Set on a precarious curve on Scotch Road in Ewing and often the subject of debate is the First Presbyterian Church. Over the years, the structure and its adjacent burial ground have been the target of developers — those who feel the land can be put to better use or those who have felt that the structure’s positioning along the infamous curve is a hazard to both motor vehicles and pedestrians. Multiple attempts to remove the church due to structural deficiencies were met with resistance, court dates, rulings and frustrations. The dwindling congregation did not seem to have the funds or the fight within to repair the historical house of worship that has stood in various forms at this location.
Enter Preservation New Jersey, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit group that is dedicated to historic preservation as a “sustainable strategy to protect and enhance the vitality and heritage of New Jersey’s richly diverse communities.” Through their efforts, the centuries-old landmark was saved from sure destruction.
Dating to 1709, the church started as a congregation gathering under several tall oak trees on the property. Eventually a log cabin was built, then a wooden structure, a brick building and finally the current stone building, which was erected two years after the Civil War ended.
“Yes, this building is nearly 150 years old,” said Preservation NJ board member Bob Kull as he discussed the building’s history and current incarnation as an arts and music venue.
The group took its case to the people with a pair of open meetings. “We had two public meetings led by Michael Newell and his architectural firm over at the Ewing Senior and Community Center, and he provided ideas of different ways that the space can be configured, different uses it can have,” Kull said. “And all the people said, ‘We want it to be an art center.’ It’s been used that way in the past over its entire history and … it’s the perfect size. You’ve got places like the college (The College of New Jersey) that are a thousand seats or whatever and way too expensive. You have places like bars that only have 40 or 50 seats. We’ll hold 220 and with the balcony and some flexible seating, we’ll hold over 300.”
Improvements to the aging facility included painting, flooring, repair of structural issues, removal and realignment of plumbing, and restoration of the doors and some of the original pews. The stained glass windows and the original front windows were left intact.
“We are still a work in progress,” said Kull, discussing projects such as making improvements to the stage lighting and restoring the basement so that it can be used as a green room.
With the pieces beginning to fall into place and a name change to The 1867 Sanctuary at Ewing, Kull reached out to a friend in the business and had no trouble filling up the schedule with a well-balanced lineup of jazz, contemporary and folk/roots music along with classical music, plays, children’s programs and more.
“We do all kinds of genres; we got started because I was given an email list from a person who books bands for their place. So I reached out to about two dozen bands and 20 of them responded and they’re all booked or will eventually be booked here. Once the word got out it spread like wildfire among the artists and musicians, and everyone who has been here or performed here has said this is a spectacular place. In about three months, we gradually built an audience. Hopefully the word will continue to spread and the venue will flourish even more.”
For more about the venue, or to make a donation, visit 1867sanctuary.org.
Here is the schedule through the end of September:
Sept. 14, 8 p.m.: Joe Holt and the Midiri Trio (Jazz)
Sept. 15, 8 p.m.: The Whispering Tree (Folk-Rock)
Sept. 16, 3 p.m.: HV CAMP’s Hopewell Summer Collaborative Band
Sept. 21, 8 p.m.: David Cullen, guitar (Classical)
Sept. 22, 2 p.m.: Danny Tobias and Friends, featuring Warren Vaché (Jazz)
Sept. 22, 8 p.m.: “Songs I’ll Never Sing, Roles I’ll Never Play – A Miscast Cabaret, featuring Rachel Cetel, soprano, Cecelia Tepping, soprano, and Sandra Pucciatti, piano (Classical/Opera/Broadway)
Sept. 23, 3 p.m.: North Sea Gas (Folk)
Sept. 26, 8 p.m.: Three Strands (Folk)
Sept. 28, 7 p.m.: Open Mic Night
Sept. 29, 8 p.m.: Chamber Music TBA
Sept. 30, 2 p.m.: Ed Laub Trio (Jazz)