Let’s start by noting that Egyptian Revival refers to an architectural style and that my understanding of architecture borders on nil. Also, Egyptian Revival in this context has everything to do with the physical characteristics of a building. It’s a bit confusing because many churches also hold revivals. Those are completely different. I’ll be talking about church buildings today, not about Egyptian-themed church revival meetings, although that too might be interesting topic as I consider it further.
A special tip of the keyboard goes to Steve of Connecticut Museum Quest, a loyal 12MC reader and author of one of my favorite must-read sites. That remains true even though I rarely have an opportunity to venture into Connecticut unless Steve has something to do with it.
To quote one of his articles, "Essex’s First Baptist Church is one of only three Egyptian Revival churches ever built in the US."
I live for trivial tidbits like that. One never knows when one may find oneself within the boundaries of Connecticut, or New York, or Tennessee and have an opportunity to drop that obscure statement into a conversation. That probably also explains why my social calendar has lots of openings. Nonetheless it begs a couple of questions. Are there really only three Egyptian Revival churches in the United States? And if so, what are the other two?
The Intertubes contain all sorts of unattributed references to three (and only three) such churches. In the hallowed yet flawed tradition of "everything on the Internet must be true" and in recognition of my inherent laziness, I will accept the claim on face value after about two minutes of cursory fact checking. Anyone wishing to bust the conventional wisdom on this topic is welcome to post evidence in the comments and receive all due accolades.
The Egyptian Revival style first came into vogue during the initial half of the Nineteenth Century. It was an architectural outgrowth of Egyptology, a field of study springing from Napoleon Bonaparte’s expeditions into Egypt circa 1798–1801. Egyptian Revival wasn’t a particularly common style even during its heyday although Wikipedia does include a long list of examples.
One well-known instance of Egyptian Revival styling stands practically around the corner from my residence. The Washington Monument, a giant obelisk, took shape during that same formative period. This also provides me with a brief opportunity to recycle an old photo from a previous article and debunk and old myth. Let’s get back to the topic though.
What are the three Egyptian Revival Churches in the United States?
First Baptist Church (Essex, Connecticut)
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We already know one example, the First Baptist Church in Essex, Connecticut, because Steve mentioned it,. Google Street View didn’t display it although I can sort-of make out the details in satellite mode. I’d post a photograph except the only good one I found in Flickr was copyright protected. You’ll have to go there yourself if you want to see some of the more prominent architectural details.
Built in 1846, and according to Historic Buildings of Connecticut, "constructed by master builder Jeremish Gladding, the Baptist Church was designed in the Egyptian Revival style, modeled on an 1844 Presbyterian church, the Old Whaler’s Church in Sag Harbor, Long Island, designed by Minard Lafever." That’s the second example of an Egyptian Revival church and I’ll get to it momentarily. First I want to focus on Minard Lafever briefly.
Minard Lafever (1798–1854) designed numerous structures. He also published a series of pattern books including the Modern Builder’s Guide of 1849. Many architects and builders acquired his books and used his plans throughout the nation. Lafever was actually known more for helping to spread the highly-popular Greek Revival style although he dabbled in various other architectural oeuvres including Gothic Revival, Renaissance, Federal, and of course Egyptian Revival. The number of Egyptian Revival churches in the United States would likely be cut to a single example if it were not for the direct and indirect influences of Minard Lafever.
Old Whalers’ Church (Sag Harbor, New York)
SOURCE: lornagrl on Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.
The Old Whalers’ Church website places an apostrophe on the end of Whalers (making it plural possessive) so I’ll stick to that grammatical flourish unless quoting directly from another source. One also sees it rendered elsewhere as Old Whaler’s and Old Whalers. Whatever.
By the 1840’s Sag Harbor was at the height of its prosperity, with 63 whaling ships calling the village their home port. The money was available to build a grand new structure, and ship owners, captains and local business men readily agreed to contribute to the project. A well-known New York architect, Minard LaFever, was commissioned to design the building; the property was bought for $2,000 and the building, without furnishings, cost $17,000.
The church used to have a steeple pushing even farther heavenward an additional 185 feet (56 metres). It blew down in the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Even now, three-quarters of a century later, the congregation hopes to rebuild it someday. However at least one critic believes the church looks "better" (more Egyptian) without the steeple.
The Old Whalers’ Church provides a home for two distinct religious affiliations beneath a single roof: it is the First Presbyterian Church on Sunday mornings; and it is the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons for Friday night services during the summer, and Shabbat morning services during the summer and on specified Saturdays during the rest of the year.
That seems like a great way to fully appreciate this historic structure.
Downtown Presbyterian Church — formerly First Presbyterian Church (Nashville, Tennessee)
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Finally Street View delivered an image albeit with some distortion. Notice in particular the columns with their distinct capitals as well as the winged sun disk along the frieze. It’s probably easier to see from various church photos available on the Intertubes (for example). Some excellent interior shots with lots of additional Egyptian-themed design elements can be found on the Downtown Presbyterian Church virtual tour gallery too.
As specified by the Statement of Significance from the National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program,
The Old First Presbyterian Church was designed very late in William Strickland’s career while he was engaged on the construction of the Tennessee State Capitol. Having started his architectural career as an apprentice to Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), Strickland (1787-1854) advanced in his knowledge of engineering and became one of the foremost architects in the United States. The Old Presbyterian Church, begun in 1849, is Strickland’s largest and only full Egyptian temple, and is known affectionately as “Karnak on the Cumberland.”
According to the church history, the congregation had ties to Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk before they became presidents of the United States. The building also served as a Union hospital during the Civil War, having been seized by the United States government. In fact, government reparations after the war allowed the congregation to finish interior and exterior construction that they’d not been able to afford prior to the war.
The building is no longer known as the First Presbyterian Church because the historic congregation moved to a suburban location in the 1950’s. A number of members wished to remain at the site and purchased the building to form a new congregation, the Downtown Presbyterian Church. Otherwise the structure would have been demolished and replaced by a parking garage.