The old Ewing Presbyterian Church has a new lease on life — and a new name — thanks to the efforts of Preservation New Jersey, a group that advocates for the preservation of historic buildings.
To be known as “The 1867 Sanctuary at Ewing,” the church could be used as a venue for weddings and special community events such as concerts, meetings, and lectures. If all goes well, and funding is secured, the building might re-open in three years time.
Currently, a sign on the door of the church screams: “ORDER TO VACATE/THIS BUILDING IS UNSAFE FOR HUMAN OCCUPANCY.” But peek through the glass-paned church door, and the rose medallion of a stained glass window glows like a jewel in the darkness within.
Outside you could well be in Scotland. The style of the old Ewing Presbyterian Church, built in 1867 at 100 Scotch Road (appropriately enough), betrays a hint of the baronial with its turreted tower above a classically symmetric doorway framed by yew and rhododendron.
Similar red sandstone structures take pride of place in towns and villages across Scotland, from which land came Presbyterianism to New Jersey. But from outside those stained glass windows, six on each side, reveal nothing of their luminous beauty. Even so, you can make out the shapes of saintly figures and try your hand at guessing which Bible stories are depicted there.
The impression of historic worth is further conveyed by the iron gates opening on to the graveyard, where a solid stone wall wraps around rows of aged gray lichen-spotted gravestones.
Here are the resting places of soldiers who fought in the War of Independence. And here you will find names that ring in local story: worthies who raised generations here and some who left enduring marks: Roebling, Scudder, Stout, Howell, Slack, Fine, Fisk, Voorhees, Katzenbach.
But in 2007 the site was in jeopardy of disappearing. The building was condemned as structurally unsafe when part of its timber roof collapsed. The Presbyterian Church then decided to demolish the structure based on an estimate that it would cost $2.5 million to fix.
That decision was put on hold as a result of much outcry and deep divisions within the congregation itself, as well as members of the community and regional preservation groups.
Those who wanted to save the building accused members of the church’s governing body of inflating the structural problems and the cost to fix them in order to push their own agenda for demolition.
The Presbytery of New Brunswick in 2009 appointed an administrative commission — an independent committee of regional religious leaders tasked with settling disputes within the congregation — to investigate the matter.
The commission hired preservation architects Farewell, Mills, Gatsch (FMG) and engineer James B. Huffman to analyze the stresses evident on the roof trusses and other issues that had led the church governing body to call for the building’s demolition.
Based on the professionals’ reviews the commission overturned the decision to tear down the building, concluding “there were neither structural nor financial grounds to demolish.”
According to the report by FMG, until the commission’s study the true causes of the structural movement and appropriate repair methods “were not fully known and therefore overstated.”
The commission called for the congregation “as one body” to undertake a process focusing on “deep meaning and historic importance (of the building) for many in the body.” It also listed three recommendations for the sanctuary: renovate it; sell or donate it to another organization; or lease it to another organization for restoration.
A group called Partners to Restore Ewing Sanctuary formed to raise funds to fix the church, but only brought in about $200,000 — an amount insufficient do the job.
That’s when Preservation New Jersey (PNJ) stepped in and eventually reached an agreement to save the 145-year-old structure from the wrecking ball.
Earlier this spring PNJ and the Presbytery of New Brunswick signed a 50-year lease agreement paving the way to a $1 million restoration.
The building represents a link to a 300-year history of the church that was founded in 1708 as “The First Presbyterian Church of Hopewell Township.” The burial ground goes back way beyond the existing 1867 stone building, even beyond its predecessor built of brick in 1795, and long before Ewing Township was established in 1834.
As the congregation grew, a stone wall was built around the graveyard in 1816 and then the current stone building was built after the Civil War on the foundations of the earlier brick building.
In the church graveyard, among majestic oaks, cedars, and cypress trees are grand mausoleums as well as simple markers bearing only the wind-ruined remembrance of a hand-chiseled epitaph. Besides being the resting place of some of the township’s most prominent founding citizens, some 35 veterans of the War of Independence are buried here as are dozens of Civil War veterans.
David L. Knights, president of PNJ since 2011, announced the lease agreement between the organization and church on May 1 and plans to renovate the building. For Knights, this isn’t his first time preserving a historic building — a little more than a decade ago he helped spearhead an effort to preserve the Hopewell train station (see story on page 31).
Born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Knights grew up in Georgetown, MA, (halfway between Newburyport and Haverhill) and attended Phillips Academy in Andover for three years of high school. Both his parents were schoolteachers in public school systems and Knights went on to study at Brown University in Providence.
Knights interrupted his studies by a three-year stint working in a Maine lumberyard. Then he furthered his interest in times past in studies with the famed author and teacher Gordon Wood as he pursued a degree in American Colonial history. Before moving to Princeton in 1986, Knights spent six years buying and restoring brownstones in the historic South End of Boston.
In Princeton, Knights began working for the firm that eventually became Picus Associates, based at 105 College Road East. He has been with the firm for almost 26 years. Since the early 1970s, Picus Associates (or principals who were with its predecessor firm) has been the developer of Princeton Forrestal Center for Princeton University.
With his wife, Linda, a 1977 graduate of Princeton University who works for Wickenden Associates in Princeton, Knights has three children, Charlie, Owen, and Caroline. After moving his family to Hopewell Borough in 1988 he become president of the Borough Council (he’s running again this year, unopposed as it happens).
In 2007 Knights joined the board of Preservation New Jersey. “I became secretary the same day that I joined the board,” says Knights, modestly citing “a shortage of willing volunteers.” Last June he became the organization’s president.
Knights is joined in the effort to save the church by fellow PNJ member, Michael J. Mills, who served as PNJ president in the early 2000s, and also worked with Knights on the Hopewell train station project.
“This is a very exciting project,” says Mills, a PNJ veteran of 25 years. “This Romanesque-style building is such a landmark, standing right at the bend in the road, it grabs your eye as you drive by, and it’s a real center of this community.”
Mills, who is originally from Ohio and graduated from Princeton University with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and urban planning in the first co-ed class of 1973, has been focusing on the condition of the building’s structure and assessing the necessary repairs.
“The challenge here is to carry out careful repairs so as to preserve the building while making it safe,” he says. “While the church group made a great deal of progress in raising money for the restoration, PNJ can be the recipient of grants, and the New Jersey Historic Trust has already stepped up to the plate for design services.”
The architectural firm of Mills and Schnoering is in charge of the restoration and Mills hopes that The New Jersey Historic Trust may find additional funding for the project.
“We are working on a detailed report of what needs to be done and what it will cost,” he says, adding that the documents may be completed within the next two months and, if sufficient funding is found, work could begin as early as this fall.
Mills has devoted a good part of his career to the preservation, restoration, and adaptive use of some of the region’s most significant historic structures: the New Jersey State House and State House Annex, the Essex County Courthouse, and the Princeton University Graduate College and its landmark Cleveland Tower among them.
He has a master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia University and completed postgraduate work at the International Center for the Study of Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome, Italy. He has also served as Chair of the Advisory Group of the AIA Historic Resources Committee.
Founded in 1978 and based in Trenton, Preservation New Jersey — the statewide historic preservation organization — is known for an annual listing of the 10 most endangered historic sites in New Jersey.
In an effort to draw attention to endangered sites and the challenges they face, PNJ has compiled and published the list since 1995. The properties named to the 2012 list are:
• The Franklin Inn-Van Liew Homestead, East Millstone, Franklin Township, Somerset County.
• Hope Fire Company/American Legion Post 254, Mays Landing, Hamilton Township, Atlantic County.
• Howell House, Cape May, Cape May County.
• Jersey City Terminal Train Shed — Central Railroad of New Jersey, Liberty State Park, Jersey City, Hudson County.
• The Kastner Mansion/Pride of Newark Elks Lodge No. 93, Newark, Essex County.
• Lime Kilns of New Jersey, statewide in multiple municipalities.
• Mount Peace Cemetery, Lawnside, Camden County.
• Salem County Insane Asylum, Woodstown, Mannington Township, Salem County.
• Tichenor-Gregory-Goddel-Wallisch Farmstead, West Milford Township, Passaic County.
• Wheatsworth Mill and Gingerbread Castle, Hamburg, Sussex County.
“Most old churches are historic as repositories of culture and experience,” says Mills, “and many are listed on the National Register of Historic places, which uses several criteria: a building may be of historic interest because it’s the work of a particular architect or because of some historical association with an event or a person, or it may be important because of what is below ground, i.e. for some archeological reason.”
Preservation New Jersey doesn’t make such a designation, says Mills. That’s done by the state Historic Preservation Office, which he believes has already deemed the Ewing Presbyterian Church as a suitable candidate for application to be listed on the National Historic Register.
Such a listing is a priority since it will open the door to funding from sources such as the New Jersey Historic Trust, the Pew Charitable Trust, and the National Endowment, says Mills. The 50-year lease that puts Preservation New Jersey in charge of the repair, rehabilitation, and reuse of the building is something of a departure for the organization; the first time it has leased and taken on the responsibility for the physical restoration of a building.
Out of necessity, fundraising is part of the plan. To bring the building back to use, repairing structural deficiencies in the roof and addressing asbestos problems are the first order of the day.
“Funding, of course, is one of the biggest obstacles to preservation,” says Mills. “The restoration of a church might involve repairs to a slate roof, to a heavy timber frame and a decorative wood interior, and so raising money can be a challenge for a congregation with limited means.” In the case of the Ewing church, a cost assessment by a professional estimator is underway. From an initial look at the building, Mills seems confident that the work for basic repairs can be done for $1 million.
“PNJ will be looking to all sorts of partners in this effort — as well as in all its efforts — for funding for historic preservation initiatives,” says Helen Kull, a member of the board of directors for Preservation NJ as well as the president of the Ewing Historical Society.
“The usual sources — individuals, foundations, and corporations — as well as events and activities to raise money are all part of the plan. Membership in PNJ is key, because the more that people who care about preserving significant structures from the past join together as members of PNJ, the more PNJ can be a significant voice when it comes to lobbying and advocating for historic preservation.”
According to Kull, funds will go towards repairing the damaged roof and renovations with an eye on re-opening the building to the public in the next several years.
Kull said the next step in the process is a study to examine potential uses for the building. Renovations will be based on uses determined to be appropriate for the building. She adds that the historic building would be made available to benefit the entire community.
“This will be a building for the community which supported its new life,” she said.
For more information or to make a donation specifically for this project, visit www.preservationnj.org.