|History of the Watchung Arts Center Building|
Many residents enter the old white building on the Watchung Circle thinking it is the library. Indeed, it once served as the library, recreation department and before that the school. Now it is the Watchung Arts Center, hosting many activities each month in both the visual and performing arts.
The building was built in 1898 as a schoolhouse for the village that was to become Watchung. It is often referred to as the first school building, but that is not quite true. An earlier, somewhat smaller building was erected near the corner of Watchung Avenue and Johnston Drive, and moved to the Arts Center site shortly thereafter. This was replaced by the present building in 1898.
During the Depression years, more capacity was needed, so the original wooden building was raised and a lower floor with masonry walls constructed beneath it. The upper floor, now the larger gallery, was once the two classrooms of the original building. A double stairway was later added in the rear, and a sunporch with office space above appended to the front. Restrooms were added on each side of the first floor when indoor plumbing became common.
Today the post and beam structure is remarkably intact. The supporting framework is most visible on the lower floor, which now houses a small gallery, a kitchen/refreshments area and a studio for art classes and children's art exhibits. The studio was recently refinished by the Optimists. The entry foyer houses an imposing floor-to-ceiling mural depicting nearby Best Lake. The bright sunlit space is used for sculpture exhibits, and allows people to congregate before a performance.
On the upper floor, the two classrooms have been combined into one large room, with dimensions of about 30 by 40 feet, with a 12 foot ceiling height. This is where the frequent jazz, folk, classical, vocal and contemporary music concerts are presented. When the crowded calendar permits, theatrical productions are mounted in this same versatile space.
The "celebrated acoustics," as one reviewer put it, make this an excellent space for music. A fine Altenburg grand piano supports vocalists, jazz combos and chamber music groups, who can perform for an attentive audience in this intimate space. "It's like playing in somebody's living room," as one performer told a reporter.
" No space is wasted. Even the stairway is used to exhibit members' artwork. The non-profit Watchung Arts Center has monthly exhibits in its two principal galleries, earning a reputation among critics as the premier place to view cutting-edge art.
Just last year a large deck was bult at the entrance for intermission during warm weather events.
Many residents and visitors elect to become members of the Watchung Arts Center. In return for modest dues, members receive a monthly newsletter describing the many events taking place in the building. There are also discounts for members on certain events, plus other benefits. People from as far afield as Pennsylvania and Manhattan have joined, since membership is by no means limited to local residents.
A sample newsletter and membership form may be requested by calling (908) 753-0190, leaving a message if necessary. The office and galleries are open from 1 to 4 PM on weekdays, with additional gallery hours on Saturdays from 1 to 4 PM.
During the annual "Art as Gifts" craft boutique, eagerly awaited by local shoppers for the many attractive holiday gifts, gallery hours also include Sunday afternoons. This year's show runs from November 24 through December 1.