Arts center rising from old farmstead: Fall grand opening scheduled at historic site in Basking Ridge as renovations continue

Photo by Hilary Klimek An historic farmhouse off King George Road in Basking Ridge is being renovated for use as the Farmstead Arts Center. Observing the work are, from left, Friends of the Farmstead trustees Peter Carhart, John Campbell and Peter Hall. A grand opening for the new cultural arts center will be held Oct. 9-10.
By W. JACOB PERRY, Staff Writer – Bernardsville News
Published: Aug 27th, 7:09 AM

BERNARDS TWP. – A grand opening for the historic farmhouse at the Rev. Kennedy Farmstead off King George Road is eyed for this fall despite the apparent loss of both prospective tenants.

The structure, envisioned as a cultural arts center, has been undergoing renovation work that should wrap up by Sept. 1, according to John Campbell, president of Friends of the Farmstead, a non-profit group that leases the site from the township.

It has been formally named the Farmstead Arts Center.

Under plans disclosed two years ago, space was to be leased to two tenants – the Eastern Conservatory of Music and Arts, which is housed at Lamington Presbyterian Church in Bedminster, and the Rartian Valley Arts Association, which meets at the Somerset County Library in Bridgewater. But it’s now doubtful that either group will be moving in. Each has its own reasons.

Ann Rosenblum, vice president of arts programming for the Friends group, said the Eastern Conservatory of Music wanted to expand but has reassessed its options in light of the economy. As for the Raritan Valley Arts Association, Rosenblum said the group has a number of older members who live south of Bridgewater and don’t wish to make the longer drive to Bernards. Other groups have made inquiries, she noted. They include Elefante Music of Berkeley Heights, which provides music and theater lessons; and Wee Little Arts of Basking Ridge, which provides arts lessons to young children, she said.

In the meantime, the Friends group expects to rely on individuals with exhibits as opposed to groups with programs. “It’s good news and bad news,” Rosenblum said. “It gives more people opportunities but it’s more difficult administratively for us.” Ultimately, “what we need to do is find some people who can generate some income for us.”

Art, Music Studios

Under its lease with the township, the Friends group is responsible for paying for the site’s liability insurance and utility costs. Up to seven rooms will be available as art and music studios, according to Rosenblum. That includes two on the first floor, which will also feature an entrance hall, reception room and kitchen; and five on the second floor. The lack of tenants hasn’t delayed the grand opening celebration, which is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 9, and Sunday, Oct. 10.

A formal dedication and ribbon-cutting event will be held on the first day, while the second day will feature an antiques appraisal event. There will also be historic tours, musical entertainment and art exhibits. That’s just the beginning. Rosenblum said the Basking Ridge Rotary Club will then hold a show of local children’s artwork, with a reception scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 16. Four more artists from the township will follow with individual shows and receptions between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Good Neighbors

In addition to studios and exhibits, there has long been talk of the picturesque site hosting events like wedding receptions. A wedding reception is possible but “it would be small,” Rosenblum said. “We have our neighbors and we want to be friendly with our neighbors. We don’t want to have loud rock bands or anything like that.” The farmstead, which overlooks the Passaic River, comprises four acres of a 36.5-acre tract that the township acquired in an open space purchase in July 1999. It features a farmhouse built around 1750, a large English barn and a wagon house that precede 1800, a cowshed and a piggery. Past owners include the Rev. Samuel Kennedy, a pastor of the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church who ran a classical school there in the 1760s, and Ephrain Martin, a Revolutionary War soldier and legislator.

The Friends group was created in early 2004 to renovate the buildings for cultural arts uses. Over the years, it’s obtained eight Somerset County grants totaling $722,215 and a state grant for $440,393. The most recent, awarded last October, was a Somerset County Cultural and Heritage Commission grant for $121,837. The money was to make the farmhouse “usable” for tenants and community activities. Earlier this year, leftover money from past grants was used to fund plaster repairs and interior painting. Money from the latest grant is now being used to install a handicapped access ramp, refurbish and equip the first-floor bathroom, and reinforce the stairs from the first floor to the second floor.

More Upgrades

Campbell said some planned improvements went beyond the budget but could be handled by volunteers in the Friends group. Those improvements include upgrading the second-floor bathroom and installing a new kitchen galley. Other planned upgrades, such as refurbishing the floors and repairing the foundation of the dining room fireplace, have been deferred but aren’t essential for occupancy, he said.

With the farmhouse nearly ready, the Friends group will soon turn its attention to other structures. The English barn, which had its exterior walls restored some years ago, has long been eyed for potential activities like plays, dances and lectures. But the floor is in disrepair, and the Friends group hopes to improve it. Campbell said his group will apply within the next month for a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust. A tentative request for $187,982 would provide a concrete slab under the floor, which would then be covered by a smooth wood surface; the removal of some interior beams that constrict use; weather-tight sliding glass doors; and handicapped access. “This would make the English barn highly usable for the community for three seasons – spring, summer and fall,” Campbell said. “We could do a lot of good things when the work is done.” The state is expected to announce its grant selections next July, he said. “We’re hopeful, although it will be a very competitive process.” The wagon house, which leans to the side, has been deemed unsalvageable and will probably be replaced at a future date. The cowshed and piggery still require a preservation plan but are envisioned as a future display for farming equipment.

Campbell noted that as the farmstead project moves from renovation work to actual use, the Friends group has expanded to include people more familiar with the arts, such as Rosenblum. He said another new member is Deputy Mayor John Malay, who has agreed to serve as acting executive director. “One thing that really pleases me is we really have an enjoyable group,” he said. “We like each other and we work well together and we enjoy working on this project.” The farmhouse, he said, “will be a major contributor to the quality of life in this area.’’ Rosenblum expressed a similar view. “I think it’s going to be a terrific community resource,” she said, “where people will be able to relax, have fun, learn and enjoy the arts.”

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