Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In Edinboro and Cam­bridge Springs they have disappeared, but at Harmonsburg, Polk, and Watsons Run they stand yet, as they do in Sugar Grove, Pleasantville, Utica, and elsewhere – country churches built by the Presbyterian congregations of northwestern Pennsylvania. Although neither found on registers of historic properties, nor listed in guidebooks of regional attractions, these houses of worship embody nineteenth century Protestantism’s conviction that preaching was the principal means of dispensing grace. But even as they made the Word of God paramount, these “hall” churches expressed the country parishioners’ desire for simplicity and restraint. Presbyterian congregations were not alone, of course, in erecting frugal transcriptions of the prevailing taste: rather, a particular style of church architecture permeated the rural landscape with little regard to denominational affiliation.

A “country” church is a house of worship whose founders made their living­ – directly or indirectly – from agriculture. In northwestern Pennsylvania, from the 1790s through the 1820s, this meant a log church; from the 1820s to the 1860s, a classical or Greek Revival building; and from the 1860s until the close of the century, a structure in the Gothic style. As these build­ings burned or needed to be replaced in the first two decades of this century, houses of worship in a variety of styles began to make their appearance. The country churches erected by Presbyte­rians in northwestern Pennsylvania have attracted the attention of historians and historic preservationists, not only because of their number but also because they epito­mize the cautious stewardship so characteristic of rural residents.

Not one of the log churches constructed in the greater Erie area has survived; in fact, none stood long enough to be photographed. However, a sketch of the church building erected by Presbyterians at Middlebrook, about two miles north of Wattsburg, in 1801 depicts a rectangular structure with a doorway centrally located in one of the long sides. The Middlebrook church must have resembled meeting­houses in use near North East, Erie County, in 1805 and at Conneaut Lake about 1799. A local historian characterized the Conneaut Lake structure’s exterior as “unattractive” and its interior as “still less pleasing.” He also wrote that: “The pulpit, standing at the side, was large and rough. A few seats, and a few seats only, had backs; the seats generally being boards or benches laid upon blocks and trestles.”

Put up – often in a single day – by congregation mem­bers, such structures were little more than shelter against the elements. Nevertheless, their interior arrangements, no matter how primitive, herald the church buildings that succeeded them. Log churches, no less than Greek Revival style and Gothic style edifices, illustrate a religious context in which the ear, not the eye, predominated. The distinctive presence of the “large,” albeit “rough,” pulpit in the Conneaut Lake church reiterates Protestantism’s conviction that preaching was the primary element in leading worship services. The hall churches erected during the second and third decades of the nineteenth century were constructed with “hearing” in mind.

Church fathers, whatever their denomination, sought out local craftsmen, individuals who had very likely never examined in any detail – much less constructed – a formal house of worship. If they had emigrated from New England, as had many of the settlers of northwestern Pennsylvania, the builders were unquestion­ably familiar with structures inspired by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the English architect. However, this style of architecture was very likely beyond the builders’ compe­tence, rand far beyond the financial means of their employers. With only their experience as house builders to guide them, area carpenters attempted to provide their patrons with the most popular domestic style of their time and place: the classical or Greek Revival. In so doing they did not create replicas of Greek temples; rather, they turned to Grecian forms and motifs as the source of inspiration for what came to be called hall churches.

These hall churches were rectangular in shape with distinguishing ornamentation limited to the gable ends, and their long sides slit by tall, narrow windows. The main entrance, in one of the gable ends, was centrally located beneath a classical pediment. Worshippers faced the pulpit, which was frequently framed by a shallow niche in the rear wall. Seats were arranged as in an auditorium or concert hall spanning the length of the building, making for an auditory house of worship, a place where whatever was said during a service could be heard clearly by all. In this setting, the preacher – much like a schoolmaster – stood behind an attenuated desk on an open platform that allowed the worshippers to see him. If parishioners doubted that the sacraments were subordinate to the Word in Presbyterian meeting houses, they had only to note the presence of a token communion table, positioned at ground floor level beneath the pulpit platform.

At its simplest, the typical hall church is represented by the Cambridge Borough (today Cambridge Springs) Presbyte­rian Church, erected in 1851 at a cost of sixteen hundred dollars. Measuring sixty-five by fifty-five feet, it was constructed of heavy, hand­hewn timbers. Its principal entrance was located beneath a classical pediment, and a belfry (that housed the community’s first bell) dominated the roof line. The pulpit was positioned in front of a niche in the rear wall. Original furnishings included box pews and two large woodburning stoves located at opposite ends of the structure. Wood for the stoves, provided and delivered by faithful mem­bers, was piled at the rear.

Thomas Clark of Gravel Run (today Woodcock), a carpenter and builder, was responsible for the design of the Presbyterian house of worship in his community. Erected in 1854 at a cost of twenty-five hundred dollars, this brick structure is indebted to its Cambridge Springs predecessor. However, country classicism was not always so rational; it was frequently inspired by a host of Grecian motifs similar to those of the Edinboro church (twelve miles to the north of Woodcock), built in the same year but demolished in 1973. Its central entrance, flanked by tall windows, was further distinguished by four shallow Doric pilasters. Presiding over the heavily detailed pediment were a belfry and steeple that echoed but did not duplicate comparable features in New England churches.

Perhaps even more typical of the simple country style are churches still in use at Harmonsburg and Watson Run. The Harmonsburg church, measuring forty-five by thirty-five feet, was constructed in 1844 at a cost of eight hundred dollars. Its restrained, classical lines remain evident, despite the addition of an ungainly tower in the late nineteenth century. Classicism was the arbiter of country taste in 1870, when the congregation at Watson Run (eight miles east of Harmonsburg) completed a building measuring fifty-five by thirty-five feet at a cost of twenty-two hundred dollars. This structure is the last country church in the Greek Revival style constructed by Presbyterians in northwestern Pennsylvania.

The church building at Watson Run is quite charming. A narthex or vestibule with a narrow staircase to a balcony directly overhead leads, through double doors, into the sanctuary proper, where the pulpit, positioned on a narrow platform spanning the width of the building, is the focus of interest. Parishioners, seated in handsome wooden pews, were kept warm by a large stove at the rear.

Beyond country lanes and towns, the classical manner was seen by the 1870s as hopelessly outmoded. Attacks upon this style, in fact, had been common as early as the 1850s. Where ecclesiastical architecture was concerned, much of the furor was coupled with polemics in favor of the Gothic as the best (indeed, the only) style for church building, the one that more than any other promoted and sustained reverence and piety. This promulgation was derived, in part, from an analogy its boosters drew between the Gothic style and the Jewish temple. On the strength of this analogy, this style was touted as the most ancient form of religious architecture and the one most conducive to the creation of a worshipful atmosphere, one which alone contained an inexhaustible potential for Christian symbolism.

No less a spokesman than the popular landscape archi­tect Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852), author of the well known Architecture of Country Houses, Including Designs for Cottages, Farm­houses, and Villas (1850), made the point that classical architecture is embodied in the horizontal level cornice, which constitutes the essence of rationality, a circumstance that made the Greek style fit for lecture room_s and town halls, but not for settings where religious services were to be conducted. According to Downing, worship could best be conducted in a Gothic style setting, dominated by “aspir­ing vertical lines.” A veritable host of influential voices, all of which were probably unknown at first to country churchgoers, joined Downing’s.

However, the debate must have made an impression. Books by Downing and other Gothic style enthusiasts very likely found their way into the hands of country builders. In the year the church building at Watson Run was dedicated, the congregation at Sugar Grove began remodeling its “colonial” structure which had been erected in 1834. The result gave evidence of a rural Gothicism whose hallmarks included a semi-detached tower incorporating a belfry and, on occasion, a steeple, a steeply pitched roof, and pointed- or rounded-arch windows. The new manner did not bring about a revolu­tion in country architecture, however. Intellectuals and professional tastemakers were simply not in a position to overwhelm rural folk with their logic.

What may have had as much impact as any source were the county atlases that began appearing in remote regions as early as 1865. These sizable books usually featured handsome (although often heavily stylized) lithographs of fashionable residences and prestigious public buildings, as well as urban church buildings, many of which epitomized the Gothic style of architecture. Such published works played a part in winning church elders in the rural areas to this “new” architectural style, if only for exterior details.

Church buildings whose exteriors were remodeled to reflect the new taste included those at Adamsville and Polk. The Adamsville edifice, classical in its employment of a cornice and pilasters, was a product of the mid-nineteenth century, but in 1875 a tower was added to the gable nearest the road. A belfry in the quirky Eastlake manner was added in the following decade. Country congregations, much like their urban counterparts, had a penchant for towers. Their attempts to modernize classical structures included the addition of preposterous towers and the replacement of lancet windows with sashes and the fashionable rounded arch.

Considerably more aestheti­cally satisfying than misguided efforts at remodel­ing was the construction of new churches. The Pleasantville church, com­pleted by Presbyterians in 1870, retains the rectangular shape of its classical predeces­sors, but a semi-detached bell tower and pointed arch windows suggest the presence of the Gothic style, at least in so far as exterior detail is concerned. Equally charming as an example of the vernacu­lar Gothic style is the board-and-batten building erected at Utica, New York, in 1871. Its builder was evidently conscious of prevailing and popular styles because he used wooden buttresses as decora­tive motifs. They are embellishments not found in two severely restrained examples of carpenter Gothic: the churches at Garland and Mill Village, both of which date to the 1870s.

The Mill Village church building reinforces the belief that interiors were to be largely unaffected by exterior details, for the focus of its sanctuary continues to be a pulpit elevated on a narrow platform opposite the en­trance. What captures the viewer’s attention are the secular pieces of furniture, from fancy parlor sofas to marble top tables, that have been pressed into “sacred” use. The fledgling religious supply houses of the day made few sales to rural folk, who preferred to seek their furnish­ings, including the communion table at Mill Village, from neighboring homes. The practice exempli­fies a time-honored country tradition, and one that sharply contradicts the edicts of the era’s professional tastemakers!

Tn time, the world beyond country doorsteps began exerting an undeniable impact on rural congregations, evidenced by the construction of new Presbyterian churches during the first two decades of the twentieth century – in all but one instance necessitated by disastrous fires. No longer were the choices unequivocal, as they had been in earlier times; for, in addition to the Gothic style, popular tastemakers were applauding the Romanesque and Queen Ann styles. Country congrega­tions, which had responded indifferently to the medieval­ism inherent in the Gothic style, found the aesthetic and intellectual roots of styles such as the Romanesque beyond their ken.

Rural parishioners opted instead for what amounted to a vernacular style, typified by churches erected at Nickleville in 1909 and at Hartstown a decade later. Both buildings possess intimations of current fashions but so vaguely as to defy classification. Much the same emphasis on the vernacular style is evi­denced by the church buildings at North Shenango and Kennard. The brick facade of the North Shenango church, dating to 1919, is angular and stark, redeemed only by the honesty of the workmanship inherent in the construction. The Kennard church, dedicated in 1922, is undistinguished as an architectural entity, but it was built, as were many twentieth century churches, with an emphasis on durabil­ity.

Church elders were not enemies of change nor were they incapable of adapting to the evolving shape of the religious experience in the America of their day. Planners and builders welcomed an arrangement of interior space pioneered by the Methodist Episcopal Church in Akron, Ohio. Following what came to be called the “Akron Plan,” the congregations in Nickleville, Hartstown, North Shenango, and Kennard arranged the pews in their sanctuaries asymmetrically, facing pulpits that were no longer located against the backdrop of rear walls but in one of the building’s corners. This arrangement allowed the church’s interior to be parti­tioned, providing space for Sunday School rooms and, more often than not, a ladies’ parlor. Most of these parlors in country churches were furnished with sofas, tables, and chairs donated by local families and businesses. Antiques collectors can, to this day, find marble top tables serving as communion pieces, sets of parlor chairs being used as pulpit furniture, and schoolhouse clocks adorning Sunday School rooms.

The quest for sobriety, propriety, and economy ultimately dictated the shape and substance of the country churches of northwestern Pennsylvania. And the Presbyterian houses of worship reflect a genuine country style for other denominations. Just as Edinboro’s Presbyterian Church embodies country classicism, the community’s Baptist Church (actually purchased from a Presbyterian congregation) can also be described with similar terminology. The Methodist (1863) and the Advent (1864) churches embraced the country Gothic style, yet they remained essentially preaching houses, hallmarked by the grouping of pews in two aisles facing the gable end opposite the entrance. Doctrinal distinctions, when evident, were confined to the pulpit platform.

This similarity may explain why so few photographs of country churches appear in monographs devoted to the classical or Gothic styles in America or even in specialized studies of church architecture. Exceptions can be found in Talbot Hamlin’s Greek Revival Architecture in America and in Harold Kalman’s Pioneer Churches. Greek Revival Architecture in America includes a photograph of a Streetsboro, Ohio, church distinguished by a classical pediment topped with a belfry and steeple. Otherwise, the entrance facade with its central doorway and flanking tall windows is reminiscent of Edinboro’ s Presbyterian church. Also familiar is the West Union Baptist church in Tuililan Plains, Oregon, cited by Kalman. Located near the end of the Oregon Trail, the structure is similar to those once erected in the Gothic style throughout northwestern Pennsylvania.

Oral history and memory, too, confirm the pervasiveness of country Gothic style of architecture. Walter Jay Brown, a former pastor of Edinboro’s Presbyterian Church, recalled the four country churches served by his father in the 1940s and 1950s. Located at Bottineau, North Dakota, at Stephen and East Grand Forks in Minnesota, and at Chinook, Montana, the church buildings were built in the late 1880s and early 1890s in the distinctive Gothic style. Much like their northwestern Pennsylvania counterparts, they were preaching halls possessing the towns’ only pitched roofs. Brown also remembered that each commu­nity claimed at least one other congregation – Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, or Congregationalist – and that the worshippers gathered in structures that were indistin­guishable from the churches his father had served.

It comes as little surprise that a writer for The New Country Church Building quoted a home mission secretary who believed the chief architectural need of American rural churches was “a large number of fires.” But he was not granted his wish completely. Throughout the countryside many of these historic houses of worship have survived, testaments to their builders’ belief that preaching was the primary reason for attending services. And, in the service of preach­ing, ordinary country folk created exteriors that lent a simple dignity to the occasion, and hall-like interiors which, freeing worshippers’ minds from worldly distraction, encouraged them to concentrate on the Word of God.


For Further Reading

Andrews, Wayne. Architecture, Ambition and Americans. New York: Harper, 1955.

Archambault, Anna Margaretta, ed. A Guide Book of Art, Architecture, and Historical Interests in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company, 1924.

Benjamin, Asher. The American Builder’s Companion. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969.

Briggs, Martin Shaw. Everyman’s Concise Encyclopedia of Architecture. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1959.

Dickson, Harold E. A Hundred Pennsylvania Buildings. State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle Press, 1954.

Eaton, S. J. M. History of the Presbytery of Erie. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1868.

Haveman, John T. Pictorial Encyclopedia of Historic Architectural Plans, Details, and Elements. New York: Dover Publications, 1984.

Kostof, Spiro. America by Design. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Loth, Calder. The Only Proper Style: Gothic Architecture in America. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975.

Maas, John. The Victorian Home in America. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1972.

Marsh, John L., ed. The Presbytery of Lake Erie: A Panorama. Erie, Pa.: The Presbytery of Erie, 1978.

Miller, John. A Twentieth Century History of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1909.

Richman, Irwin. Pennsylvania’s Architecture. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylva­nia Historical Association, 1969.

Stotz, Charles M. The Architec­tural Heritage of Early Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1966.

Whitman, Benjamin. Nelson’s Biographical Dictionary and Historical Reference Book of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Erie, Pa.: S. B. Nelson, 1896.


John L. Marsh, a professor of English at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. A dedicated writer, he has co-authored texts on English and American literature, compiled bibliographies, and written articles on fascinating topics, such as opera houses and the gilded movie palaces of yesterday (see “Chin Up! Smile! Keep ’em Happy!” in the winter 1991 edition).