By Kevin Coughlin
The word “miracle” gets tossed around rather casually these days.
But you could make a case for one–or several–at 65 South St. in Morristown.
At a time when many congregations are struggling to stay afloat, the Presbyterian Church in Morristown is finishing three years of interior renovations that it hopes will transform its historic Parish House into a hub for community performances and programs.
Not only did members raise $3.2 million for the project. They oversaw the work without too much back-and-forth.
“The pastor warned me: The thing about Presbyterians is they have a lot of committees,” joked Justin Hawley of Hawley Brothers Inc., the Burlington-based contractors for this complex job.
Clergy and church members are a team in the Presbyterian faith, explained Pastor Dave Smazik. And there was plenty teamwork for this effort. “It has gone incredibly smoothly,” he said.
The proof will be presented on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, when the public is invited to a ribbon-cutting reception at the Parish House from 5:30 pm to 7 pm. On Sunday, Oct. 9, at 11 am, congregation members will parade from the church sanctuary on the Morristown Green to the Parish House for a dedication service.
A sneak peek, as workmen were applying finishing touches this week, revealed a more inviting and functional facility that still manages to honor the history of a Gothic Revival structure that dating to 1878, when it replaced a church that burned down.
Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin
The architect back then was Josiah Cleaveland Cady, whose projects included the American Museum of Natural History, the original Metropolitan Opera House, and many Yale University buildings.
These latest renovations were designed by Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects, a Cranford firm that numbers Morristown’s Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and the governor’s mansion at Drumthwacket among its clients.
Hallways have been widened. A 60-year-old stove that was running out of spare parts has been replaced by something straight out of a cooking show; the redone kitchen has so much gleaming stainless steel that it looks like an operating room.
The basement has new storage rooms. A pair of small upstairs rooms have become one airy rec area for the teen youth group. The all-purpose parlor, which will be dedicated to the late Rev. Albert Erdman (pastor, 1869-1907) now boasts exposed hardwood floors and air-conditioning.
Sheffield Hall, where Goosebumps author R.L. Stine held children spellbound at last week’s Morristown Festival of Books, also has air conditioning for the first time, to go with a new ceiling with modern chandeliers.
New spaces, like Music Director Matt Webb’s office, were constructed around existing beams of hemlock fir that jut diagonally from floor to ceiling. Original bricks comprise walls of new rehearsal- , staff- and museum rooms.
‘SOUTH STREET HALL’
Most impressive, however, is the second floor gymnasium, soon to be rechristened South Street Hall. A stage was removed, to accommodate new rest rooms. A drop ceiling came out, too– revealing a cathedral ceiling with a row of stained-glassed windows and a magnificent floor-to-ceiling window facing South Street.
Smazik said kids basketball and floor hockey will return–with Plexiglas protecting the giant window. But the hall also is contemplated as a performance space, capable of seating about 300 people.
“We want space to do quality programming, which people are looking for in this area, and new programs for youths,” said the pastor, who came to Morristown from Rockford, Ill., in 2010.
He envisions hosting events with Parish House neighbors such as the Mayo Performing Arts Center, the Morristown & Township Library and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The Presbyterians already provide overflow parking for the arts center, and collaborate with St. Peter’s in a tutoring program for first- and second graders.
Children’s programs are thriving at the Presbyterian Church, and the renovations are intended to continue the momentum. Smazik feels the future of his 1,000-member flock is at stake.
“We want to grow these programs,” said Smazik. “It makes sense. If you don’t have future generations in church, eventually you’re not able to sustain a congregation.”
Keeping the church’s nursery- and after-school programs operating throughout the construction may have been the biggest miracle of all. Parents and children put up with a lot of reshuffled classrooms.
“They love this school, and they stuck with it,” said Alexandra Mead, director of Christian education. She also served on two committees that oversaw the project.
Overriding the architect’s paint choice– an historic yellow that felt too “dark and foreboding”– they eventually settled on a light grey called “On the Rocks,” Mead said. Committee members also suggested changes to doors, including a window to prevent kitchen crashes and lock-proof knobs for kids.
Mead raved about Hawley, the project manager.
“I’d say, ‘We can’t do this, it’s not safe for the kids,’ and he’d say, ‘Okay, I’ll figure it out.'”
The Parish House, which is on the National Historic Register, posed many challenges for Hawley and his six-man crew.
Sprinkler pipes had to be routed “through nooks and crannies,” he said. Wedging an elevator into the building required meticulously cutting out a quarter-inch of block behind a fireplace wall. The new air conditioning system was squeezed into a corner of the attic.
When doorways were installed through brick walls, the crew salvaged “as many bricks as we could for patchwork,” Hawley said.
He was impressed by the building’s bones. Support beams in the gym only have sagged about one inch in nearly 140 years, he said, thanks to trusses and turnbuckles that were state-of-the-art at the time.
“There’s a lot of metal in here,” he said. And some surprises, too.
Morristown sits atop remnants of glacier that left “glacial flour,” a fine sand like talcum powder, Hawley discovered. Extra concrete was needed to shore up the foundation for the elevator shaft, he said.
The basement yielded an old shoe … and some vintage coal. Around 1890, Hawley said, the church stockpiled coal just before a shortage. During a cold winter, many Morristown churches were invited to share services at South Street–including the First Presbyterian Church, from which the congregation had split in 1840.
“That started the reunification of the churches,” Hawley said.
King George II had chartered the First Presbyterian Church in 1756. It fronts the Morristown Green, and donated the square as a public park in 1816. The Morris County Tourism Bureau will celebrate that bicentennial on Oct. 16.
The two Presbyterian churches merged in 1925 and the interior of the South Street location–variously known as the New Church, the Second Presbyterian Church, the South Street Presbyterian Church and finally, the Parish House–was reconfigured in 1945 and again in the early 1980s, to accommodate outreach programs. Sunday services and special events continued in the sanctuary on the Green.
Slideshow photos courtesy of the Presbyterian Church in Morristown
That arrangement almost ended in 2005, when the congregation’s board narrowly rejected a proposal to consolidate everything onto the Green site.
Now, with the success of the Mayo Performing Arts Center, expansions of the library, new restaurants and the 70 South gallery, the intersection of South and Pine streets has become a busy place.
Hawley appreciates all this history, which is why nobody rushed the church project. Details mattered.
“You have members who got married here, their parents and grandparents got married here. It’s important to them, so it’s important to me. You want your customers to be happy….This church might not be done again for another 100 years,” he said.
The Parish House slate roof also is being replaced, with a grant from the Morris County Historic Preservation Trust Fund. The taxpayer-approved fund has granted more than $1 million to the congregation for exterior maintenance in recent years.
The church’s own capital campaign fell a bit shy of its $3.5 million target, so plans to improve the sanctuary stage at the Green location will wait for awhile, Smazik said.
For the moment, all eyes are on the refurbished Parish House.
“It will be a great place for the community to gather. I’m hoping this place will be used all the time, not just by the church, but by the community,” Alexandra Mead said. “We’re in the center of everything here. An active church is a sign of a good community.”