A group of Bradley Beach residents is working toward preserving the First United Methodist Church.
By PETE WALTON
Preservation New Jersey, a nonprofit group which relies on private donations and membership fees, has designated the former First United Methodist Church in Bradley Beach as one of the 10 most endangered historic places in the state.
The borough-owned building is being considered for use as a community center. Private citizens are raising funds to assist in making such a conversion possible.
“The First United Methodist Church is a Queen Anne-style masterpiece in the heart of Bradley Beach,” said PNJ’s Dale Perry as the group unveiled the 10 sites in Trenton earlier this week. “The interior has magnificent woodwork, stained glass windows, and the original Jardine pipe organ.”
“The borough is deciding on whether to convert it into a community center or sell it to a private developer, which could spell demolition for new construction,” Perry said. “Architects retained by the borough presented residents with three proposals for turning the church into a community center and were met with objections from some residents and elected officials concerned with cost,” she said. “It is likely to be decided by referendum later this year.”
“The community called on the borough to save this historic building in Bradley Beach, which was built in 1900 on a plot of land donated by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and James Bradley, the founder of Bradley Beach,” said Paul Neshamkin, president of the Friends of the Bradley Beach Community Center. “We are grateful that Preservation New Jersey has recognized the importance and value of our historic building.”
“It is unfortunate that the borough has taken two years to move forward with planning to preserve and renovate the building,” Neshamkin said. “During that time, no action has been taken to remove environmental hazards such as lead and asbestos, and secure the building against future deterioration.”
Neshamkin said he hoped the recognition “will encourage the borough to understand that the church building is endangered, and we must proceed in a direction that both preserves history and improves the quality of life in Bradley Beach.”
“Presentation New Jersey supports the view of the Friends of the Bradley Beach Community Center who continue to advocate for [the building’s] repurposing as a community center,” said PNJ’s Perry.
In a letter to The Coaster last month, former mayor Gary Engelstad said most of the proposed uses for the building as a community center are already being adequately provided.
“The Methodist Church is an old building, hardly historic,” said Engelstad, who as mayor made the motion to have the borough buy the property, and then voted in favor of it. “People went to church, people got married, people had suppers, kids went to Sunday school. All memorable and meaningful to them but not historic. If people going about their daily lives and celebrating their faith is historic, then every old house in Bradley Beach would meet that criterion.”
“If indeed there is a newfound demand for a community center and a tolerance for the costs involved then I think there should be a comprehensive review of all borough facilities and fields and determine where there might be opportunities for private/public partnerships that might create the space needed for a state-of-the-art, accessible community center with sufficient parking, as opposed to a jerry-rigged one in the middle of a residential area,” the letter said.
The borough purchased the LaReine Avenue church in January of 2020. Engelstad and all four council members approved the issuance of $1.425 million in bonds for the purchase and related expenses. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association sold the church to the borough for $1.3 million.
The borough held a series of town hall meetings and information sessions this year to review options for the church to be used as a community center. Mayor Larry Fox said a composite design was crafted following the sessions and submitted to engineers and architects hired by the borough.
“We will get results in late May,” Fox said, according to the minutes of the council’s April 12 meeting.
Preservation New Jersey is a statewide member-supported non-profit organization, which says that it “promotes the economic vitality, sustainability, and heritage of New Jersey’s diverse communities through advocacy and education.” The group relies on private donations and membership fees.
The organization says its endangered historic places program “spotlights irreplaceable historic, architectural, cultural and archaeological resources in New Jersey that are in imminent danger of being lost.”
“The act of listing these resources acknowledges their importance to the heritage of New Jersey and draws attention to the predicaments that endanger their survival and the survival of historic resources statewide,” according to the organization.