By Cheryl Conway
The historic Baptist Church in Flanders is one step closer in its renovation plans thanks to a $140,000 grant recently received by the Morris County Historic Preservation Trust Fund.
The grant application was written by Mt. Olive Township Business Administrator Laura Harris back in March with portions by Architect Margaret Hickey of Connelly and Hickey Historical Architects in Cranford. They were notified of approval of the full amount on June 23 to cover phase three of the church renovation project.
When all work is complete, township officials hope to utilize the former church as a useable building for meetings, educational purposes, school tours, a museum and even small weddings, as well as the adjacent cemetery and one room school house.
“It will be like a historic park” or “historic complex,” says Kathy Murphy, corresponding secretary of the Mt. Olive Historical Society and retired grant coordinator for Mt. Olive. “We are just very grateful for the money they’ve rewarded. We are so excited to be near completion! Can’t wait.”
Harris explains, “It’s been an ongoing project. We’ve had multiple grants from the county and we are very grateful. This is the final phase.”
The church dates back to 853 and was utilized by a congregation that had been in existence since 1753. The cemetery adjacent to the church is the burial grounds for most of the town’s early founders including Budd, Stephens, Wolfe. Some names are not even eligible, says Murphy, as they date back to Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers.
“That was the first church in town; it wasn’t just Baptist,” says Murphy. “Buried there, it’s the whole town’s founders; that’s where they are buried.”
Township officials acquired the church in 2003 and it is one of two properties in town listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since 2007, efforts to attain grants to renovate the building began, according to Murphy. Earlier projects included work on the roof, exterior, steeple, then walls, she says.
By being placed on the historic register, Murphy and officials have had to follow certain guidelines when it comes to restoring a historic building such as what products to use. A Historic Structures Report was completed to assess the structure and provide guidelines to follow, explains Murphy.
Local Historian Thea Dunkel has also done a lot of research as it was decided that renovated should replica the church back to the 1870 design period in order to avoid removing the outcove from the church.
“It’s a whole detective story on how things were done, why they were done,” says Murphy. “You have a whole report that says you are going to restore it to this time period. It’s not just done dilly nilly. We did analysis of painting, colors. The only difference is the bathroom; the rest will look like 1870.”
With the 2015 grant of $162,260 from the county, the township just went to bid on June 28. Work will begin late August, early September to clean up the carpentry, basement and flooring, explains Harris.
With the 2016 grant of $140,120 just received, the church’s interior renovations can be completed to include the installation of a restroom which does not currently exist, as well as plumbing and electrical work. The township hopes to seek bids in October so work can begin with a completion goal of spring 2017, says Harris.
“We currently have several grants going on the church, all from the Morris County Preservation Trust,” says Murphy. “The stucco grant is still in progress, with the final coat of stucco going on shortly, which will be scored to look like limestone, as it had looked originally. A stair railing will be added to complete that grant. The second grant construction begins shortly, and will include interior basement work, heating and floor repairs. You may recall the heating system installed in the 1920’s or so cut a large air register in the center of the room, which weakened the floor supports. That will be fixed.”
Next is the “electrical, plumbing and paint,” says Murphy. “We are really at the end. We have a very basic electrical install. It’s lighting and all the other stuff that needs to be done.”
For the bathroom install, a closet which was used as a storage area will be turned into the bathroom, says Murphy.
The final phase, which will also require a grant, will be the removal and possible restoration of a canvas ceiling that dates back to 1870 that has been covered up by metal ceiling tiles from 1890. Traveling artists would go around painting ceiling back at that time.
“The canvas ceiling will be temporarily removed for assessment for future restoration,” says Murphy. “We know they are unusual; very few have survived.” Depending on the condition of this canvas ceiling, historians will have to decide whether to replace it with a replica or save a portion of it for display.
“If we put up a new canvas ceiling, that would be an attraction,” says Murphy.
“After this phase is complete we will be able to open the building for the public,” says Murphy.
Next to the church is the town’s first school, a one room school house.
“We can let people in there now,” says Murphy, of the school house, but it’s not set up yet as a museum. It needs a new roof and electricity, “but we can open the door and let people peek inside.”
Within three years, the goal is “we want to show that story on what it was like; a one room school house. The thought of what a school is today to be one room, sit down on a bench with a slate and a piece of chalk to see what it’s like to sit in a class with different abilities in one room.”
Another historic building in town is the Steward House. While renovations are also ongoing, the township would like to use the facility for receptions one day such as for sports dinners, although capacity may be a concern.
“There’s an application to stabilize it,” says Harris, to seal the building’s envelope to prevent deterioration. “There may be a lot of work to restore it” causing that project to be a “much more expensive restoration.”
The township just bought a sawmill, adds Harris, with hopes to maybe use the “talented carpentry” in house in order to “save taxpayers’ money.”