On Wednesday, October 13th, Preservation New Jersey will proudly host the 2021 New Jersey Historic Preservation Awards celebrating the achievements of the New Jersey preservation community. It will be the first time that PNJ will hold its annual awards ceremony at the 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing. The 1867 Sanctuary – formerly the Ewing Presbyterian Church, whose history stretches all the way back to 1709 – is itself a successful preservation project that exemplifies the commitment that Preservation New Jersey has for all of New Jersey’s historic structures. Today the 1867 Sanctuary functions as a community center that continues to host events ranging from weddings to concerts to recordings and memorial services. But less than a decade ago, this 19th century historic structure was about to be demolished. That was until PNJ stepped in to save it.
In the fall of 2008, facing tremendous financial pressures and serious concerns about their church’s structural condition, the governing body of the Ewing Presbyterian Church reluctantly voted to demolish their historic and iconic Sanctuary. A last hope was a small, community-based group – Partners to Restore Ewing Sanctuary (PRES) – who set out to raise the funds to restore and maintain the Romanesque Revival structure.
During the next six months, an amazing $250,000 in donations poured in from the local community. However, even this amount came nowhere near the $2 million dollars needed to save the architecturally significant church. With the clock running out, PRES reached out to Preservation New Jersey for inclusion to their 10 Most Endangered Historic Places list. The Sanctuary’s addition to the PNJ “10 Most List” was publicly announced on the steps of the New Jersey State Capitol and engaged the attention of both the media and more importantly the New Jersey preservation community.
The plight of the Sanctuary became so widely known that John Hatch and Ron Emrich, then the President and Executive Director of PNJ, contacted church officials about saving 1867.
While their interest and concerns were listened to and appreciated, the church still maintained their intention to demolish the edifice and set the fast-approaching date of September 2009 for its demise.
As the date drew closer, the congregation took a “final” farewell photo outside the Sanctuary. Demolition seemed unstoppable as the community’s outrage increased and the press followed each step of the story. Yet, at the last minute, unexpectedly, the governing body of the larger Presbyterian Church, the Presbytery of New Brunswick, stepped in and stayed the demolition.
During the next few years, the Presbytery created a special commission to review the situation and ensure the appropriate outcome for both the structure and the community. This commission interviewed a wide range of individuals from the community, including contractors, community leaders, and members of the congregation. Most significantly, they met with members of PRES and the leadership of Preservation New Jersey.
Preservation New Jersey produced a compelling argument that they believed that any structure with such widespread community support deserved a chance to survive. In their view, the building’s value for the larger community as a historic monument and a possible gathering place for the community far outweighed the reasons and arguments for its destruction. At last, the administrative commission decided to enter into a lease between themselves and PNJ for 50 years, a lease which they officially signed in May 2012, and three years after the Sanctuary was listed on PNJ’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Places list.
For Preservation New Jersey, this was its first brick-and-mortar project, and thus uncharted territory for the organization. With the leadership of PNJ President David H. Knights and the newly-formed 1867 Sanctuary Committee, work commenced to historically preserve the building and reimagine it as a center for the Ewing community. Since then, the Sanctuary has hosted an amazing range of events, including concerts, plays, weddings, funerals, memorials, audio and video recordings, and even Fall and Holiday festivals that feature the work of local artists.
After closing in March 2020 in response to the very start of the pandemic, Preservation New Jersey staff and 1867 volunteers took the time to make and execute on plans to increase the sustainability and breadth of uses possible at the Sanctuary. Staff and volunteers also took the time to begin physical improvements that will allow community members to use the space long into the future and update the Sanctuary’s website and marketing materials. Most recently staff and volunteers have focused on refinishing the doors, updating the interior and exterior lighting, cleaning and renovating the basement, and restoring the Sanctuary’s beloved stained glass windows. The committee is bringing the Sanctuary’s historic past to light through a new donor exhibit, and plans for interpretive signage and historic exhibits. The Sanctuary is moving forward in providing a place for people to gather for life events like weddings and memorials, concerts and community events. Preservation NJ staff and volunteers look forward to carrying out needed preservation and restoration work, and ensuring a sustainable model that allows the Sanctuary to be enjoyed and appreciated by community members in the years to come.
Those interested in learning more about upcoming programs or rental opportunities at the 1867 Sanctuary can visit the updated website at: https://1867sanctuary.org/.
Dale Perry is Office Manager at Preservation New Jersey and a Program Manager at 1867 Sanctuary.
Lauren Wood is a volunteer at the 1867 Sanctuary.