New York Landmarks Conservancy
Common Bond, Volume 12, No. 2 [American Religious Buildings, page 2]
For over 300 years, Quaker meetinghouses have embodied the ideals of simplicity, plainness, and equality. Unadorned, yet beautifully distinguished, New York State possesses a superb array of meetinghouses that reflect the development of the Quaker religious movement. These excellent examples of vernacular religious architecture are characterized not by steeples or stained glass, but by simple, domestically-scaled buildings. The typical Quaker meetinghouse is a two-story wood-frame building with two separate entrances on the principal facade, a large first floor meeting space with benches, and an interior second-story gallery.
The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, was one of a number of Nonconformist Christian sects that arose in England in the 17th century. It attracted a large following in England and New England through emphasis on individual truth (known as the "Inner Light"), simplicity in behavior and worship, and opposition to violence.
Since Quakers were persecuted for challenging religious and civil authorities, settlers in the Dutch New Netherlands first began meeting clandestinely and only later established organized meetings. By the mid-18th century, Friends in America were free to conduct their meetings openly, resulting in a surge of meetinghouse construction. The Friends became a remarkably large fraction of the population during the Colonial period.
The architectural design of American Quaker meetinghouses developed independently without formal directives but according to "the sense of the meeting." They were domestic in scale and character, without steeples, and tended to be built in quiet rural settings, often accompanied by cemeteries. Plainness, simplicity, and symmetry were fundamental design principles and any functional requirements were minimal. Since worship involved silent waiting for God without ritual, there was no need for an altar, pulpit, sacristy, or other liturgical features.
Perry City Friends Church (Schuyler County, 1853) is a small rural chapel-style meetinghouse built in Hector in 1853 and moved to Perry City in 1900. Although the pointed arch windows and decorative shingles on the exterior are unusual, the interior is austere and unpretentious.
The physical arrangements of the meetinghouse quickly evolved to a typical plan: a plain, unornamented rectangular wood building with two doors along the principal facade. Women and girls entered on the left, men and boys on the right, to sit on long wooden benches on opposite sides of a large central room. Older members would sit on raised benches on the far wall there by enabling all persons to be seen and heard; often a second-story gallery was built to provide extra seats.
Following worship, it was common for a movable partition to be lowered to divide the central room and allow for separate men's and women's business meetings. Some meetinghouses were designed with a single entrance, or lacked partitions, so that men and women entered and sat together for business. The use of partitions diminished in the late-19th century, persisting longest among more conservative meetings.
Within the area of the New York Yearly Meeting (the umbrella group for New York and parts of Connecticut, New Jersey, and Vermont) are over 80 structures built as meetinghouses during the 18th and 19th centuries with half remaining in use by Friends. Many other buildings are largely intact, owned by historical societies, cemetery associations, or semi-public institutions, while others have been converted for use by other religious groups or as private homes.
An early example is the landmark Flushing Meetinghouse in Queens (1694), the oldest surviving religious structure in New York City, which remains in use today. It was built as a single room with a steep hip roof and enlarged in 1716-19.
The Quaker Street Meeting House near Duanesburg (1807) exemplifies the traditional meetinghouse of the mid-18th through mid-19th centuries. It is constructed of hand-hewn timbers fastened with mortise-and-tenon joints, plaster walls covered with wood panels, and plain wood trim. Inside are simple wooden benches with a single board back, a folding center partition operated by pulleys and ropes, and a gallery.
In the early-19th century, an evangelical orthodoxy stressing reliance on the authority of the Bible and Christ spread among Midwestern Friends, aligning them with mainstream Christianity. A split in 1827-28 throughout the Society, called the Hicksite Separation, divided Orthodox Friends and traditional Quaker followers of the preacher Elias Hicks, a farmer from Long Island, who defended the purity of reliance on the "Inner Light."
Hicksite Friends usually remained in existing meetinghouses, whereas Orthodox Friends in the New York Yearly Meeting tended to build new chapel-type buildings with single entrances under a gable roof to suit the new style of worship. Further divisions among members continued through the 19th century and by 1898, half of the meetings nationwide supported pastors and programmed worship with sermons, hymns, and biblical Sunday schools held in chapel-type buildings.
From this period to the mid-20th century, decline of membership and closing of meetings became pronounced trends. This subsequently increased concern about Quaker unity resulting in many reunions of meetings. The New York Yearly Meeting, divided since 1828, was reunited in 1955, and now has about 4,000 members. Groups in the New York Yearly Meeting have since constructed new meetinghouses, purchased buildings from other denominations, or share space.
Today, Quaker meetinghouses contribute to the architectural legacy and diversity of New York State's religious architecture. While Friends continue to meet in small groups in homes as they have since the 17th century, there is an active movement to preserve these architecturally significant houses of worship.
Acknowledgments: Elizabeth Moger, Haviland Records Room, New York Yearly Meeting; 1993 Directory, New York Yearly Meeting; Charles H. Henkels, AIA, Amawalk Friends Meeting: The Meeting House Restoration Project.
The Quaker Meetinghouse
The interior of the Amawalk Friends Meeting House, Yorktown Heights (1831), is simple and unadorned, yetdistinguished by well-proportioned spaces, quality materials, and fine craftsmanship typical of Quaker architecture.
The overall simplicity and plainness of the typical meetinghouse, as well as the quality of materials and superior craftsmanship used in construction, represent the Quaker building tradition. Noted for their utilitarian design and minimal detail or ornamentation, meetinghouses blend into the environment by using local materials and construction practices.
The traditional meetinghouse built between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries is typically rectangular in plan and features a balanced placement of windows and two doors on the principal facade. Mortise-and-tenon wood-frame construction was commonly used on buildings clad with shingles or clapboards; some meetinghouses, however, were built of brick, fieldstone, or even log. Most buildings have a gable roof and those that are two-stories typically contain a gallery for extra seating. In the 19th century, porches were often added along the entrance side.
Interior arrangements consist of narrow, upright benches running the length of the room, movable partitions to divide the space into two rooms, and a folding clerk's table. Later meetinghouses contain single entrances located under the roof gable and lack partitions. Additions and adjacent buildings were often constructed to accommodate schools, kitchens, or other facilities.