New York Landmarks Conservancy
Common Bond December 1994

American Religion Buildings

From the ashes of London's Great Fire of 1666 emerged one of the most common religious building types in America. Today, scarcely a community in New York can not claim at least one house of worship influenced by the churches built after that conflagration.


Named for two of England's leading architects, Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and James Gibbs (1683-1774), the Wren-Gibbs church first made its appearance in North America in the early eighteenth century. The building type, closely associated with the settlement of the Northeast during this country's colonial era, continues to influence American religious architecture. Indeed, for many it is emblematic of the small town church on the village green.

Wren-Gibbs churches come in many different styles and varieties, from h1gh-style city churches to vernacular rural meetinghouses. However, all share a few common characteristics. The buildings' plans tend towards the square; they are almost as wide as long. Interior galleries are common, either surrounding the sanctuary on three sides or, in some smaller buildings, across the back only. Except in some nineteenth-century hybrids, they are almost always designed in the classical style, using principals and ornamentation derived ultimately from the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. As originally designed, these buildings featured clear windows (although stained glass was often added later), and their interiors were flooded with light. Outside, they are usually distinguished by towers surmounted by spires or cupolas centered on the main facade. Although not strictly an architectural feature, they usually have superb acoustics, especially for the speaking voice. This is not an accident. Acoustics played a major role in their development.

Christopher Wren

In 1666 the city of London suffered a devastating fire that destroyed a large part of its historic core, along with at least 87 of its parish churches. In the fire's aftermath, Christopher Wren was called upon to oversee the re-building of the city. Although relatively unknown at the time, Wren went on to become one of the greatest architects of his age, as well as the most famous.

In designing the new parish churches Wren had to deal with several design requirements. The Gothic parish churches of London destroyed in the Great Fire were constructed to serve the Roman Catholic liturgy of medieval England. With their long narrow aisles, stained glass, and numerous screens and side chapels, they were not suited to the changes in worship introduced by the Protestant Reformation. Wren was thus called upon to design a wholly new type of church.

The Anglican liturgy of the seventeenth century required an interior in which number of parishioners could easily see and hear the minister, whether he was preaching or reading the prayer book service. Unlike the English medieval liturgy, which emphasized ceremony and mystery, the new liturgy emphasized the spoken word. Furthermore, it was now in English rather than Latin, and it was meant to be heard by the assembled congregation. Sermons, which were almost non-existent in the medieval church, were now emphasized as a central part of the liturgy. Ritual was reduced to a minimum so as not to detract from the spoken word. Abundant natural light was also required so that members of the congregation could easily read their prayer books and participate in the service, a reflection of the general increase in literacy during the period. The lightness and clarity of classical architecture seemed far well suited to these requirements than the dark and mysterious Gothic churches that had been destroyed in the Great Fire. Wren also took great pains to ensure that his churches had superb acoustics through the use of curved plaster ceilings, which served as natural amplifiers for the minister's voice, and galleries, where necessary, which gathered a large congregation as close to the minister as possible. He called his churches "auditories" because they were designed to make the human voice audible to a large congregation.

The original design of St. John's, Yonkers (1752) is typical of the churches inspired by Wren's St. James, Piccadilly. The prominent side entrance shown here is a feature adopted by many American congregations.

Each of Wren's London churches was unique in its design and interior arrangement, mainly because he was building on irregular city sites, so a standardized design was impossible. However, all of his churches had broad, light, and open interiors in which every member of the congregation had an unobstructed view of the pulpit and reading desk and could easily hear the minister. They also tended to be inexpensive. Wren had to rebuild almost every single parish church in London - a very expensive proposition - and Parliament, which funded the construction of these churches, urged both economy and speed of construction.

Wren did retain one feature common to the medieval churches of London - the traditional English steeple. However, he adapted it so that it would conform in its style and decoration to the classical building to which it was attached. All of Wren's steeple designs are beautiful, classical versions of the Gothic steeples that pierced the skyline of medieval London. These steeples are usually centered on the building's main facade, with the sloping gable of the church flanking the building on either side.

St. James, Piccadilly (1680-84), in London is a typical example of a Wren has a broad, open interior lit by two rows of arched windows filled with clear glass. Galleries supported on square pillars surround the interior on three sides. Elaborately carved columns rise from the gallery rails to the vaulted plaster ceiling, which is decorated with delicate molded plaster ornament. Centered on the church's main facade is a tower surmounted by a spire. St. James was one of Wren's most influential designs because it was, in his words, "beautiful, convenient, and cheap." In addition, the plans and elevations of St. James were published and disseminated in the American colonies, thus making it relatively easy for colonial builders to adapt its design for churches in the New World.

James Gibbs

If Christopher Wren invented the "auditory" church, James Gibbs developed and popularized it. His most famous and influential church was St. Martin-in-the-Fields (1726) in Trafalgar Square, London. St. Martin's embodies the same elements as Wren's churches a broad open interior with galleries and abundant natural light and a prominent exterior tower and spire. However, it is both larger and more monumental than any of Wren's parish churches. The exterior of St. Martin's is richly ornamented with rusticated cut stone and colossal Corinthian columns and pilasters rising the full height of the church. A huge portico of freestanding Corinthian columns shelters the main entrance to the church. Wren had never used (a monumental portico such as this in any of his churches - not even St. Paul's Cathedral.) The tower and spire are located directly over the central entrance. However, the lower portion of the tower is embedded in the main body of the church. The overall effect was that of a massive ancient Roman temple with a steeple perched on its roof.

The interior has the same monumental character as the exterior. Freestanding Corinthian columns rise from the floor to the elaborate vaulted ceiling; the galleries are butted up against the columns halfway up. This is quite different from the double-decker feeling of Wren's gallery churches, such as St. James, Piccadilly, where the columns start at the gallery rail and are supported by pillars below. A huge Palladian window dominates the shallow chancel. (A Palladian window is a three-part window composed of a semi-circular arched central window flanked on either side by flat-headed windows.) Like Wren's churches, clear glass windows arranged in two tiers along either side lighted St. Martin's.

St. Martin's had an immediate and profound effect throughout the English-speaking world, particularly in North America. Gibbs fully illustrated St.Martin's in A Book of Architecture, along with several preliminary versions of his design, and many colonial gentlemen bought the book for their libraries. It also contained accurate and detailed drawings of columns, cornices, and other classical ornamentation, which could be copied by colonial builders, as well as other examples of Gibbs' designs.

One feature of St. Martin's, however, was not generally admired. Since the base of its tower was hidden, the heavy stone tower and spire appeared to rest on the roof of the church - clearly a structural impossibility. Colonial builders tried to correct this uncomfortable impression in their adaptations of Gibbs' design.

Wren-Gibbs Churches in North America

Christ Church in Boston, 1723 (now known as Old North Church) was the first church in the New World modeled directly on St. James, Piccadilly. Like St. James, this Anglican Church is a light and airy building, lit by two rows of arched windows. Galleries supported on square pillars surround the interior on three sides. On the fourth side, opposite the main entrance, is a shallow semicircular niche containing the altar. Fluted square pillars rise from the gallery rail to the arched plaster ceiling. However, the ornamental detail is crude, as one would expect under the relatively primitive conditions of colonial life, and the ceiling was simply painted to simulate molded plaster ornament.

St. Paul's Chapel in New York City was designed in 1764 by Thomas McBean, a Scotsman who had studied under Gibbs, and it is the most exact adaptation of St. Martin's in North America. The elegant steeple closely resembles St. Martin's steeple, although it is higher and more slender. The church also features a monumental portico. Unlike the portico at St. Martin's, however, it is located at the opposite end of the church from the tower. The church's interior is essentially a small-scale version of St. Martin's, although the ceiling was never decorated with plaster ornamentation.

American Wren-Gibbs Adaptations

By the mid-eighteenth century the Wren-Gibbs tradition of church building was thoroughly ingrained in the American psyche. A number of factors were responsible for its popularity. Chief was the form's emphasis on acoustics lent itself admirably to the needs of most Protestant denominations, which tended to emphasize scripture as a central part of the religious service. in addition, the form represented a distinct departure from the medieval church and was therefor not associated with Roman Catholicism. This was an important consideration for the many Protestant sects, which consciously sought to make manifest architecturally changes wrought by the Reformation.

The Wren-Gibbs configuration also lent itself well to the various interpretations of classically inspired architecture that would dominate the buildings of northeastern America until the mid-nineteenth century. Most important, however, as the Wren-Gibbs church had initially developed in response to the need to build a large number of churches economically in London after the Great Fire, it also suited the needs of a land that was being newly and quickly settled by Europeans. Few congregations in the American colonies or the new Republic could afford to build churches as large as those erected in prosperous cities. Moreover, rural builders generally were not as sophisticated as their urban counterparts. The Wren-Gibbs scheme, however, was easily reproducible even in small communities.

The original design of St. john's, Yonkers (1752) is typical of the churches inspired by Wren's Saint James, Piccadilly. Its builders adopted the symmetrical church block and tower arrangement as well as the distinctive round-arched windows popularized by Wren's churches. Classical detailing, such as the keyed brickwork that ornaments the stone building's corners, the brick window and door surrounds (known as "Gibbs surrounds"), and the diminishing size of the tower windows are features associated with the Georgian style of architecture popular in the English colonies during the mid-eighteenth century.

Delphi Falls United Church (1815-1818) is a typical and particularly fine example of the form's adaptation by a modest, rural congregation. This unpretentious wooden church is finely proportioned but very simple. Centered in the main facade is a square tower surmounted by an octagonal cupola with a dome. Two tiers of clear glass windows line the church on either side. inside, the church is a simple hall surrounded by galleries on three sides. Eschewing expensive detailing and ornamentation, the Delphi Falls Church remains nonetheless firmly within the Wren-Gibbs tradition.

The ease with which the 'Wren-Gibbs form was adapted to styles based on the new interpretations of classical architecture that were evolving during the second half of the nineteenth century assured its continued popularity. The Delphi Falls Church, for example, displays characteristics of the Federal style, an architectural style that first made its appearance in North American in the late eighteenth century. At the Delphi Falls United Church the heavy, substantial forms employed by Wren and Gibbs and that are hallmarks of the Georgian style are replaced by the lighter, more delicate motifs associated with the new style.

The Reformed Church in Shawagunk, New York, constructed in 1752-55, is an interesting example of how a building could be adapted to reflect the influence of the Wren-Gibbs style. In its original form the building was a simple structure without tower or portico, based on the Calvinist meetinghouses of Geneva and Amsterdam. However, in the nineteenth century the building was remodeled and a square belfry surmounted by a dome was placed on the roof. Somewhat later, a portico of Ionic columns was added to the front. These additions totally changed the character of the building from a stark, bare meetinghouse to a formal and monumental church clearly based on St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

Woodrow United Methodist Church (1842) in Staten Island is a late example of the Wren-Gibbs church. Like at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, it employs both a portico and a tower that was added later. This church is in the Greek Revival style-it uses classical forms based on those of ancient Greece. The proportions are heavy; the ornament bold but simple. However, the basic form is still Wren-Gibbs.

Also displaying the characteristics associated with the Greek Revival style is the Roxbury United Methodist Church built in 1858. Here, however, the local builder substituted simple pilasters for the monumental columns initially popularized by Gibbs at St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

By the mid-nineteenth century the influence of classical architectural forms began to wane as architects and builders began to experiment with other architectural styles. By 1850, the Gothic Revival movement, which sought to revive the forms and styles of the very medieval churches Wren so disliked, had taken hold. Before long, many people felt that a church had to be long, narrow, dark, and have stained glass in order to be a "real" church. Despite the increasing use of the Gothic style for religious buildings during the second half of the nineteenth century, the Wren-Gibbs church managed to remain relatively popular. Its plan, designed to emphasize the spoken word, assured its continued popularity among many Protestant denominations until the introduction of the auditorium-like Akron plan in the late nineteenth century. As early as the first decades of the nineteenth century, the growing Roman Catholic Church in America also began to employ the form.

The revival of the Gothic style, however, did have a subtle influence on the Wren-Gibbs Church. The clear glass, for example, that originally characterized it was now often replaced with stained glass. Nevertheless, the general configuration of the Wren-Gibbs church persisted, particularly in rural areas.

The Wren-Gibbs church enjoyed a revival beginning in the 1890s which continues to this day. Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, constructed in 1938 to the designs of York & Sawyer, is a typical example of a colonial revival 'Wren-Gibbs church. Constructed of brick with stone trim, the church is lighted by arched, clear-glass windows typical of many colonial churches. A portico shelters the main entrance with columns placed in antis - that is, the portico is recessed into the main body of the church. Above the portico rises a simplified version of the St. Martin-in-the-Fields' steeple. Behind the church are auxiliary wings containing offices, classrooms, and a chapel - features that would never have been found in an eighteenth or early nineteenth century church.

Today, most American denominations have used the Wren-Gibbs form for their buildings. Many of these buildings combine the Wren-Gibbs form with contemporary programmatic requirements of the late nineteenth and early-twentieth century church. The popularity of theWren-Gibbs form is a testament to the inherent value of an architectural design that responds to both liturgical and practical needs.