Jerry Rife and Blue Skies Mardi Gras Jazz are one of the acts that performs at the at the 1867 Sanctuary. (Photo by Don Lovett.)

Even though it looks like one, the 1867 Sanctuary at Ewing is not a church. The perception that the building is still a house of worship is one that township residents Bob and Helen Kull are working hard to change.

“The whole idea for it is to be a community asset. A community gathering place,” says Helen, who along with husband, Bob, is co-chair of the 1867 Sanctuary Committee. “We’re up against the struggle of it being [seen as] more than a church.”

Helen and Bob would like the community — all of the community, not just their fellow Presbyterians — to think of the building as a place that features some legitimately world-class music and cultural programs.

The Kulls have lived in Ewing since they got married in 1978. Bob is a retired environmental and regional planner who worked with the state Department of Environmental Protection, state Planning Office, and the Mercer County Planning Office. Helen, who writes the Observer’s Ewing Then and Now column, ran a photography studio in Ewing for 15 years before taking a part-time job as an office manager at the College of New Jersey. Some 10 years later, she still works in the school’s biology department, only full-time now.

“I always had an interest in old buildings and history,” she says. She got to exercise that interest as a president (past) of the Ewing Historic Preservation Society and a member of the township Historic Preservation Commission. She also served on Preservation New Jersey’s Board of Trustees.

First, some history: For starters, the First Presbyterian Church of Ewing’s use of the site at “the bend in Scotch Road,” as the Sanctuary Committee lovingly calls it, predates 1867 by a century and a half. A wood cabin was built on the site in 1712 and a formal wooden church building was built in 1726. In 1797, a brick building replaced the wooden one, and in 1867, the now-familiar Gothic stone building opened. With few modifications — stained glass was replaced in 1969, and little else has changed — the building was in use as a church until 2007.

Given that a building that just sits unused tends to become an expensive burden, Helen says, and given that the church had opened a new location right across the street from the newly empty building, the congregation was set to tear the structure down. The Kulls and other members of the church, however, thought the building too historically important to just raze.

‘We’re up against the struggle of it being [seen as] more than a church.’

The Kulls spoke to Preservation New Jersey about how to save the building, which landed on PNJ’s 2009 list of the 10 most endangered historical sites in the state. In 2012 PNJ did something it had never done before and took stewardship of the site. The church then signed a 50-year lease with PNJ to bring the structure back “as a model of adaptive use,” Helen says.

The basics of the deal were that the structure needed to be repaired, that the site had to be available for worship, and that the community had to be welcomed as a whole. But that was just the legalistic stuff. What to actually do with the site was another story, but an obvious one. Unlike a Catholic church, a Presbyterian church is not considered consecrated ground. But it’s still an old, stone place of Christian worship, which generally means the acoustics are astounding. In this case, they are.

So the idea to turn the 1867 Sanctuary, as it was renamed when the PNJ deal was struck, into a venue for chamber music, choral group concerts, and other musical events was a natural. Bob says there is something inherently “sanctuary” about the building as is, and that from the beginning, the plan was to provide a cultural center that rivals any in Princeton, Philadelphia or New York while giving visitors “a place of respite from real life.”

Another paramount concern was to provide a cultural destination nearby that wouldn’t break the bank of anyone looking to attend a concert, he says. Tickets rarely surpass $20, and the site, just off I-95, is easy to get to, with plenty of parking, Bob says.

Then, of course, there is the quality of the music, which the Kulls say was always intended to be top-notch, because for one thing, the site deserves it, and for another thing, it’s an expensive endeavor.

The Sanctuary Committee is responsible for paying for the maintenance and general upkeep of the site, as well as for the restoration of the once-deteriorated building. According to the Sanctuary Committee, the cost of repairing major structural issues like relining the chimney, laying a new floor, painting, and other code-type issues was set around $200,000. The painting alone, Helen says, cost somewhere around $40,000.

Early fundraising efforts were quite successful, the Kulls say, and the money to get the building back to usable condition came in pretty well. But then, Helen says, supporters wondered where the money was going.

“They were saying, ‘We’re giving you all this money and we’re not seeing anything for it,’” she says. Nor were donors hearing anything. This, she says, put the committee in a tough, if inevitable spot — they’d largely raised the money to fix the place up, but not enough to wow people with any kind of promised events.

Compounding any problems are the facts that the committee has not actually raised all the money it needs to fix everything yet, that it has no equity in the building because it’s a lease (thus, no ability to borrow against the building’s value), and that keeping the place going is its own full-time job.

“We’re not getting a lot of remuneration and we have enormous bills,” Helen says. “The insurance on this building is staggering. The fuel bill is also staggering.”

How the 1867 Sanctuary is getting its money these days is through memberships (the committee, overseen by PNJ, is nonprofit) and through ticket sales, which Helen says the committee is unable to survive on alone, at least for now. The $20 per ticket — $15 for members — isn’t pure profit. Box office is split 50/50 with performers. Some, the Kulls say, donate their ticket sales back to the committee, but not all do. These are not high school glee clubs, after all. These are professional musicians who need to be paid to make a living.

On top of that, though the Sanctuary holds as many as 250 people, far fewer than that show up to each event. Typically, Helen says, there are two or three performances in a weekend. But those shows tend to be high-caliber performances by groups and musicians like the Eric Mintel Quartet, Luiz Simas and the Michaela McClain Band.

Another major name and fan of the Sanctuary is Vladimir Dyo, the violin faculty and chamber ensembles coordinator at Temple University and concertmaster of the N.J. Capital Philharmonic Orchestra. Dyo is one of the performers who donates his share of the box office. Helen says Dyo came for a rehearsal and fell in love with the place. So much so that he routinely rehearses the Capital Philharmonic at the Sanctuary.

“I found the 1867 Sanctuary a perfect space for chamber music concerts,” Dyo says. “The acoustic is perfect for classical instruments, and a neat interior with minimal decor creates an appropriate atmosphere.”

This spring, Dyo is co-chairing the Solo and Chamber Music Concert Series, in March and May. The show will include “some of the members of the Philadelphia orchestra and Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra,” he says. “My goal is to bring high-quality solo and chamber music concert to the community and share the beauty of music.”

Since Thanksgiving of 2015, when the site opened as a cultural venue, the Sanctuary Committee has engaged in aggressive word-of-mouth efforts to bring audiences and member to the Sanctuary, and also to change minds about what to expect. You don’t, for example, need to genuflect when you go inside, nor are events open only to congregation members.
The committee is also trying to get the word out about events for this year in particular, because 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the stone building.

Helen says the committee has not finalized its plans for the whole year, but there is the classical series with Dyo on the books, and an effort to start offering visual art shows inside. One idea is to have a show of artistic pieces of various media that are inspired by the building itself.

‘We like to say it’s all the music and none of the noise.’

There are also thoughts on bringing in restaurants and food vendors to set up outside for events happening inside. The committee is working with the Ewing Arts Council and other area arts outlets to get a broader array of cultural events for the site.

In addition to the Kulls, David Knights, the past president of Preservation New Jersey and a champion of adaptive use of buildings, helped get a lot of the project off the ground, Helen says.

“He unfortunately passed away suddenly in 2013, and didn’t live to see us open,” she says. “His shoes have been very difficult to fill.”

The committee has thrown a whole team of people at those shoes in order to keep things running. They are Dale Perry, Donald Lovett, Ruth Ann Gribbin, Kathy Jordan, Barbara Brennfleck and Tim Bennett. Helen says all are “very important to the work that we are doing. None of us are paid; we all do this out of love, and wanting to see the Sanctuary remain a vital part of the Ewing community.”

The Kulls will, with the help of other committee members and of PNJ, keep the venue a, for lack of a better word, shrine to performing artists. Between the acoustics and the genuine old-school vibe inside, Bob says, musicians in particular love the space, in part because the audiences are, for lack of another better word, reverent during a concert.

The marriage of space and performance, where there are no distractions like a bar, has worked well enough to give the sanctuary a catchy thought.

“We like to say it’s all the music and none of the noise,” he says.