six two-bedroom units after a devastating 2015 fire gutted the historic interior. This adaptive reuse has saved the street-level view of the building. First Baptist Church is now The Raphael, a six-unit ultra-luxury building, with a private suite in the clock tower and wine cellars built into basement rooms. The $1 million façade restoration was privately funded by the developer, even though the building’s registry status made it eligible for grant funds.
Of course, as anyone well-versed in preservation policy is aware, a listing on the National or State Register of Historic Places doesn’t prevent demolition or abandonment. In 2017, the magnificent Church of the Ascension in Atlantic City met the wrecking ball. A shrinking congregation and a rising maintenance bill, particularly for the building’s bell tower, sent the 1893 structure to its doom. In Newark, the Wickliffe Presbyterian Church met the same fate decades ago, with just a corner of its curved rough stone façade remaining as a memorial colonnade next to the housing that replaced the building. The Church of the Redeemer in Longport burned down from a lightning strike in 2012; it’s been rebuilt in the spitting image of itself out of sturdy concrete, but is no longer a historic structure. The Spring Valley Christian Church Site in Hardwick is home to only the ruined walls of the 1840 Greek Revival structure, while the Mount Hope Miner’s Church in Rockingham has a preservation project in the plans after many years of waiting, boarded up and silent. After being shuttered by the diocese in 2012, the St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Newark has sat vacant, ivy growing more and more dramatically over its bell tower while the future of the building hangs in limbo.
Most of New Jersey’s ecclesiastical sites continue to serve faith functions, but as religious participation changes in America, it’s very possible that more structures will join these in looking for a post-worship role. For those in high-value urban locations, adaptive reuse into housing like in New Brunswick and Hoboken will be an appealing option, with high-value real estate markets driving high-quality restoration projects. More rural communities may find that the sanctuaries are useful as community centers, with the buildings’ large footprints creating an easily converted gathering space. Inevitably, as too often happens in preservation, it is possible that some will be lost or left unmaintained until the project to save them becomes a larger and larger challenge. However, any community looking to revitalize a historic house of worship can find a large selection of examples of successful adaptive reuse close to home in New Jersey.