A Place in Time spotlights a significant cultural resource - a district, site, building, structure or object - entered in the National Register of Historic Places.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, Methodism had become the largest Christian denomination in the country, tracing its dramatic rise from a reform movement in the Episcopal Church to successful camp meetings. Methodist circuit riders visited local communities and conducted large public religious meetings, some of which lasted many days, with a succession of commanding speakers, spirited singing, and enthusiastic (and often spontaneous) audience responses.

After the war had ended, Methodists began to hold camp meetings outside of urban centers to attract city dwellers. Followers began to build small, permanent cottages along the perimeter of camp meeting grounds, rather than continue erecting tents year after year. Camp meetings became an alternative to expensive, commercial resorts, which provided an escape from the heat and squalor of heavily industrialized cities of the time. The camp meeting layout represents a distinctive late nineteenth- century ideal for a planned community. Religious leaders sought idyllic locations where excursionists could gather with like­minded individuals to seek solace and refreshment. Camp meetings provided a relaxed, natural environment that fostered spiritual growth, religious well-being, and healthy social interaction (see “The Magic of Mount Gretna: An In­terview with Jack Bitner” by Diane B. Reed, Spring 1992). Cottagers ate, worked, and prayed together.

At the height of their popularity, thousands of camp meetings of varying sizes and denominations punctuated the nation’s landscape. One hundred and seventy-four camp meeting sites have been identified in the Commonwealth alone. About fifteen camp meetings are still active in the greater Philadelphia area.

In Delaware County, twenty-one miles west of Philadelphia, a relatively intact collection of !ate nineteenth- and early twentieth-century camp meeting-style buildings was recently entered in the National Register of Historic Places. The Chester Heights Camp Meeting Association was initially organized, in early 1872, as the Philadelphia Camp Meeting and Excursion Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Organizers purchased one hundred and seventy-eight acres for the Chester Heights Camp Meeting, which was served by the Baltimore Central Railroad. The first Chester Heights Camp Meeting was a tremendous success, attracting thousands of visitors, many of whom camped in tents, during its ten-day run.

Today, the Chester Heights Camp Meeting is recognized not only for its religious history, but for its architectural significance as well. In addition to an eclectic Classical Revival-style 1878 tabernacle, the retreat’s spiritual and social center, seventy-one cottages, erected between 1876 and the opening decade of the twentieth century in the Gothic Revival- and the Queen Anne-style, reflect the evolution of building styles in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. A variety of porch styles and additions contribute to the compound’s unusual character. Only a handful of the nineteenth-century camp meetings in the United States have preserved their architectural fabric and appearance, and the Chester Heights Camp Meeting is among the most intact in existence. It is also one of the oldest camp meetings in Pennsylvania to meet continuously since its inception.

 

Recent Additions to the National Register of Historic Places

Independence National Historical Park
(Approval of Additional Documentation)
Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
October 12, 2001

Monongahela Cemetery
Monongahela, Washington County
October 14, 2001