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The South Park Presbyterian Church


 

Sadly, the City of Newark has many a ruined building, but few are as beautiful and historic as the South Park Presbyterian Church. This edifice, in a way, symbolizes the rise, fall, and rebirth of Newark. Born as a church for the affluent descendents of Pilgrims, it became a homeless shelter. Now a ruin, the South Park Presbyterian Church may again serve Newark as a museum honoring the achievements of African-Americans.

The South Park Church is located at 1035 Broad Street, on Lincoln Park

Click here for location

 

From Library of Congress, via oldnewark.com
The South Park Presbyterian Church is one of New Jersey’s finest Greek Revival churches. The church uses a conventional church floor plan, but its grand Nova Scotia limestone façade is unusually well-made. The two towers that flank the portico today sprout trees from their tops, but they used to have ornamental structures copied from the “Choragic Monument of Lysicrates,” in Athens, Greece.
This small monument on the Avenue Tripodon in Athens has inspired buildings from Moscow to LA. Using the earliest known example of Corinthian columns, it was built in 334 BC to display the trophy (a bronze tripod) that one Lysicrates won for a play for which he had been choragos (ie, producer). This monument was originally hollow, the marble fill was installed to stabilize the structure.

The South Park Church's towers differ from the original choragic monument in that they used Ionic columns, rather than Corinthian ones. Also, the South Park Church's towers have a second level.

From Hellenic Ministry of Culture
The second level of the towers was removed in 1964. Today, instead of a windowed lantern, the towers sprout saplings. This is a picture of the right tower, taken from the rear.
The church was designed by John (not Phillip) Welch, who had already made a name for himself among Newark Presbyterians with his design of the High Street Presbyterian Church. The cornerstone was laid in October 1853 and the church was finished in February 1855. The cost was $27,000.

After the South Park Church Welch designed the orphanage on High Street that is now the administration building for NJIT

The interior of the church was lavish, yet restrained. There was a marble baptism font, a domed ceiling, and columns with gilded capitals. Later on, an organ was installed.

The second Lincoln Park mansion of Franklin Murphy. Notice the South Park Church in the background. This photograph is from the Library of Congress

 

As some readers may know, what is now Lincoln Park was originally called South Park. After the Civil War, many cities named things for the slain president. Newark decided to attach Lincoln’s name to this particular place because on February 21st, 1861 Lincoln had spoken from the steps of the South Park Church. Lincoln’s visit to Newark that day was extremely brief and we do not know exactly what was said on the church steps. We do know that Lincoln said something to the following effect that day in Newark. Lincoln’s remarks followed a longer speech by Mayor Bigelow and can be reprinted in their entirety here.

MR. MAYOR: I thank you for the reception to your city, and would say in response, that I bring a heart sincerely devoted to the work you desire I should do. With my own ability I cannot succeed, without the sustenance of Divine Providence, and of this great, free, happy, and intelligent people. Without these I cannot hope to succeed; with them I cannot fail. Again I return you my thanks.
Despite its well-to-do area, the South Park Church was not the high society church in Newark (neighbor Franklin Murphy was not a member) Indeed, the South Park Church had a reputation for being one of the more political of Newark Presbyterian Churches. South Park members were active in campaigns against horse racing and against alchohol. In the Twentieth century the South Park Church distinguished itself for inviting black ministers to preach.
There are still visible scorch marks from the fire.

In March of 1909, the Contemporary Club was founded in the South Park Church. The Contemporary Club was, for many years, Newark's largest woman's club. It sponsored campaigns to improve hygiene in the city and build a home for the mentally retarded. It also paid for the city's Christmas tree.

 

Over the years, Newark was home to fewer and fewer Presbyterians. The neighborhood of Lincoln Park itself became institutional and then decrepit. After the riots, in 1974, the Presbytery of Newark leased the building to an organization led by J.W. Parrot called the Lighthouse Temple. Although it was a Pentecostal congregation, the Lighthouse Temple was more famous for providing for hundreds of homeless people. The Lighthouse Temple had its own "mall" on the sidewalks of Clinton Avenue where the indigent could browse racks of old clothing. Reverend Parrot bragged that "All you have to say is 'the church that feeds the poor' - that's even better than the address."
The site of the Lighthouse Temple's "Mall."
In 1988/1989 the Presbyterian Church of New Jersey found that the old South Park Church was structurally unsound. It reluctantly ordered the Lighthouse Temple out. Reverend Parrot resisted, but eventually an alternative site was found in a former halal slaughterhouse (that in turn, was an old factory). The Lighthouse Temple still exists at 499 Market Street.

The vacant South Park Church did not collapse, but it did burn in a nighttime fire in 1992. After the fire, the Church's remains were leveled except for its frontal facade. Currently, the South Park church is only used by pigeons and stray cats.

The South Park Church may yet serve Newark again. At one point there was a proposal to use the facade of the South Park Presbyterian Church as a wall for a Smithsonian-affiliated museum of African-American music, but those plans have been put on long-term hiatus.

In the summer of 2008, the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District began restoration work on the South Park Presbyterian Church's facade. The LPCCD plan to construct an ampitheatre where the sanctuary used to be that could be used for open air concerts.

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J. Bennett
December 2005.  Updated July 2008.
Permanent URL: www.newarkhistory.com/southpark.html
Special Thanks to D. Druce for lending me his camera.