By Rick Geffken
LONG BRANCH – Ninety-five years after Woodrow Wilson last vacationed in Long Branch, the little chapel in Long Branch where he and six of his presidential predecessors attended services is finally being restored from its sadly deteriorated state. St. James Chapel, known as the Church of the Seven Presidents, was built on Ocean Avenue in 1879. Though it was home to the Long Branch Historical Museum Association for the second half of the 20th century, age and the effects of ocean weather took a harsh toll on the historic structure.
James Foley, president of the museum association, spoke about the current restoration plans at the 117th Annual Meeting of the Monmouth County Historical Association (MCHA) on Tuesday night at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. Foley noted “There are many worthwhile local historic causes. But people forget the significance of this building – at least seven United States Presidents visited Long Branch. This restoration project is a great opportunity to build on something truly historic that’s right in our own backyard.”
Foley acknowledged the advice of Monmouth County historian Randy Gabrielan, who praised the local group’s work to date, while encouraging the trustees to contact national donors who might underwrite the restoration of such a nationally significant building.
When Long Branch was one of the premier vacation spots in 19th century America, Ulysses S. Grant was the first President to visit the famed Jersey Shore. Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Wilson each attended Sunday services at the small church during summer respites from the White House. The chapel was built as a branch of the larger St. James Episcopal Church, also in Long Branch.
United States Presidents were not the only famous visitors to America’s seaside resort. “Beginning in the 1880s, wealthy families like the Goulds, Vanderbilts, Sloans and Drexels built elegant summer ‘cottages’ in nearby Elberon,” said Foley. Then, as now, rich industrialists attracted politicians and vice versa.
The Long Branch Historical Museum Association took control of St. James Chapel when the Episcopal Diocese de-consecrated the church with plans to raze it in 1953. The Church of the Seven Presidents was eventually listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, but inadequate funding delayed major repairs. The museum closed in 1999.
Foley became president around the time the museum shut its doors and, with the approval of the Board of Trustees, put a plan in place to save it. Helped by several substantial private donations, the old structure was stabilized – a concrete foundation was poured and steel girders installed. Recently, $70,000 went toward painting, roofing, and the reinstallation of the original stained glass windows in the crenelated tower of the church. Foley said the yearly budget for the museum association is $100,000 which he hopes can be matched by federal, state, county grants. Besides financing, Foley said, “The association is looking for volunteers of any kind. We would love donated goods, services, researchers. Whatever your passion is, we’ll put you to work.”
Foley expects the museum to reopens in early 2018. Visitors to the 1260 Ocean Ave. location will see an assortment of presidential artifacts, notably the American flag which draped President Garfield’s coffin in 1881, after his failed Long Branch recuperation from an assassin’s bullet. Foley also envisions the museum serving as a community center for various local community groups.
“The association’s mission is to interpret our historic artifacts by telling the story of the people of Monmouth County through our exhibitions and shows,” President Linda W. Bricker said at the Tuesday night meeting. She was happy to announce that 2015 was the association’s best year ever.
Two of the most successful events sponsored by the MCHA last year were a 4th of July public reading of the Declaration of Independence at its Allen House in Shrewsbury; and the very popular exhibit at the Freehold headquarters building showcasing African-American music, entitled “Spirituals to Soul.” Director Evelyn Murphy reported “The three major themes for the MCHA going forward are collaboration with the community; self-assessment – moving from good to great; and advocacy.”
The MCHA also elected its 2016 officers slate Tuesday evening. They are President Linda W. Bricker; 1st Vice President Ross Millhiser; 2nd Vice President Sandy Mulheren; Treasurer Mark R. Aikins; Assistant Treasurer George Dittmar; and Secretary Amy Almasy.
Anyone wishing to join the Long Branch Historical Museum Association can visit either their website or Facebook page: www.churchofthepresidents.org/; or, Facebook.com/ChurchOfThePresidents. For information about the Monmouth County Historical Association: www.monmouthhistory.org; or Facebook.com/monmouthhistory.
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