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Church board rejects PNJ’s preservation offer for 1st Presbyterian of Ewing; demolition to proceed

August 13, 2009

The Session of the First Presbyterian Church of Ewing, in a split vote, late tonight rejected Preservation New Jersey’s offer made early this week to acquire the historic church, preserve and restore it, thereby relieving the church congregation of responsibility for maintenance or rehabilitation and the cost of demolition.  ewing2

Stating only that the Session recognized that, if transferred to Preservation New Jersey, the congregation would no longer be able to worship in the 1867 sanctuary, the decision made no other statements regarding the preservation proposal.  Contracts have been signed with a project management firm and a demolition contractor, and Rev. Elizabeth Vandegrift stated after the decision was announced that pews and other furnishings would soon begin to be removed from the edifice in anticipation of its complete destruction.  There are no plans to replace the building; the congregation continues to worship in the church hall across Scotch Road.

PNJ’s board president, John D.S. Hatch, had early this week sent a letter to the Session stating  “a stated portion of our mission, as reflected in PNJ’s 501c3 nonprofit charter, is to own or hold historic properties in order to preserve and protect them.  We believe, because of the broad level of public support in Ewing, in New Jersey and, indeed, across the country for the preservation of this landmark building, that our stewardship of the 1867 Sanctuary Building perfectly reflects that mission.  The financial obligations PNJ will assume can be met, we believe, in trust for those many, many people who have come forward and asked to help preserve the sanctuary.”

The 142-year-old landmark church, anchoring the Ewing Church Cemetery, commands a highly visible site that has captured the fond attention of generations of Ewing and Mercer County residents and visitors.  It’s stained glass windows, depicting the Apostles and figures from the Reformation, are particularly noteworthy features of a remarkably significant architectural and historic landmark.  The church is named in PNJ’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in New Jersey list for 2009.

PNJ’s online petition, developed in concert with a hand-circulated petition sponsored by Ewing historical groups, garnered hundreds of responses and offers for financial donations from all across the nation during the past two weeks, many with memories of families whose members for generations had been christened, married and buried at the sanctuary.  Meanwhile, offers for assistance to Preservation New Jersey as we proposed to preserve the church were made by Ewing Township offcials, county, state and national organizations. Unprotected by any local, state or national designations or historic preservation regulations, the church is dirtectly subject to the decisions of the Session, the church’s governing body.

Donors to the recent fundraising drive, sponsored by members and friends of the congregation, that raised more than $240,000 toward preservation of the Ewing Church, will receive their contributions back, according to disappointed advocates for preservation.

More here, here and here

August 21, 2009:  See Commentary

15 Comments leave one →
  1. D. Green permalink
    August 14, 2009 8:29 am

    Lots of fishy things about this decision. I can’t find the downside of having PNJ take over the ediface. Let’s analyze this a bit…

    1) “if transferred to Preservation New Jersey, the congregation would no longer be able to worship in the 1867 sanctuary”

    Yes, the demolition contracts pretty much take care of that too (see below), so not really an argument;

    2) “Contracts have been signed with a project management firm and a demolition contractor”

    Hmmm, that was quick. Other plans or a sale hanging in the balance? And really, a cemetery can be mitigated with enough $$$, especially since most of the families of those interred are probably long gone, so no objections to moving the cemetery. CHECK;

    2) “Rev. Elizabeth Vandegrift stated after the decision was announced that pews and other furnishings would soon begin to be removed from the edifice in anticipation of its complete destruction. ”

    Read this as “sold at auction or to an architectural salvage company”. Historic ecclesiastical stained glass fetches big dollars. CHECK;

    3) “The 142-year-old landmark church, anchoring the Ewing Church Cemetery, commands a highly visible site…”

    CHECK. I think we are getting closer to an answer here…

    I’m pretty sure Ewing residents will have a new place to worship at the altar of hamburgers or gasoline or donuts in the near future, so really, they should all be thanking the good Reverend and the Session for relieving Ewing of another eyesore.

    Let’s hope for their sake the Big Man Upstairs sees it the same way.

  2. ThisOldHouse permalink
    August 14, 2009 8:44 am

    This is sorry news.
    I looked at the stained glass windows last night, form the outside. The windows that are by the church door are about baptism–you walk “through” the waters as you enter the church, a good theological statement.
    The rest of the windows, beginning on the left and wrapping around the sanctuary, depict the history of the Church, from Jesus calling his first disciples, through Acts of the Apostles, through the Reformation, to the founding of the 1st Presbyterian Church in Ewing.
    Those windows, so carefully considered and lovingly created, are destined for a landfill. We’ve heard that the demolition contractor will not be saving them.
    I would expect to see a columbarium or burial plots sold on the land.

  3. Laura Matecha permalink
    August 14, 2009 10:01 am

    I am so dumbfounded by this decision! There has to be more going on than we are hearing about. Where is the downside to this offer? I am so confused.

  4. Truth permalink
    August 14, 2009 11:16 am

    Get your facts straight the majority of so called stained glass in that buliding is PAINTED GLASS installed in the late 1950’s.

    There has been a parallel track working on the demolition for the last year identify items in the building.

    This has been a long, methodical decision too bad that isn’t carried in the newspapers and media.

    • joy smith permalink
      August 14, 2009 10:49 pm

      WRONG…. these windows are stained glass… & all stained glass from this time period uses paint to fill in the details such as robes & facial features, they are historic, they are beautiful, & two are MY FAMILY’S ,GIVEN IN LOVING MEMORY OF MY FIRST MOTHER EVELYN & MY FATHER EDWARD.

    • joy smith permalink
      August 14, 2009 11:22 pm


  5. Karen Buda permalink
    August 14, 2009 11:19 am

    I am completely distraught and dumbfounded by the Session’s negative response to the marvelous offer from PNJ! I can see no reason why they would say no. When I read of the offer I felt like a perfect solution had been created to save this historic house of worship and community landmark – and it seemed to address all the church’s stated concerns and give stewardship for the building’s future to those who did see its salvation as part of their mission.
    But when the article stated that the Session’s response was that they couldn’t worship in the sanctuary anymore, that was the most unbelievable statement I’ve ever heard! If they demolish the building, they can’t worship in it anymore either, so what kind of excuse is that. They just seem bound and determined to destroy this landmark. As someone whose mother was buried in the Ewing Cemetary not quite 2 years ago, I feel that my family and I are stakeholders in this matter. The lovely church and its beautiful setting are part of why we selected the Cemetary as my Mom’s final resting place.
    I am truly outraged on so many levels- as a frequent visitor to the cemetary, as a community member, as a Presbyterian, and as person who believes in the value of saving our historic landmarks and preserving our vanishing cultural history. I pray that more “big picture” thinking will prevail.

  6. Heidi Lindbloom Meyer permalink
    August 14, 2009 11:46 am

    This decision makes me very, very sad and confused as well. I wholeheartedly agree with all the comments thus far.

  7. Michael Skelly permalink
    August 14, 2009 12:06 pm

    It is a sad day for historic preservation. These losses are permanent and tangible. It is difficult from a distance to fully understand what may have tipped the balance and made the difference.

    Since I have none of the details or background, I am not taking sides or criticizing, but I am wondering, did PNJ and the Church discuss some type of arrangement that would allow continuing worship services, such as a lease-back arrangement for Sundays or special religious holidays?

    It seems to me that some type of transition in these difficult situations might help. I realize that emotions can run very high and little of what may make “sense” to an outsider makes sense to people immersed in the situation itself.

    PNJ should be lauded for making a good effort toward preservation, even though it may not result in saving the Church.

  8. August 14, 2009 1:39 pm

    from PNJ: The Presbytery of New Brunswick representative present at the meeting stated that, when ownership was transferred to PNJ, the church would be de-commissioned and the Presbytery would prohibit ANY congregation of any faith from worshipping there. PNJ certainly has no problem with the idea of the Ewing congregation worshipping in the Sanctuary.

  9. August 14, 2009 6:33 pm

    I applaud Preservation New Jersey for trying to save the Ewing Presbyterian Church sanctuary. I believe there is more going on and has been going on since the arrival of Pastor Vandergrift.

    The congregation of Ewing Presbyterian Church has not had a church to worship in in some time. The Session could still build another church and leave the historical santuary available for special occasions or community use.

    I agree with D. Green, “there is something fishy going on.”

    The problem is that once the church is razed, there is no turning back. I just can’t fathom why the Session didn’t accept Preservation New Jersey’s offer.

  10. Wendy Clugston permalink
    August 15, 2009 12:56 pm

    I agree something fishy is going on at the church. Ever since Pastor Vandergrift arrived she had an agenda in her mind. She put her pawns in the right places to suppport her. And announced her ideas to the church. I just doesn’t make sense not to accept the offer from PJN preservation. It saves the church money all around. And the idea of counseling from the Presbytery is a joke. The church is in trouble and if it is razed many members will leave and it will never be the same. I know the statement “the church is not a building, it is the people”, but it is hard to have a church without the people! This building is not only a church, it is a pillar in the community that needs to be saved!

  11. Lynne Foley permalink
    August 15, 2009 1:34 pm

    I am truly ASTONISHED.

    I have no affiliation with this church whatsoever.

    I have never in my life seen such arrogant, and ignorant , display of what is supposed to be sacred.

    This situation is RUDE to the twenty fifth power in the total and complete disregard shown by the church toward: parishioners, township history buffs, and human beings in general.

    Absolutely, without question, APPALLING.

  12. barbara geary permalink
    August 17, 2009 10:11 pm

    Prohibitive cost is always the excuse not to preserve. This decision seems decidedly un-Christian and spiteful. It is as if the Session is saying: “we don’t want to use it, but we don’t want anyone else to enjoy it either.” It would be a gracious gift for the Session to give the Church back to the community and let it continue as a gathering place for other suitable uses.

    The regret that STILL remains over the demolition of the old Pennsylvania Station in NYC should serve as a lesson. In this instance, demolition would be an act of vandalism.

  13. Jean Sashihara permalink
    August 21, 2009 1:22 pm

    This story of the 1867 Sanctuary is a modern parable, for us, here and now.

    We claim ownership over our lives, which are rightfully ours. God sees that our souls are in disrepair, with walls about to cave and roofs about to fall. He offers to redeem us with his blood – to buy and repair us. He extends Himself – yet we stubbornly cling to our rights, insisting to continue in our own ways with our own plans. What destruction lies ahead, where God sees a treasure.

    With this building, our lady reverend and her session illustrate the grand divine issue of all time: our free will to respond to or reject God’s grace.

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