By John Burton
MIDDLETOWN – Paul and Lori Renick have been working hard to make sure the building that was home to the public library branch – and continues to be for the Monmouth Players – gets a second act.
“Our goal is to see this as a performing arts/visual arts center,” said Paul Renick of the former Navesink branch library at 149 Monmouth Ave.
Since March, when the township’s library system closed all three of its branches, the Renicks have been working with the not-for-profit foundation that owns and maintains the structure to establish the Navesink Arts Center.
The Highlands couple, who operate a carpentry business and have been long active with the Monmouth Players community theater group, have been working and overseeing the work at the site. The work includes new carpets – the first since 1989; a new paint job, the first in more than 20 years; refurbishing the existing tin ceiling; and general cleanup work to get the building in shape for the Monmouth Players community theater troupe’s season. That’s all happening as they move forward with plans to formally establish the arts center.
The site is now hosting the Monmouth Players production of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (running Oct. 18-20 and 26-27 and Nov. 2). It’s the first of four shows the company is producing this season. The Navesink Arts Center will also feature performances by local singer/songwriters on Nov. 16; and an art exhibit/sale being presented by the Beauregard Fine Art gallery, Rumson.
In the future, the Renicks and the arts center will be working with the Navesink School, the K-3 grade school next door, and its parent-teacher organization to establish an art program for the students.
“I don’t want just arts and crafts,” Lori Renick said. “I want real art classes … There are some real talented kids out there.”
She hopes the arts center will be able to nurture that talent.
The building was completed by the Duryea Foundation in 1917 in memory of its founder, Herman B. Duryea, a sportsman and thoroughbred racehorse breeder. The foundation operated the site as a cultural and community center that had a lending library – the first in Middletown and one of the first in the state – and had tennis courts which still exist, plus a gymnasium and auditorium and even a bowling alley in its lower level, according to Michael Winchell, president of the board of directors for the Duryea-Navesink Library Association.
The Duryea Foundation merged with the Navesink Library Association in 1994, establishing the new 501(c) 3, not-for-profit organization.
The purpose of the foundation and its building was to be available for “social, literary, artistic and educational activities,” Winchell said.
The foundation allowed the township to operate the branch library at the building, starting in 1959 with the township paying $1 a year until closing the branch in March. The township’s parks and recreation department also used the site’s tennis courts until about 10 years ago, Winchell said.
Lori and Paul Renick have been involved with the Monmouth Players since 1993, with Paul serving as its president since 1997. The group has been putting on productions for 60 years, initially at Rumson’s Bingham Hall, then Red Bank Catholic High School and the Leonardo grammar school, before settling in at the Duryea house 57 years ago, Paul Renick said.
Neither of the Renicks had a background – or even an interest – in theater when asked if they would like to help the Monmouth Players mount a production. They started by assisting with set building, then did some acting and now Paul directs some shows. “I’m a frustrated artist,” he said. “It’s my way to paint a picture.”
Other than an endowment that is used for the building’s upkeep, the Monmouth Players is the only way the site generates revenue at this time – at least until a fuller slate of programs can be developed, Winchell said. The Duryea-Navesink Library Association and theater group are now discussing a merger to establish the long-term financial health of the site, he said.
On the financial front, Paul Renick said he hasn’t and doesn’t plan to seek any government assistance for what he and his wife hope to do, believing the arts center can be self-sustaining. “I don’t want to be encumbered by their rules or politics,” he stressed.
The site will eventually be available to the public with the former library space being dedicated as a community reading room with books available and a children’s area that will host storytime and other programs. The area also could be used as an alternative performance space that will hopefully generate some additional revenue, Lori Renick said.
Further plans look toward removing the two rear tennis courts and developing a community art garden, consisting of sculptures and a winding path leading to a tranquil garden area, Lori Renick said. Those plans, however, are “crazy ambitious,” and will have to wait for a couple of years, she conceded.
For now the work at the Navesink Arts Center is about continuing with the cleaning and hosting the show, they said.