The 1867 Sanctuary on Scotch Road in Ewing.

Bob Kull will be the first to tell you, it isn’t always easy getting audiences to come out to the historic church venue, the 1867 Sanctuary at Ewing.

As a volunteer events manager, Kull, a retired environmental planner, seems to do yeoman’s job of promoting the historic church and performance venue on Scotch Road, not far from the Mercer County Airport in Ewing Township.

He uses a combination of Facebook, e-mails, the venue’s website and good old fashioned paid print advertising to get the word out about concerts there.

His wife, Helen, who works at The College of New Jersey, is also involved at the nonprofit performing arts facility. (Helen Kull is a contributing columnist for the Ewing Observer.)

“In February, we will have completed four years of concerts in this space under Preservation New Jersey,” says Kull during a recent interview, “and we’re thrilled about that.”

Preservation New Jersey is a nonprofit organization founded in 1978 that advocates for and assists New Jerseyans in the preservation of historic buildings and sites. As it says on its website, “Until 2010, Preservation New Jersey had never been directly involved in the preservation of a bricks-and-mortar building. Stewardship of the 1867 Sanctuary offered PNJ the opportunity for a ‘hands-on’ preservation project.”

Getting healthy crowds out for all shows is a difficult goal—not everyone likes chamber music, or classical or jazz— but, “by and large, we’re trending in the right direction,” says Kull, a longtime Ewing resident. “Some people say it can take five or six years, other people say it takes longer, but we’re hopeful about continuing to build new audiences.”

Kull says the first concert at the historic church was held Thanksgiving weekend, 2015, when they held a community-wide Thanksgiving service that was both secular and sacred.

“In December of 2015 we had different types of bands, and we found out what the acoustics were like. We found out the only kind of performance that doesn’t work here is hard rock,” he says, noting the distortion on guitars and basses is just too much.

“It’s not a matter of volume; it’s a matter of tones,” Kull says, adding that jazz, folk music and softer rock groups have worked out in the venue.

Heady with success from their initial efforts, Kull says they continued to do community events. The concert series formally began in February 2016 with Jerry Rife’s Blue Skies Band, which performs New Orleans-flavored country and Americana tunes.

Since they began a dedicated program of bookings in 2016, 2017 and 2018, Kull says word has gotten out about 1867 Sanctuary—locally, regionally and internationally.

“We’ve found great demand from performers to play here. They love the acoustics, they’re able to hear themselves well, and they have an audience that is attentive. Even though it looks like a church, we try to keep the vibe informal,” Kull says, adding they encourage performers to talk, tell stories and take time introducing each tune.

Like the Record Collector in Bordentown, which serves no alcohol, the 1867 Sanctuary serves coffee, tea, snacks, water and juices. Sound is indeed exquisite in the church.

In fact, the acoustics are so good inside the building that two albums have been recorded there. Trumpet player Danny Tobias recorded a live album at the venue and the Jack Furlong Quartet recorded their album Opportunity there—sans audience—over the course of four nights.

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Anyone who works in jazz, as a club owner, a player, a booking agent and most especially vocalists, will tell you, jazz can be a tough sell.

But the Kulls and others involved at the Sanctuary have forged a path in the jazz world. They say their biggest draws include Bucks County piano player and composer Eric Mintel and his quartet, trumpeter Tobias, baritone saxophonist Furlong, Brazilian jazz specialist Luiz Simas, bassist Alec Hile and the Paris Jazz Combo. Kull and others are looking forward to a March Sanctuary show with renowned jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini.

Kull says the venue is also getting known to contemporary folk singer-songwriters—some as far away as Australia. And the venue has hosted local Irish-born singers Helen O’Shea and Fiona Tyndall, classical musicians from Italy and singers and songwriters from Canada, Argentina and Australia.

He and Helen are part of the Voices Chorale and have lived in Ewing Township since 1976. He worked in planning and environmental planning for the State of New Jersey and for Burlington and Mercer counties.

Helen is on the staff in the Biology Department at The College of New Jersey, where she assists students looking to go on to medical school. A graduate from Beaver College, now Arcadia University, in Glenside, Pennsylvania, she did additional work for her masters’ in environmental science at Rutgers University.

“My career as a professional planner in the environmental area led me to working with communities, people and what they wanted to do,” he says. He was also involved in setting up America’s Scenic Byways program in New Jersey.

Now retired from his time with the state and Burlington and Mercer counties, Kull has time to devote to programming concerts and a range of other arts-related activities for surrounding communities.

Talking again of community programming and audience development, Kull says, “We have a monthly open mic and a monthly poetry cafe organized by Todd Evans. We have a lot of student recitals for piano and voice, we support the community with weddings, memorial services, bar mitzvahs and history lectures.”

As far as their audiences, who are invited to sign up for Sanctuary’s e-mailed newsletters, they come mostly from Mercer, Middlesex, Hunterdon and Monmouth counties as well as from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Patrons tend to be people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, “So we’re trying to grow our college audiences with $5 cover charge events,” says Kull.

The audiences are as diverse as the people that make up Mercer, Bucks, Middlesex and Monmouth counties.

In April, the Sanctuary will host its third annual international young artists competition for chamber musicians from 6 to 30 years old.

“It’s a very high powered chamber music event we have here and our venue was chosen because of the acoustics here.”

Kull, who attends church across the street at the Presbyterian Church of Ewing, said the challenges of presenting so much programming at the venue are significant, but he and Helen and a team of dedicated volunteers press on.

To keep the Sanctuary—which seats 200 patrons comfortably—on an even financial keel, costs of about $5,000 a month must be met. Heating has been a significant challenge. In past years, the heat bill at the church could run as high as $3,000 a month, just for concert nights.

“We don’t get any sustaining support from any organization at this point, so everything we do is from fundraising, but over the summertime we were able to make some changes in our heating and AC systems,” he said.

“The church is in pretty constant use now, so we lower the temperature between events but try to keep it a relatively stable temperature so we don’t have to retune the piano, organ or the harpsichord.”

Since the seating consists of pews designed for people in 1867, not 2019, all concerts have an intermission where the audience can get up, talk among themselves, walk around and stretch their legs.

Most months they get 500 people in the seats, he says, but the venue is looking to grow even more.

“The artists who perform here have said such wonderful things about the place, even when I’m not looking,” Kull says. “They tell other musicians about how nice it is to play here, so they’re willing to abide by us as we try to build more of an audience because they’re generally not getting paid as much as they should be, but they accept that as part of supporting the efforts here to keep this going as a venue.”

Check out the Calendar of Events section of the Ewing Observer every month for listings of events taking place at the 1867 Sanctuary.

Volunteers needed

The Sanctuary recently put out a call for volunteers to help with a number of activities at the venue.

“Do you have a skill that would help increase 1867 audiences, create new fundraising opportunities or help with our current operation? Then please call and share with us what you would like to do. Volunteers are always welcome,” states the Sanctuary’s website.

The sanctuary is looking for the following:

  • Assistance during concerts to help with parking, assembling and distributing programs, greeting and admitting patrons and setting up intermission snacks.
  • Special events volunteers for events planning and fundraising ideas.
  • Marketing specialists to create and help distribute flyers and brochures or to update the marquee and lobby monitor.
  • Public relations volunteers to work with the marketing specialist, and to help spread the word about upcoming concerts, activities and special fundraising campaigns.
  • Facilities volunteers to do small repairs, help lift and carry things, check that everything is working in the building and wait for a delivery.
  • Grounds maintenance helpers for activities such as weeding outside the building, periodic power washing of the concrete sidewalk and assisting with the removal of leaves, ice and snow.
  • Runners who can shop for goods including toilet paper, water, printer ink or other items they might need.
  • A membership coordinator to find new members, keep track of current members and help with yearly membership renewals.
  • Someone to send out mail and emails about special fundraising campaigns, year-end solicitations and membership renewals. This includes folding letters, stamping envelopes or sending email blasts.
  • A social media helper to post about Sanctuary activities on Facebook, Twitter and other online sites.
  • Researching and writing grants to help bring in funds to pay for the preservation and operating expenses of the building and arts programming.
  • Someone to coordinate volunteers by assisting with training, making sure there are sufficient volunteers scheduled for each event.
  • An outreach volunteer to meet with companies that might want to sponsor an event or project through ads, underwriting or other benefits/services.
  • An event assistant for coordinating upcoming events by making sure performers have provided information and photos for social media and other advertising in a timely manner, completed any paperwork needed (W9), provided posters or CDs they wish to display during their performance and other duties as they occur.

Anyone interested in volunteering is asked to email or call (609) 392-6409 (leave a message if no one answers).