What once was a place where the faithful worshipped, children were baptized, couples wed, and choirs lifted their voices in song is now a refuge for different forms of soulful expression.
After years of effort, the refurbished and repurposed former Ewing Presbyterian Church is now a fledgling center for the arts, a gathering place where everyone from local artists, singers, and guitarists can demonstrate their talents, and a destination for area residents seeking thoughtful entertainment in the most unusual of settings and surrounded by stained glass windows.
Instrumental in getting the project going was community fundraising of the nearly $200,000 needed to fix the building. The donations — more than 1,000 of them — came in sums as small as $3 and as large as $25,000. The Forrestal Center-based architectural firm of Mills and Schnoering was in charge of the restoration.
Formally open since December 5 of last year, the renamed 1867 Sanctuary at Ewing sits on a busy curve at 101 Scotch Road on the edge of Ewing Cemetery. It is already a success both in terms of attracting performers to its soaring space and luring audiences to the variety of cultural events filling up its schedule through early 2017. And if the people behind the ongoing fundraising and day-to-day tinkering at the site have their way, there will be an even greater variety of entertainment to come, including art exhibits and movies.
The “angels” in this onetime church are Helen and Bob Kull, a long-married couple from Bergen County who have lived in Ewing for 35 years. When they aren’t doing something to improve the structure, Helen serves as a board member of Preservation New Jersey, the only member-supported state organization devoted to historic preservation advocacy, education, and assistance. She also works as an administrator in the department of biology at the College of New Jersey.
Another “angel” in the process of saving the aging building is the Preservation New Jersey board which, along with the Presbytery of New Brunswick, holds a 50-year lease for the building. In turn Preservation New Jersey interacts with the nine-member 1867 Sanctuary Committee, volunteers who contribute to the project.
Helen — the daughter of a surgeon and a housewife who became managing editor of a local newspaper in North Jersey — met Bob, the son of a manufacturing manager father and a mother who was court clerk for the Village of Ridgewood, in the 1970s, after both of their families moved to Allendale in the 1960s.
They eased into more than 30 years of marriage as Bob, a semi-retired land use planner, developed a love of music thanks to his wife’s singing in choral groups.
They both volunteer and share the duties that come with maintaining an arts center. Bob books the acts, is involved in more of the physical needs of the project, handles the website, and is earning his jack-of-all trades reputation in a project that never fails to present new challenges.
“We are so fortunate with the 1867 Sanctuary — that it is being restored with the help and guidance of Preservation New Jersey and that there is a plan for its continued viability,” Helen says. “But that viability is contingent on people attending the performances that we have scheduled. Great performances played to only a handful of folks will not sustain the building. The venue is completely dependent upon concert proceeds and donations.
For now, the emphasis seems to be on different types of music, with the New Jersey Jazz Society recently lending its support by co-sponsoring the Sanctuary’s Jazz Music Series.
On Saturday, June 25, at 7 p.m. “Two Sopranos and a Piano” will feature pianist — and Boheme Opera co-founder — Sandra Pucciatti and the voices of two Boheme sopranos: Rachel Cetel and Cecelia Tepping. The program blends opera arias and duets with a cabaret of contemporary music theater repertoire about love and love lost.
On Thursday, July 28, at 8 p.m., Ewing native and internationally acclaimed jazz saxophonist Richie Cole and his quintet will perform “Interpretation of ‘West Side Story.” Then on Friday, August 5, at 8 p.m., there will be a tribute to jazz great Dave Brubeck with the Bucks County-based Eric Mintel Quartet. And on it goes with children’s music, New Orleans piano, bluegrass, folk, pop, classic oldies and Irish ballads on the list of things to come. There is even comedy thrown into the mix.
“The response from the public and from entertainers and the arts community has been great,” say the Kulls while taking a breather inside the refurbished building that can also be rented for funerals, weddings, vow renewals, and community and interfaith events.
Currently the Sanctuary charges $20 general admission, $15 for Friends of the Sanctuary (a $30 yearly membership), and $5 for students who can produce a school or college ID. Some community-based events are donation-only. Free parking is located in a lot across the road.
Darla Tarpinian, an Ohio native who moved to New Jersey in 1992 and met her husband, Rich, has experienced first-hand what it’s like to perform at the 1867 Sanctuary at Ewing. She and her husband, theatrically known as Darla and Rich, made their first appearance there on April 24 as part of a jazz quartet.
“The acoustics were wonderful and our hosts, Bob and Hell Kull, were gracious and very accommodating. The 1867 Sanctuary would be a wonderful experience for any musician,” Darla Tarpinian said when asked about the experience that drew an audience of adults ages 30 and up.
Performing in restaurants and private events for nearly 20 years in central New Jersey, the couple has been trying to expand their audience by marketing their trio and quartet at a variety of concert venues. They plan on returning to the 1867 Sanctuary with another quartet performance December 3.
1867 Sanctuary at Ewing, 101 Scotch Road, Ewing. For a complete schedule or to get involved, call 609-392-6409 or visit www.1867sanctuary.org.