By Chris Rotolo |
MONMOUTH BEACH – When the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center celebrated its anticipated reopening with a Memorial Day ceremony Monday, the heart of the borough began beating once more.
Following a 20-month rehabilitation project after a fire tore through the first floor of the facility in September 2016, nearly 200 residents joined local government officials and members of the United States Coast Guard unit stationed at nearby Sandy Hook for a ceremonial flag raising and words of somber remembrance for those who have lost their lives in military service for the country.
But the largest displays of emotion and biggest embraces came after Monmouth Beach Cultural Center Director Lois Geyer swung open the doors and officially welcomed everyone inside for a tour of the historical photos and artifacts and a complimentary sandwich lunch.
“It really is at the center of Monmouth Beach,” Geyer said. “We have art shows here. It’s a social gathering place for parties and all types of local clubs and organizations. You can see by the turnout how important this place is to our community. And to be able to give the heart of our community back to our friends, family and neighbors today, after such a long time, is very special.”
According to Geyer, the September 2016 fire – which she said was caused by a still burning cigarette mistakenly discarded into the mulch at the front of the property – destroyed the Cultural Center’s front corridor and the items of historical significance within. There was also smoke damage throughout the building.
As tragic as it was, it wasn’t the first crisis the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center has had to endure in its century-old life.
The state marine police made its headquarters in the building for 30 years, but left following the historically tragic nor’easter of 1992, which brought wind gusts of 90 mph to the Jersey Shore with 25-foot waves and resulted in an estimated $500 million worth of damage in New Jersey.
After 1992, the building sat tattered and untouched at 128 Ocean Ave. for eight years, rotting, decaying and in danger of being torn down in favor of a beachside parking lot.
In 1999 the property was saved from condemnation by the Monmouth Beach Historical Society, which accepted a donation of more than $110,000 from late borough resident Jay W. Ross, and tapped local police chiefs Patrick J. McConville and Richard L. Keller to lead a renovation project that helped found the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center in May 2000.
“This place has been through a lot, but it’s still here. It’s still standing,” said Dickie Keller, the son of Richard Keller, who served as the Cultural Center’s first director. “There are a lot of people in this town who really care about this place. And we won’t let it go away.”
Keller recalled another instance when the survival of the Cultural Center was questioned back in 2012, following the devastation of so many shore communities by Super Storm Sandy.
“We were going really well, and then Sandy hit and it was devastation all around us. But we came back fast after a quick renovation,” said Keller. “Then we were going well for a few more years and we get hit with the fire, which was another tough situation to deal with.”
“We’ve been through a lot with this Cultural Center, but there’s a lot of people in our family and in this community that have their heart and soul in this place,” Keller added. “They really care. They really love this place. And that’s why it’ll always survive and come back stronger than it was.”
Geyer estimates that since its founding in 2000, the Cultural Center has hosted nearly 50,000 visitors at hundreds of community engagement events like art shows, historical exhibits, seminars and speaking events and live music concerts.
“It’s been a long, long time since we’ve been able to spend time here and have fun,” said Joan Myers, a local artist who helps organize exhibits at the center. “We’re very excited for the reopening and to have our home back.”
The facility was used as a U.S. Life Saving Station in the early 1900s and converted into a U.S. Coast Guard station in the 1930s, before the New Jersey State Marine Police moved into the facility in 1962.
Its rich history as a lifeline to the local shipping and boating community is currently on display, with a new art exhibition expected to be organized in August.
The Monmouth Beach Cultural Center is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Wednesday through Saturday.
For more information call 732-229-4527 or visit the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center Facebook page.
This article was first published in the May 31-June 7, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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