Arts & rec center coming soon to Kearny

The town of Kearny is acquiring the old First Lutheran Church property, 61-71 Oakwood Ave., to redevelop as what Mayor Alberto Santos described as a “community and arts center.”

“The last service at First Lutheran was on Jan. 22 of this year,” Santos said.  Shortly after, he said, the town reached out to representatives of the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and learned the property was up for sale.

Santos credited Council President Carol Jean Doyle with alerting the town the space was available.

On March 14, the mayor and Town Council authorized a cash bid of $1.46 million for the property and, according to Santos, “the bid was accepted.”

On March 28, the governing body introduced two ordinances, one authorizing the purchase of the property and the other issuing 40-year bonds for up to $1.5 million, including $40,000 in professional fees to cover the costs of acquisition.

A public hearing on those ordinances is scheduled for April 11 and, if those pass, a real estate closing is expected within 45 days, as outlined in the sale contract between the town and the Synod.  The broker is listed as Mark Singleton of Singleton-Galmann Real Estate, of Hoboken.

Santos said the property being acquired by the town includes the church building, a steeple attached to a multi-purpose room, a one-family home, a 2-family home and a 13-space parking lot with driveway access to Kearny and Oakwood avenues.

While the current church building dates from the early 1930s, the church itself has been at the same location for more than 100 years, according to Santos.

Although the church has never been designated a landmark building, Santos said the church structure — designed by Swedish architect Martin Hedmark — has distinctive features.

As explained by Santos: “Visitors enter the church through a free-standing red-brick bell tower with a parabolic arch and pointed steeple. The interior of the church has a pine ceiling in the shape of a ship’s hull.  The ceiling and beams have painted designs reminiscent of Viking art.”

A historical account of the church’s development, contained in a collection at the Kearny Public Library, elaborates on some further architectural details, saying, “The entrance gate, and in fact all of the iron work is hand-wrought while practically all of the sacred paintings done in the interior, were executed by the architect himself.”

Inside the church, “the walls are of hand-troweled plaster with a sand finish. The ceiling is of wood boards covered with a thin transparent paint, the beams being decorated in American Indian motifs. The lighting fixtures are wagon wheels, while the polychromed black doors carry out the idea of rugged beauty.”

The building, with all these unique aspects, “literally cries out for historical preservation,” Santos said.  “This will be a very important addition to the town’s public buildings and I’m very excited and happy that the public will be able to enjoy it. This will have an impact on generations of Kearny residents to come and I believe this will be one of the most significant items I’ve worked on with the council’s help.”

Once the town takes title, the mayor said, the town will hire an architect to prepare designs for “adaptive re-use” of the property as a community and arts center. The town will be looking for historic preservation grant money to help finance the work, he said.

After the design is done, “we will begin formulating programs with the town’s Recreation Department, Public Library, school district and Kearny-based organizations that promote arts and culture,” he said.

What the town will do with the two houses remains to be determined, Santos said.

On a practical level, Santos said, “there is a need for us to have additional community space” so, to that end, it makes sense to acquire the church property.

Fourth Ward Councilman Gerald Ficeto said his preference would be to use the facility for programs that would benefit both senior citizens and children, in particular.

Ficeto recalled that, for a few years, the West Hudson Arts & Theater Co. was permitted to use the church’s multi-purpose space to present plays and related programs.

Well before that, Ficeto said, he remembers the church had an active Boy Scout troop, along with a small shooting range in the basement of the church.

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Ron Leir | For The Observer

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc.

He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter.

He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York