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Presbytery committee approves Ewing Church Demolition

August 7, 2009

from Bob & Helen Kull:

“On Thursday, August 6, 2009, the Committee on Ministry of the Presbytery of New Brunswick, charged with investigating disorder within congregations and between congregations and their leadership (pastors and ruling bodies) ruled that the decision by the Session of the First Presbyterian Church of Ewing to demolish its historic landmark 1867 sanctuary building was made properly and in order. The Committee said that demolition is to be delayed only as long as necessary to plan and conduct a memorial service to allow people to mourn the loss of the building, and that a process of grief counseling will be established following demolition. An explanation of the decision is promised by the Presbytery in writing early next week.  (8/10/09: See the Committee’s published response in Comments, below)

The Committee on Ministry invited members of Session to address their concerns to the Committee both publicly and privately over a period of over three hours. Members of the congregation that arrived at the meeting were, after some discussion, permitted to witness most of the proceedings. While it was not in dispute that the congregation was divided, many of the facts of the matter were in dispute. While the Committee had the authority to conduct an investigation into the matter, it chose to issue its final decision approaching midnight.

We are stunned, heartbroken and indeed in disbelief that a body responsible for healing can fail to be sensitive to how their action can further and irreconcilably divide the congregation, and indeed the community.

This said, we remain grateful for all of the expressions of support received through letters published in newspapers, and petitions circulated among members of the congregation, the Ewing Township community and the community of historic preservationists through the Preservation New Jersey web site (www.preservationnj.org). Having now presumably exhausted our appeals within the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., we look to each of you for your thoughts concerning future courses of action.”

What now?  Post your thoughts here, or at the online petition (here).

See the Trenton Times article, today

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Pam permalink
    August 8, 2009 8:08 am

    I have no knowledge of how historic preservation works yet I know people who own homes where they are not allowed to change a shutter or remove a tree or put up a fence without permission from the historical society. Why is the church not protected in the same way?

    Has the cost of demolition been published yet?

    • Salston permalink
      August 10, 2009 6:45 am

      I heard $80,000 to demolish the church. But all the money raised to save the church has to be returned and cannot be used to demolish it. So presumably they have the money or they have to raise new funds to demolish the building. It is terribly sad.

  2. August 10, 2009 3:21 pm

    The Committee on Ministry has published their response:

    Good People of the Press and the Public:

    Greetings to you from the Presbytery of New Brunswick.
    There has been a great deal of public interest in the decision of the First Presbyterian Church of Ewing to demolish their fourth sanctuary. Many questions have been asked that stem from lack of knowledge of Presbyterian polity. Some concerns have been expressed that exhibit a misunder-standing of the meaning and purpose of a Presbyterian church building. Let us now explain these matters so as to answer those questions and address those concerns.
    The ruling body of a Presbyterian church is its session, which consists of the pastors and the elders. Elders are lay people, recognized for their spiritual maturity, and elected by the congrega-tion. We believe and trust that God in Christ is the true ruler of our churches; sessions are but ser-vants whose duty it is to discern God’s will and obey it. A matter like the decision whether to pre-serve or demolish a building lies fully with the session. It is not for the congregation to decide; the congregation exerted its power when it elected the session. Neither is it for the presbytery to de-cide. The presbytery holds the power of review, but only to establish that all was done in due proc-ess, decently and in the order specified in our Presbyterian constitution. But if we find that all was done properly, in fairness and openly, with attention to all that might serve to reveal God’s will, then we do not attempt to discern that will all over again, but trust that the session has served God in good faith.
    The Presbytery of New Brunswick was asked to review the decision of the session of the First Presbyterian Church of Ewing. This we did on Thursday night, 6 August 2009, in the person of our Committee on Ministry, which is composed of nearly equal numbers of pastors and elders from churches throughout the presbytery. It is charged with the care and oversight of the congrega-tions of the presbytery, and of their pastors, to promote and support their spiritual health and wel-fare. We acted out of concern for the peace and unity of the congregation which had been sorely tried by their situation and by the pressing need to make a difficult decision.
    As the public sees only the controversy that arises at the end of the process perhaps it is not appreciated how long the congregation has been coping with the problems of this building. The original design and construction in 1867 were flawed. One of the earliest repairs was made in the 1890s. In the early 1960s it became apparent how serious the problem was and steps were taken to measure and track the ongoing damage the building was suffering. In 2005 a repair was performed at a cost of more than $100,000 to relieve the stress which was damaging the building. Only after this repair apparently failed was the building closed by order of the township and the session faced with the choice whether to attempt to preserve the building or take it down.
    When the Committee on Ministry met we invited any and all members of the session to come and share with us their concerns for the building, for the process by which the session had made its decision, for the health and welfare of the congregation, for the effect upon the congrega-tion of the decision that had been made, and for the witness of the congregation to the community in which it lives. All sides of each of these questions was represented among the session members who were present and each and all of them were allowed their say.
    We found that the session had acted in good faith with due process and in good order throughout the making of this decision. They spent a great deal of time and effort upon the matter. In the course of the years several different engineering studies had been conducted. The last of these was an independent review of all the previous engineering studies, including an examination of the (much publicized) proposal for how the building could be saved for less than $200,000. All that was learned in these studies was open to the whole session at all times and reported to the con-gregation regularly. But it was for the session to decide what value to place upon each of these en-gineering studies and what the likely cost of preserving the building would be.
    Much has been made of the decision of the session to meet in executive session the night of their final decision. But meetings in executive session are used by almost all deliberative bodies from time to time and are not unusual in matters attended by controversy. Only the final delibera-tion, debate and vote were conducted in executive session. All the evidence that pertained to the question and all the reports the session had commissioned had been presented in public in the long course of studying the problem. People had been allowed to speak in open forums with the session at various times throughout the years of struggle with the issue. The possible courses of action that the church might take had been previously proposed and discussed in public. There was no secret evidence, no secret reports, no new proposals; only the debate and voting were conducted in execu-tive session and the action taken by that vote was reported openly. We do not presume any injustice when a jury’s deliberations and voting are conducted in executive session because we have safe-guards to guarantee that all the evidence was presented in public. So it is here.
    The session had to weigh the cost of saving the building against the benefits. The benefits were relatively clear, but the costs were more complex. They consisted not merely of money, but also the time and energy of the congregation. Moreover, the session had also to weigh the opportu-nity cost of saving the building. Every decision to do something, to take some definite action, costs the opportunity to do something else. The session is charged with the care and the ministry of the congregation. In all the long list in our Book of Order of the many duties of a session only two or three can be fulfilled by the maintenance of a beautiful historic building. The rest (and most impor-tant) require a serious commitment of time, energy, intelligence and money by the members of the congregation, resources that would have been heavily drained by an attempt to preserve the present sanctuary.
    The outpouring of affection for the building by the community was much appreciated. So were the donations that came from outside the church to support the effort to preserve the building. But the sum of these gifts was only 1/5th to 1/10th the best estimate for the cost of the necessary repairs. It was for the session to decide whether this money was sufficient to give hope that the whole amount could be raised in a timely manner, especially as the building is a drain upon re-sources even just standing there and waiting.
    A church building is a mere convenience to God’s people, judged by the service that it gives them in the pursuit of their true calling to give glory to God, to proclaim the Gospel in all the world, and to care for the widow and the orphan. Beautiful and historic buildings can give service to the first of these purposes, and have done so in many places and times. Some of the most beautiful buildings human beings have ever constructed were built for Christian worship. But it is by no means the case that God always wills to preserve such buildings. By God’s active choice he permit-ted the temple in Jerusalem, built by David and Solomon, containing the ark with the tablets of stone upon which were written the original ten commandments, to be thrown down and burnt. Each case must be decided upon its own merits.
    The Committee on Ministry and the Presbytery of New Brunswick is charged with the care of its congregation in Ewing. We will now form and send to them a team to help them through the process of conflict resolution and grieving. We will listen to them, pray for them, live with them, counsel them, strive to repair strained relationships and broken hopes. Their peace has been dis-turbed in the making of this decision. Indeed, how could it not be? If they had not disagreed and disputed with one another, if sides had not been chosen and argued vigorously, then it would only be evidence that they had not taken the seeking of God’s will with the seriousness that such a dan-gerous endeavor always requires. Then too, theirs is a choice that will be, that must be, marked with grief. The building is, as those who have sought to save it have said, a symbol and repository of the history of a faithful people.
    But the building is only the symbol of that history. The congregation is the reality of it. And as people who live in the hope of the resurrection we have a particular view of the meaning of history. This building will forever have been a thing of beauty from 1867 to 2009. It will forever have been an instrument to house and focus the praise and prayers of its people for 142 years. It will forever have been the setting for 1,000 happy weddings and 2,000 happy baptisms. It will for-ever have been the setting for 7,200 faithful sermons. Nothing we do now can wipe that history from off the face of time. We will grieve it truly and our sorrow will not be small, and it will be shared even by those who argued to take the building down.
    But those who have the courage to grieve are blessed by God, and given comfort and strength. We worship a God who turns loss into gain, turning even death into life.
    May God give you such blessing too. Amen.

    The Presbytery of New Brunswick
    It Officers:
    Nancy Mikoski, Moderator of the Presbytery
    Ryan Balsan, Chair of the Committee on Ministry
    Lowell Knauss, Interim Executive Presbyter
    Greg Albert, Associate Executive Presbyter
    D. Paul La Montagne, Stated Clerk

  3. August 11, 2009 1:13 pm

    from Michael Mills, FAIA, of Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects:

    Dear Reverend Vandegrift and Session Members:

    I was most disappointed to learn that the Session had voted to change from its prior course of undertaking a definitive architectural and structural study of the historic Ewing Presbyterian Church to that of demolishing the building. I request that you reconsider this decision for the following reasons:

    • From my initial observations at the Church, my 35 years of past experience as a preservation architect, my review of past restoration efforts, and consultation with the structural engineer, Keast and Hood, I believe that the repair recommendations to date and cost estimates put forward are not appropriate or realistic.
    • Until the Church undertakes a more careful and directed study of the prior movement of a segment of the exterior walls (including the probes that we recommended in our proposal), the extent of the required repairs will remain unknown.
    • I personally believe that the 2.5 million dollar repair estimate is overstated. I think that the repair estimate of under $100,000 suggested by another Ewing Township architect may be understated. But I believe that the actual repair cost will prove to be closer to the lower number than to the higher one, if a detailed study and cost estimate is prepared.
    • My impression is that the New Jersey Historic Trust will favorably consider an application for a matching grant (3 to 1) to fund a study. It is also possible that the National Trust for Historic Preservation will fund a consultant services grant request to help defray the cost of the study.
    • You have received fee proposals for such a study by qualified architectural and structural engineering firms, including FMG, and the study costs are much lower than the cost of demolition.

    There are many examples of Churches in New Jersey and Pennsylvania where the historic church is kept even though alternate new facilities are built. In these instances, the historic Church may see only limited use. (or no use if structural problems exist) These include: Trinity Episcopal in Solebury, Pa., Christ Church in Middletown, NJ, and Newtown Presbyterian Church in Newtown, Pa. In Newtown, the historic church is used only for special occasions such as seasonal celebrations or weddings

    If the Session has determined that it is not part of the mission of Ewing Presbyterian to maintain a historic landmark, I would offer the following options:

    • Do nothing. The Church is in no immediate danger of collapse and could be left as a historical landmark for the community and not utilized. Doing nothing will have the added benefit of providing a “cooling off” period while options are clarified, and will save the cost of demolition which we understand may be between $75,000 and $100,000.
    • Convey the building to a Friends Group that would take responsibility for the planning and the restoration of the structure. It is my feeling that such a group would be well supported by donations, and State, County, and Federal grants.
    • Sell the building to an interested buyer with preservation easements to preserve the façade and provide a compatible use for the Church and graveyard.

    In my opinion, nothing will be gained from tearing down a beloved and historically significant architectural landmark. Please reconsider and find out the true costs of repair and restoration. I believe that a proper and careful study will yield a new array of productive options for consideration. Thank you for your consideration of this request.

    Yours very truly,

    Michael J. Mills, FAIA
    Preservation Architect
    Member – Hopewell Presbyterian Church

    Cc: Presbytery of New Brunswick

  4. Max Hayden permalink
    August 13, 2009 5:37 pm

    This was an op-ed piece in the August 12th edition of the Trenton Times.

    As a resident of nearby Hopewell Township which once included the lands of Ewing Township, I have read with interest and grave concern the decision by the Session to demolish the 1867 sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church. This polarizing decision of the church elders brings to mind the demolition of Penn Station in New York City in 1963. Although Penn Station was a far larger and grander building, the sanctuary building is nonetheless an important and imposing structure in the northern tier of Ewing Township. Like Penn Station, there are those who want to “renovate not amputate” and those who no longer see its usefulness. The loss of Penn Station is considered one of the most heinous crimes against architecture but fostered the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Act in New York City. This act, championed by many not the least of which was Jacqueline Kennedy (who as First Lady also spearheaded the movement for historic authenticity in the furnishings of the White House) helped to secure the future of many historic iconic structures, including Grand Central Station, that might have otherwise met their demise through “urban renewal” and development plans offered not only in the 1960’s and 1970’s but to this day. Yet here we are nearly a half century later debating the merits of an iconic building in Ewing’s landscape. How sad that a church’s leaders in a town so close to New York are so far away intellectually and spiritually that it can’t see the broader need for the preservation of this important structure – that buildings and this one in particular serve more than just a physical need, that they elicit feelings and emotions and codify them in physical matter. Sadder still is the deaf ear turned to those willing offers of help from key groups like Preservation New Jersey and the New Jersey Historic Trust as well as a dedicated group of volunteers that have raised nearly $250,000 in an extremely grave economic period. Further proof of the elder’s arrogance is their unwillingness to listen to the solid, structurally conservative and wise judgment of Robert Busch or John Harrison both refuting the claims of the $2.5 million dollar repair cost. These are structural engineers who have worked on many historic structures and offer sound advice to cost effectively secure these buildings for our collective future.

    The sanctuary’s location presents somewhat of an oasis (a sanctuary of sorts if you will) for the casual passerby – coming from either Hopewell Township or from Parkway Avenue you pass several strip shopping malls and then at a clearing there is a stone walled cemetery and the stone church that is a “sight to behold” – the sanctuary along with the other church buildings offer a welcome respite from everyday suburbia. The church complex offers a diversified picture not only with its buildings but with its mature trees and ancient headstones. It seems to say stop, slow down, enjoy the view, and take your mind off of today’s problems and think of perhaps a simpler time. Think of the work required to construct such a significant building for its time and location – the thought of the people, the will of the people if I may. Then picture this setting without the church. Picture, in your minds eye, the hole left by the removed sanctuary and the removal of a piece of the complex, and with that a sense of place. Imagine the red and white building virtually standing alone and now just a quirky building with no context – a cemetery without its church, its sanctuary – there but not there. Where does that church celebrate and lift its spirits up? In a Fellowship Hall made of drywall and with impermanent chairs, dropped ceilings and smacking of throw up tear down? Or in a future building costing more than the needed repairs? Much like Penn Station is today – an anonymous dungeon devoid of light, personality – efficient but not kind, “clean” but not healthy. There is a morality to building with integrity, purpose and for the ages – it is the greenest form of architecture – unfortunately we appear to be a society hell bent on immediate gratification and present needs only with little or no regard to our past and seemingly little or no regard for our future. At the end of the day it is often our buildings that have withstood wars, weather and time. It is what we leave behind for others to ponder and hopefully understand the stuff of which we were made. It is a sad commentary of our society to pay so little respect to our forebears.
    John Ruskin, an important and widely influential English art and social critic of the 19th century, “felt creating true Gothic architecture involved the whole community, and expressed the full range of human emotions…of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure.” Perhaps one could add “no church session.” Ruskin went on to profess “For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, not in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity.” For these reasons, and all of those spoken rather eloquently by the letter writers and guest editorials in this paper, the sanctuary needs to be preserved.
    A New York Times editorial critical of the demolition of Penn Station stated in 1963 that a “civilization gets what it wants, is willing to pay for, and ultimately deserves”. Let’s hope that’s not the case in Ewing Township or for that matter the Cattail Tavern in Robbinsville Township also slated for demolition.

    Max Hayden is an architect living and working in Hopewell Township. He is the presiding chair of the Hopewell Township Historic Preservation Commission. He and his wife went to great pains to preserve their historic house by moving it from a dangerous location.

  5. Dorothy MacCarroll Landis permalink
    February 15, 2010 6:00 pm

    I read with sadness about all the structural problems at Ewing Presbyterian. I have many fond memories as my father, Joe MacCarroll was the pastor in the 1950’s. We lived in the manse across the street. I went to Ewing High from 8th grade until graduation in 1957. Our church youth group had many parties in the scout hut behind the sunday school building. We also carried the wooden goal post from the high school field after a victory and erected it in our backyard.

    I hope the church can be preserved as a historical building.

  6. Chuck Pekala permalink
    August 28, 2010 10:27 am

    Father MacCarroll (as mentioned by Dorothy) married my parents in the church back in 1955. I never attended this church until 1998, when my Father passed away and Dave Prince came to speak at my father’s funeral. Dave provided such an amazing service for us that it was clear I needed to attend Ewing Presb. If one man could speak so clearly to my heart and spiritual needs, I know Ewing Presb. had to be a special place!

    I remember walking into the church for the first time with my Mother. Here I was in the church I had driven passed so many times … that place of mystery that I only knew as the fabled place my parents had wed …. and I remember stepping into a place of love and acceptance!

    When Dave Prince spoke my heart was opened to every possibility in life, and during many a sermon the tears flowed down my face as I had begun to experience God’s love in a whole knew way.

    Time has passed, my Mother has since passed and her viewing was held at Ewing Presb. Sadly, Dave Prince is no longer there, and for that reason I stopped attending services there some time ago …. but this piece of local history holds a place in my heart like it does for so many …. And I would be heartbroken to see it go.

    Please God … Save this place in history! Your house needs to live on!

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