This is a brief outline of the history of the Community Presbyterian Church
of Chester’s sanctuary building and its sister buildings: the Larison Room Chapel, the pastoral manse, garage and Fellowship Center, and their predecessors. The basic facts are given in chronological order. A brief, general note on early church congregations in New Jersey is at the end. A list of current members who were members at the time of the last rededication service in 1965 is provided. A separate presentation from this one gives the history of the members of the Chester church who have worshipped and served in the sanctuary.
NOTE: “CPC” below stands for the Community Presbyterian Church of Chester, the name of the church since 1952.
CPC CHESTER PRE-HISTORY: 1729 to 1751
1729-1736 “sometime during” – The Rocksiticus (Roxiticus) church is built in the Ralston area on present border of Chester Township and Mendham.
1743 – The Hilltop Presbyterian Church is formed in Mendham by a group splitting from Rocksiticus/Ralston.
1747 – Congregational Church of Chester is formed by a group split from Hilltop Presbyterian. The church furnishings are inherited from Ralston.
CPC HISTORY: 1752 -
1752 – Mendham Presbyterians from Black River/Chester, Budd Lake, Mt. Olive, Flanders, Schooley’s Mountain, German Valley (Long Valley) purchase 36 acres on what is now Pleasant Hill Road north of the village of Black River (Chester). The intent is to use most of the land as a cemetery. A parsonage house is built.
The pastor is apparently expected to also be a farmer to make a real living wage.
1752 is considered the beginning of our Chester congregation.
1754 – William Larison donates half an acre for a meeting house.
Where the congregation met from 1752 until 1754 is not mentioned.
The first “Hill Meeting House” is a “plain plank structure,” about 22 ft by 27ft. Wind blasts through the cracks between boards in the walls. There is no heat. People bring heated bricks or charcoal for heat in small footstoves. Pews are high-backed with hard seats. Sermons last an hour to an hour and a half. One historic sermon lasted three hours, the last for that pastor. The building is dubbed “God’s Barn.”
1777-1779 – Early part of the American Revolution: Church Services in Chester are abandoned since so many are involved in the struggle in some way. The two churches are used as hospitals for soldiers, mostly ill from smallpox from the nearby Jockey Hollow winter camp near Morristown and some from wounds from battles not far away. Some soldiers including one American colonel are buried in the graveyard.
1779-1785 – ”The Church of Christ” is formed by the combined Presbyterian and Congregational churches. Services alternate between the two buildings for six years with Rev. David Baldwin as the leader.
1785 – The Congregationalists withdraw. The Presbyterians re-organize as the “First Presbyterian Church in the Township of Roxbury and County of Morris.” The first Trustees are elected.
1820 - Stoves are installed in Hill Church.
1823 – “First Presbyterian Congregation of Chester” is adopted as the new name. The name “Chester” had begun to replace “Black River” during the Revolution, perhaps influenced by immigrants from Chester, England.
1825 – The Hill Church is almost completely rebuilt.
1838 – Mt. Olive members withdraw to form a new church.
CPC CHESTER SANCTUARY HISTORY: 1851 to 2006 to …
1851 – Two and one half acres of land on Main Street in Chester are purchased for $247.50. The rear portion is to be a cemetery. The congregation disagrees on the future of the church.
1852 – Flanders members withdraw to form a new church in Flanders rather than move to town.
1852 – The Chester sanctuary is built in the center of the “thriving village.”
It is referred to as the “Town Church.” No records have been found yet of any contractor, architect, plans or cost of the building.
A common contract of the period called for a church being
"a neat and plain building in modern style..."
There was not necessarily someone called an “architect.”
New Jersey church building historian Frank Greenagel (FLG, NJ Churchscape) suspects there were common sets of plans, and a common architect/contractor/builder involved in many of them. A chosen plan was modified to suit each church congregation’s desires. There is some indication that a group of Pennsylvania barn builders may have come over and built some of the churches like Chester.
Starting in 1839 and going into 1856, many churches were built in central New Jersey in the Greek Revival style like CPC and were nearly identical. Nine were built in 1851 alone.
[Quotes and paraphrases below are FLG.]
The Greek Revival building style indicates a “symmetric façade, low pitched roof, strong pedimented gable, a porch or recessed entry with prominent columns of Doric, Ionic or Tuscan order.” CPC has Ionic columns. The porch may go across the whole front, called a "full portico," or for CPC, just part way with the recessed entry and two Ionic columns called an “in antis entry.” There are invariably pilasters at the corners of the building and the recessed area.
“Many have a squat belfry or tower (like CPC) or … some more elaborate.”
“The style is not found much elsewhere, but is quite common in the central area of New Jersey.” Greenagel spotted some churches in North Carolina last year much like CPC. Twelve churches like Chester Presbyterian are still in use in 2006 in New Jersey.
- Reformed churches in East Millstone, South Bound Brook, Branchburg, Griggstown, Raritan and Harlingen
- Presbyterian churches in Chester, Pluckemin, Stewartsville, Cranbury, Princeton, and Trenton
- Baptist churches in Mt Holly and Newark
- Methodist church in Cokesbury.
Several other churches built on the same design have burned or been torn down.
A thirteenth known church, the Whitehouse Reformed Church, burned in 1898.
If a CPC member were to be taken to the Presbyterian Church in Pluckemin with a blindfold, he/she would ask, “When was the steeple put on the bell tower?”
and then led inside would ask, “What happened to the pulpit alcove and when did the balcony get extended half way down the sides?”
The old Hill Church was dismantled before the current church was built.
An unanswered question for the moment is, “Where did they meet in the meantime?” There was a rumor that the “Town Church” people took the lumber to use for the new building. There were some hard feelings about the “hot” lumber (that now has been blessed sufficiently).
1856 – The original plans for a cemetery behind the Chester sanctuary were dropped when the soil proved unfavorable. The Pleasant Hill Cemetery Association is formed as an independent entity. The road was later named “Pleasant Hill” after the cemetery.
1859 – The Parsonage/Manse lot [ 1/2 acre?] is added for $200. The parsonage is built for $2000, a mansion for certain in 1859.
1868 – The pulpit alcove is built.
1870 – A large, magnificent organ is installed in the balcony. It is hand pumped by boys at $0.25 per day. The pumpers were not always alert to the need for continuous air to the organ.
1871 – The Chapel or Parish House, now called the “Larison Room,” is built with a donation of $1725 in 1869. The Rev. E. P Gardner [EPG] later writes,
"It is, indeed, an ideal building of its kind and with the chapel
and parsonage and stately trees, it is one of the finest groups
of church buildings in all this portion of the State."
1872 – Sunday School is moved from the sanctuary basement with its dirt floor
to the Chapel and put under church control.
1884 – The Sanctuary interior is repainted “elaborately.”
Late 1800s or early 1900s – An outside stairwell to the Sanctuary basement on the Chapel side are added. No mention has been found yet of when. This entrance replaced the inside trap door and stairs that had been the basement access for Sunday School and the stove. There was no drainage allowed for rain water. It was not a good idea in the very long term.
1909 – The first mention of a church fair appears in the church records.
1910 – The first church fair is held. Supper is $0.40 with food donated by members. $166.60 is raised.
1910 – Pews were still being rented to parishioners to help defray the running expenses of the church.
1911 – The pulpit area is greatly rebuilt. The rear window is replaced with cream colored panels and gold trim. Boys could no longer watch squirrels in the tree behind through the window during the sermons.
1912 – Electric lights are installed. Chester had been electrified in 1909.
1918 – The Federated Church of Chester is formed from the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches, the only 3 churches in town, for economic reasons.
1920 – The Congregationalists withdraw.
1919 – 1921 – Services alternate every six months between buildings. The Presbyterian church is called the “Summer Church.”
The Methodist church on Main St. near the present Boy Scout cabin is called the “Winter Church.” Tragically, the Methodist Church burns later in the year for unknown reasons.
1921-1940 – Services are held at Presbyterian Church for the Federated Church.
1937-1938 – Extensive repairs are made to the Sanctuary, Chapel and Manse.
The rear of both the Sanctuary and Manse require rebuilding. Labor is $2 per day for workers. The steep, curving spiral stairs to the balcony on the Church Street side are replaced with straight risers and landings for less exciting climbs.
The stairs connect into the Sanctuary instead of into the front hallway.
The spiral staircase on the Larison Room side still remain but are not normally used except to climb up to the bell tower and attic access stairs. Noisy, rattling shutters are removed which are still gone today (2006). Swedish iron and brass light fixtures are added, which remain today. The Manse gets electric lights and a bathroom which also remain today.
1940 – The organ pump is electrified.
1946 about – Rev. Milton R. Emmons and Albert O'Brien [Judy Treutlein’s father] build a detached two-bay automobile garage for the pastor’s manse.
1950 May 07 – The Federated Church is dissolved to just “First Presbyterian”
since most members were Presbyterian by then.
1952 - “Community Presbyterian Church” is adopted as the new name to represent the services the church provides to the whole community.
1952 – The 200th Anniversary is celebrated. The big church bell is rung for hours with men taking turns at the rope.
1952 – Ground for the Fellowship Center – “for religious and recreation purposes and to serve the community” - is broken the next day.
1953 – Fellowship Center is completed.
1958 February 2 – The home of CPC members Harvey and Esther Guerin at 105 Fairmount Avenue tragically burns. They had purchased the “Pullman Mansion” from linen merchant Samuel C. Pullman in 1946. Pullman may have been a relative of George Pullman of Pullman railroad sleeping car fame and fortune. The Pullmans had called the hilltop “elegant villa” Stonybrook Farm. It is written “… the sweep of its view is not surpassed by any residence in the State." Esther is CPC clerk of Session and has many CPC history files at home for reference which are lost in the fire. Fortunately, there is no human cost.
The Guerins build a ranch style home in 1961.
1964-1965 - Extensive repairs and redecoration projects are made to the sanctuary. Pews painted white with mahogany trim now look like the description of the pews of 1825 “Hill Church.” Church services held in Fellowship Center during the work.
1965 April 4 – Re-dedication of Sanctuary.
Who is here now for the 2006 Re-dedication that was present in 1965?
[Many raise hands!]
See the list at the bottom of current members who were known to be members then that are still members.
1968 – An Allen Electronic organ is installed downstairs in memory of Sgt. Larry Maysey using a $6000 donation.
1972 – The 220th Anniversary is celebrated.
1987 – Offices for pastor and secretaries behind the Sanctuary and a foyer
joining them to Fellowship Center and Larison are built and a new electronic/pipe augmented organ is installed. The offices and the sanctuary organ were dedicated in loving memory of Esther H. Guerin and Hilda Jacobson on April 12, 1987. The offices and foyer were a very good thing as it turned out.
1997 November – The old organ in the balcony, being beyond repair and unused for a long time, is removed after 127 years to make room for more seating.
2002 – The 250th Anniversary is celebrated with visitors from the past attending.
2004 – NOTES: The frame of the CPC sanctuary building has only vertical beams from the foundation to the attic, with no horizontal or cross-bracing,
This is called a “Balloon Frame” and was common to barns of the time.
The tall side windows also probably made it more difficult to add cross or diagonal framing. There is good resistance to vertical stress, but not to unexpected amounts of horizontal stress. Things were fine for 152 years.
In late 2004, rapidly widening and lengthening cracks were spotted in months’ old plaster. A quick inspection of the attic framing results in the sanctuary being immediately abandoned. Engineers from AET from Princeton figure that over the decades that water running down the basement entrance had undermined part of the foundation and let it shift ever so slightly on that side.
The foundation movement was translated directly up to the attic where large wooden beams started to act like scissors to shear off the wooden pegs, not steel bolts, that held them together.
The building then began to tilt toward the pulpit.
Closed windows had a gap on the bottom on the street side and were tight
on the pulpit side. Measurements indicate about a 1 degree
tilt off vertical. Fortunately, the “new” attached office addition supported
the tilting sanctuary. A web of steel cables is quickly installed to tie the attic framework together to stabilize the structure from further movement.
Perhaps the extra structure of the street end of the building with columns and entry rooms provided enough extra support to have the tilt go toward
the pulpit and office area instead. This allowed time for a full engineering study
and plans for reconstruction.
2004 – Late 2005 – Services are held in Fellowship Center. With all the community activities every day during the week, everything for the service is set up each Saturday afternoon and taken down after Sunday services.
2004-early 2006 – The Sanctuary is repaired. Dumpster loads of “things” from 150 years stored in the basement are removed to gain access for many new foundation footings. Lots of steel is hidden in the building frame. Heavy custom
steel brackets with holes for the wooden pins hold the attic beams together. Steel rods tie the sides of the foundation together. The basement entrance is rebuilt with a storm drain this time. Five layers of heavy roofing – several inches weighing tons - are removed before new roofing is installed. Insulation is added to the walls and ceiling for the first time. CPC stops heating Chester.
The basement finally gets a concrete floor to replace the dirt. A new furnace is installed. Air conditioning is added for the first time. The interior is repainted with a new color scheme. The outside will be painted with good spring weather. New tiered platforms for the choirs are built on each side of the front. Storm windows are to be added outside the tall windows that will preserve their appearance, protect them from the elements while keeping heat inside for winter and cold outside for summer and still allow opening for fresh air in the spring and fall. A bequest from the Larison family, who remain after 250 years, covers most of the expense.
During the same period the Manse also gets a major renovation with new interior decoration, heating, plumbing, wiring, bathrooms and roofing. Plans are made for structural renovations of the Larison room chapel.
The Sanctuary looks the same inside and out. CPC members from the past could return and just ask, “When did you repaint? I like the nice choir areas!”
2005 Christmas Eve – Service is held in the Sanctuary again! The bell is rung again.
2006 February 26 – The Sanctuary is re-re-dedicated.
2006 – The bell tower is scheduled for exterior renovation and an interior light
to discourage nesting bats. A cross on the front of the tower is proposed. The Larison Room is scheduled for foundation repair and reinforcement.
2006 August – Ground is broken for a long planned new educational building
on the end of Fellowship Center away from the Sanctuary.
2052 – 300th Anniversary celebration. Some young folks here now may be here then.
2156 – Another rededication after repairs? Hopefully, it will not be needed for that reason.
The 1911 CPC history [EPG] says,
“It is, indeed, an ideal building of its kind and with the chapel and parsonage and stately trees, it is one of the finest groups of church buildings in all this portion of the State.”
EARLY NEW JERSEY CHURCH DENOMINATIONS
A note from Frank L. Greenagel.
“At that time [1700s and early 1800s] there was little to distinguish Presbyterian and Congregational religion, except in terms of church governance. Both were firmly grounded in a fairly strict Calvinism. The Scotch (who were Presbyterians) were politically dominant in east and central Jersey, and so most people who
came from Essex and Union County, from Long Island or New England,
usually affiliated with Presbyterians. If there was not a Dutch reformed
church in an area, Germans settles often affiliated with a Presbyterian
church also, and then went out to find someone who could preach in German.”
Current 2006 CPC Members who are known to have been members at the time of the last Sanctuary re-dedication service in 1965:
ALPAUGH, Amos; ALPAUGH, Clara Mae; AMMERMAN, Clara; APGAR, Anna;
GRIFFITH, Raymond; GRUBE, Eric; GUERIN, Esther; GUERIN, Marilyn; HOFFMAN, Phyllis; HOLLENBECK, Hope; JACOBSON, Henry; JACOBSON, Mahlon; JACOBSON, Wanda; JONES, Helen; JONES, Robert; KLEINSCHRODT, Alan; LELOUP, Susan; NIXON, Miriam; NUNN, Helen; O'DELL, Edna; ROBINSON, Julia; SPEICHER, Ellen; TAYLOR, Leonard;
TAYLOR, Lois; TREUTLEIN, Judith; VAN FLEET, Marion; WRIGHT, Betty;
History of the Presbyterian Church,
Chester, New Jersey. 1752-1911,
Edward P. Gardner, D.D, Pastor [EPG]
History of the Community Presbyterian Church,
Chester, New Jersey, 1752-1972,
Verna Rinehart Allen [VRA], 1972
The New Jersey Churchscape, Encountering Eighteenth
and Nineteenth Century Churches
Frank L. Greenagel [FLG], Rutgers University Press, 2001
[book and personal communications]
Chester New Jersey, A Scrapbook of History,
Francis Greenidge, The Chester Historical Society,
Chester, New Jersey, 1971.
Images of America: Chester,
Joan S. Case. Arcadia Publishing, 1998.
A Stroll Through the Old Village of Chester, N. J.,
The Chester Historical Society, 1999.
Judy Treutlin, CPC secretary.
Esther and Harvey Guerin, daughter and son of the late CPC members Harvey and Esther Guerin.