The restoration of the old St. Thomas Episcopal Church is one of the most important projects in Newarks recent history, for both the student body and the wider community, says Bernard Herman, UD professor of art history and senior research fellow in the Center for Historic Architecture and Design. As one of the earliest examples of Gothic Revivalist architecture in the United States, the building has not only local but national significance.
A brick pathway leads past a stately maple tree and landscaped gardens to this important monument to Newarks past, renamed in honor of the Greenville, Del., resident who made major contributions to its restoration. From the outside, the former church has the imposing look of a castle. Inside, it is airy, yet surprisingly intimate. Diffused sunlight streams through large stained-glass windows to light on wooden floors and wainscotting, freshly painted and stenciled walls and wrought-iron lamps.
The former church was not always given the appreciation it deserved, says Herman. Many years ago, there was talk of demolishing the building and replacing it with a WaWa, a 7-11 or a movie theatre. Sites like this were seen as expendable.
Today, the historic value of the property is undisputed. But, by current standards, the initial price of the property was a bargain, costing church founders just $70. The original structure, a modest, single-level building, cost about $3,825 to build.
St. Thomas Parish church was designed in 1843 in the Gothic Revival style, possibly by Richard Upjohn, and dedicated in 1845, says Herman. Later, in 1866, the tower was built and the building enlarged.
The building has served a number of functions since its cornerstone was laid. For more than a century, it fulfilled its original purpose as a place of worship. But as the congregation grew, its members found they needed more space. Reluctantly, they sold the property, keeping only the graveyard on its eastern flank, and moved to a new location on South College Avenue.
From 1956 to 1974, the church functioned as a public library. Today, it is still fondly referred to as the old Newark library by many residents. But, after 18 years, the small space was again outgrown. The library moved to a new building on Library Avenue and a real-estate investor bought the old church.