Founded in 1978, Preservation New Jersey (PNJ) advocates for and assists New Jerseyans in the preservation of historic buildings and sites. However, until 2010, PNJ had never been directly involved in the preservation of a bricks-and-mortar building. Stewardship of the 1867 Sanctuary offered PNJ the opportunity for a “hands-on” preservation project.
The 1867 Sanctuary is a landmark Romanesque stone structure in Ewing (just northwest of Trenton) which formerly served the Ewing Presbyterian Church congregation (founded 1709) as their fourth worship building on essentially the same footprint of land. The present stone structure was built in 1867 during a period of optimism and growth following the Civil War, and its original soaring steeple (roughly half again as high as the current one) likely made quite a statement above the surrounding farmland. For decades the 1867 Sanctuary was not only a worship space, but also served as a large gathering place for community events and activities.
But as in many congregations, declining membership in the late 20th century resulted in decreased revenues, and deferred maintenance on the aging structure. In 2008, concerns regarding the integrity of the roof trusses, and multi-million dollar estimates to repair and rebuild the building led its leaders to opt for demolition as the least expensive, and only realistic choice.
However, some members of the congregation, encouraged by support from the preservation community, sought outside help to raise funds to investigate other options, and to fund a complete structural study. A grass-roots advocacy group was formed. The building was named one of PNJ’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2009, and application was made to the NJ Historic Trust for $50,000 in funds for an engineering study, which were eventually granted. During the depths of the recession in 2009, the group raised over $200,000 in seven months.
Board members at Preservation New Jersey were aware of the situation, felt strongly that the estimates to repair were greatly exaggerated, and saw the building as a possible model of adaptive use. PNJ had never before been involved in preserving and restoring a “bricks and mortar” project, although the Board had from time to time considered doing so. When concern and public outcry about the demolition of the Ewing church building became so widespread, the Board decided to take the unprecedented step of offering to take full responsibility for the building from the congregation, with the assistance and support of the strong, local grass-roots advocacy group, and to demonstrate adaptive use of historic buildings as a preservation tool.
After several years of talks, studies, negotiations and legal reviews, Preservation New Jersey in May of 2012 signed a 50-year lease with the Presbytery of New Brunswick (the local regional body of the Presbyterian Church) to take full responsibility for the building. David Knights, who was then the Board President of PNJ, had also been the visionary behind the successful preservation and adaptive re-use of the Hopewell Train Station, and saw a similar opportunity with the Ewing church building. The Presbytery had previously assumed responsibility for the building in a prior agreement with the Ewing congregation, and became PNJ’s “landlord.”
Studies done on the building paved the way for this lease. The primary study determined that there was “no financial or structural reason for demolition,” and that the steel reinforcements made to the building in 2005 (prior to the decision to demolish) had successfully stabilized the trusses. The building was indeed safe to occupy, but still needed to comply with code.
Another study undertaken was an Adaptive Use study, funded in part by NJ Historic Trust grant funds and an award by the Princeton Area Community Foundation. With input from community members, church members, historians, preservationists, architects and activists, the study determined that the “best use” of the building would be to use it as an arts venue, which would
- a) meet a lease requirement to keep the building available for occasional worship use,
- b) make the building available for community use, and
- c) take advantage of its prior “assembly” use and excellent acoustics.
The former church building was re-branded as “The 1867 Sanctuary at Ewing – The Historic Haven for Arts and Culture.” After much work was done to renovate, repair, and obtain a CO, it reopened in Nov 2015. In February of 2016, the 1867 Sanctuary began to offer a wide array of concerts and events for the public, and has been doing so ever since.
The entire effort, from the start, has been the responsibility of the 1867 Sanctuary Committee of PNJ. Until his untimely death in 2013, David Knights was actively involved in the effort, and led the work of the 1867 Committee. Since his passing, PNJ Board member and co-founder of the original advocacy group, Helen Kull, has chaired the 1867 Committee, which is comprised of seven individuals. The Committee can always use new members to help carry out its work.
The 1867 Sanctuary has an excellent reputation among performers, is extensively marketed, and is gradually attracting audiences. Currently, the box office income is usually split 50/50 with the performers. The building is also rented for specific events such as weddings, memorial services, rehearsals and recording sessions, and is also occasionally made available to the community for free events, such as a monthly “Open Mic” night. We are extremely grateful to our donors for their generous support as well, enabling us to continue “in business.”
There remain several major projects that PNJ’s 1867 Committee eventually hopes to undertake:
- Complete the lighting improvement project in the nave (underway)
- Restore basement restrooms, and cancel the code-required, monthly porta-potty rental
- Set up a small kitchenette and “green room” (dressing room) in basement
- Prepare and submit a registry nomination
- Install an access/service driveway along the north side of the building
- Install tie rods and roof improvements suggested and detailed in architectural plans
More information about the Sanctuary and its programming can be found at www.1867sanctuary.org.