Thursday, September 29, 2011

Church of the Presidents, Long Branch, NJ

St. John's in Washington DC, conveniently located on Lafayette Square near the White House, is often called the "Church of the Presidents" because each president since James Monroe has attended services there. But there's another "Church of the Presidents," St. James Chapel in Long Branch, NJ.

Long before it was the setting of tawdry television show, the Jersey Shore was a place for the wealthy to escape pre-air conditioning summertime heat, and no fewer than six sitting presidents vacationed there -- Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, McKinley and Wilson -- while Ulysses S. Grant visited after he was president. The unfortunate President Garfield, who had been to the Jersey Shore with his ill wife shortly before he was shot in Washington, was taken to Long Branch in the vain hope that we would recover, but instead he died there.

All seven of the aforementioned presidents attended services at St. James Chapel, a branch of St. James Episcopal Church in the western part of Long Branch. That church wasn't convenient enough for the likes of George Pullman, so in the late 1870s, he and two other Gilded Age millionaires paid for the construction of the chapel, which was closer to their vacation homes. The New York firm of Potter and Robertson designed the small chapel in a pseudo-Tudor style popular at the time, and it has remain essentially unaltered since 1895.

Photo courtesy the Long Branch Historical Museum Association.

Long Branch faded as a vacation destination after World War I, and in the 1950s, the chapel was deconsecrated. Local residents Edgar Dinkelspiel and Bernard Sandler saved the structure from demolition, and it became the home of Long Branch Historical Museum in 1955. Among other artifacts on display were President Grant's gun cabinet and game table, and the flag placed over President Garfield's casket during services conducted by the Long Branch Masonic Lodge.

Currently the site is closed to the public while undergoing much-needed restoration work. Recently the Long Branch Historical Museum Association completed the restoration and repair of the masonry that comprises the lower exterior walls of the Church of the Presidents. Much work remains to be done, however, and the association is currently accepting tax-deductible donations for the project.

More information about the Church of the Presidents in Long Branch, and the effort to restore it, is at the association's web site.

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