Editor’s note: This is the first article in “Hope in Preservation,” a special Jersey Journal series about centuries-old buildings that are currently being adaptively reused in considerate and creative ways and which stand as symbols of hope for historic preservation in Jersey City and Hudson County — an area increasingly driven and defined by 21st-century development projects that threaten to erase our cultural and architectural heritage.
FROM THE ARCHITECTURAL ASHES
Architectural and cultural history unexpectedly seen and felt through the controlled lens of a camera drone; live digital footage spied and studied on the screen of an advanced smartphone — a still-burgeoning 19th-century church history reached and captured in photographic flight.
Standing inside the architectural remains of St. John’s African Methodist Episcopal Church — an imposing pitch-red brick and brownstone edifice of Gothic vernacular erected 1883-1885 overlooking Pacific Avenue and extending to Whiton Street in Jersey City’s Lafayette section — I am confronted by a void visible in both dappled roof-light and casting shadows. I see, at first, only walls of great height, exposed, firm, sound, and then, slowly, a vast exposed ceiling of colossal collar beams, purlins, rafters, and trusses comes into focus.
The drone, its quad propellers whirring, levitates under this awesome canopy of carpentry; rises and falls between hanging crystals of light; vanishes between open expanses of floor joists that lead to earthen cellars clustered with foundational stone columns.
A small crew of workers with hard hats and safety gear carries out long limbs of timber extracted from piles of broken pitched-gable boards. Near them, waving his arms, stands Moses Waldman, the ever-vital floor framer and preservation specialist of the development well underway here in the former church. Moses, who is not afraid to scale high peaks and catwalks or examine tight crawl spaces with zero light, directs the workers to saw down certain pieces, put up temporary roof bracings, construct plywood floor walks with safety rails, and operate compact Bobcat excavators through basement passages of arched 19th-century crannies and portals to scoop out soils, detritus, and debris.
The constant construction activity here is, I grasp quickly, archeological in nature, as Moses, in close conference with the historic property’s young and ambitious owner, Mark Schwartz, tiptoes through not just an environmental and man-made wreckage — I see several gaping holes in the immense roof; torched trussworks; rows of fenestration purloined of their memorial stained glass — but an urban antiquity with enough surviving sections, elevations, spaces, and architectural elements and materiality to salvage, work with, and draw inspiration from. Mark and Moses and their architects and contractors have an important task in front of them — historic preservation on a delicate, sensitive scale, the likes of which Lafayette has never seen.
For St. John’s A.M.E. Church, though semi-destroyed by past neglect, uninhibited vandalism, and the ferocious forces of nature, is a local landmark still with a pulse, a historical voice that must and will — as Mark and Moses promise and fully intend — be told again.
WHAT MUST BE CAPTURED AND TOLD
Material heritage, they have come to learn in the last few months, while extant and in-the-waiting for reclamation and repurposing, is not all that St. John’s A.M.E. Church is offering. With the assistance of Lafayette historian and community activist Jerome Choice, as well as Chris Perez and Mandy Edgecombe of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, Mark and Moses have become aware of integral architectural fragments that can be pulled from the ruin and key points in the former church’s timeline that can be interpreted and curated within a new addition designed by Devino Aiello and Associates, with principal Dennis M. Devino as director of design and construction.
- Numerous pieces of the original chapel built from a dismantled early-19th-century ship in the North River (now Hudson River) rest at the bottom of a pile of demolition debris. The chapel, which opened in 1863 as Lafayette’s first Methodist denomination, is believed by local historians to have been a place of refuge for runaway slaves on an Underground Railroad passage through Jersey City. Michael Allison, a prominent Lafayette resident and world-famous shipmaster who donated several lots for the new Methodist congregation, was known to be sympathetic to the plight of enslaved people. Before the state of destruction that recently befell the building, visitors could see secret floor latches leading into dark cellars and shallow storage spaces. The existing pieces should be carefully extracted, stored, and readied for conservation and re-incorporation into the new project creatively and comprehensively. These include ax-cut, log-like hull and deck beams and planks made from shipbuilding hickory wood; mammoth iron joining plates and tension rods; and thick foundation stones and portions of cellar steps and walls.
- Existing major stained-glass memorial windows that look down on Pacific Avenue — all dedicated and paid for by descendants of parish founders — should be professionally removed, crated, restored, and returned by a licensed stained-glass studio like Hiemer & Co., of Clifton, or J. & R. Lamb Studios, of Midland Park. These windows were commissioned by congregants after a devastating munitions explosion in 1916 in what is now the south quadrant of Liberty State Park. Dozens of houses of worship in Jersey City and Hudson County suffered blown-out glass, with Lafayette M.E. Church (the building’s original congregation) being one of the first to show resilience through replacing and rebuilding.
Narratives and Timelines
To the satisfaction and appreciation of the preservation community, Mark and Moses are also planning to incorporate the non-material heritage of St. John’s A.M.E. Church and its predecessor, Lafayette M.E. Church, into the visual design and marketing narrative of the architectural addition and development. This can best be accomplished via curated and permanent lobby and common area exhibitions and displays of rescued artifacts; photographic timelines on walls, inside elevators, and on plaques in courts, roof terraces, vestibules, and foyers; and special historical pages and features on the development’s official website, apps, and social media platforms. An emphasis should be placed on the site’s storied African-American history and affiliation with the local civil rights and social justice movements and reforms of the 1950s and 1960s.
Key points in this timeline include:
- In 1868, through the continued generosity and influence of Michael Allison, an official Methodist church was planned in Lafayette as a branch of Emory M.E. Church on Gardner Avenue in nearby Bergen Hill. After meetings in Allison’s school house on Pine Street, Lafayette Methodist Episcopal Church was incorporated and at the same time a gymnasium and meeting hall erected in front of the original chapel at Whiton Street. (This recreational room would be used later as the church boys basketball league, thought to be the first church-organized league in the country during the 1890s basketball craze.)
- Between 1881 and 1885, the brick edifice that stands today on Pacific Avenue was planned, institutionally financed, and built by masters of building trades crafts, giving the Lafayette area a substantial and lasting neo-Gothic work of architecture and a place of community pride. Aside from restoring the entire Pacific Avenue elevation, the developers should strongly consider rebuilding missing steeples, brownstone copings and columns, granite and sandstone trends, and wrought-iron fencing.
- In the early-1950s and extending into the early-1960s, Lafayette M.E. Church became a center of action for the rights and needs of Lafayette’s Black and Puerto-Rican populations, primarily under the pastoral leadership of the Rev. Edward F. Dobihal Jr., the Rev. Kenneth Hampson, and the Rev. Felix Morales, civil rights giants of their time. Through their efforts, Lafayette M.E. Church became one of the first Methodist churches in Hudson County to protest inner-city inequities and obtain considerable changes within Jersey City, including organizing protests at City Hall, providing food and financial assistance to families, and establishing a parish mission for Puerto-Rican families on Grove Street. These religious leaders are mostly forgotten now but must be remembered when the developers reimagine the site.
- 1963 was an integral year in the history of the building: St. John’s A.M.E. Church, which had been founded on Grand Street in the early 1920s, purchased Lafayette M.E. Church’s original buildings — including the 1863 chapel, the 1869 recreational center that made basketball history, and the 1884-1885 Gothic structure. Lafayette M.E. Church turned its focus and attention to its Grove Street mission, while the newly situated St. John A.M.E. Church began a pastoral legacy in Lafayette that would be impactful until 2014 before merging with Mt. Pisgah A.M.E. Church on Forrest Street and closing and selling the building. Mark and Moses, working with historians, can recapture the history of St. John’s and bring it forward into the identity of their forthcoming project.
It is a great shame that developers of immense historic properties in Jersey City tend to ignore the past, cover it up, disfigure it, or erase it outright. In truth, we see just a handful of projects where builders have recognized the sublimity and virtuousness of historic preservation, such as the Sugar House, the Cliffs, Whitlock Mills, the Earle, Modera Lofts, the Beacon — developments of ambition, honor, intent, esteem, and beauty.
But Mark’s adaptive reuse and reinvention project in Lafayette — a 36-unit residential development to be called “The Lafayette House” — stands to be something truly special. And as they move forward with the final stages of demolition and initiate required remediations, structural strengthening, new construction build-outs, and modern structure and mechanical systems — essentially, starting from the earthen floor that is there, exposed and illumined with mineral and mildew phosphorescence — they must muster the courage and vision required for this one-chance opportunity to incorporate St. John’s heritage into a rejuvenated setting.
Now the unintended progenies of keys to long-sealed doors into Lafayette’s history, they must strive to let the planned development rise not from a new concrete, steel-pile foundation, but from the spiritual antiquity itself still standing strongly, proudly, profoundly — for far too often architectural additions ignore the presence of the original, breaking the narrative and the sense of destiny that all buildings radiate with.
They must — and I know will — take both the material and the abstract fragments of St. John’s A.M.E. Church — physical relics and key points in congregational time — and place them everywhere, for everyone, at their beautifully designed architectural undertaking, thereby giving Lafayette a sense of preservation pride and a prized piece of living history.
I think of Mark and Moses — both passionate, both aglow with appreciation — as I continue to stand in the soon-to-be-filled-in void that was, just a few years ago, an intact sanctuary. Mesmerized in more moments, listening to the strings and strikes of saws and hammers, I catch a glimpse again of the drone camera, its small glass eye capturing the shards of light that have now subsided and joined shadows to become one.
John Gomez is the founder of the non-profit Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy and holds a master of historic preservation from Columbia University. He can be reached at [email protected].