Last year, the Montclair Planning Board voted in a tie of 4-4 failing to designate 44 Pleasant Avenue as an historic designation. Tonight, at the Montclair Planning Board meeting, an application to have the house demolished and the property subdivided into 8 lots is on the agenda for approval.
The house, designed by local architect Dudley Van Antwerp in 1906, was recommended for its unique style in comparison to Van Antwerp’s many other houses in the area but for also being the home of Woolworth executive Aubrey Lewis, one of Montclair’s esteemed black residents and the a member of a 1962 FBI agent training class, the first to admit blacks.
According to the Lewis’s family Real estate agent Laurena White, the family objected to the designation because it would complicate efforts to sell the property, both for themselves and prospective owners.
Board member Martin Schwartz forcefully argued that the historic designation should be forwarded to the council because the recommendation met two criteria and that the decision had to be based on historic value and not economics. Board member Carole Willis disagreed, saying that the Lewis family should not accept an historic designation they neither asked for nor wanted. Her reasoning prevailed, as the motion to forward the Lewis house recommendation failed by a 4-4 tie, with Councilor McMahon abstaining. Joining Willis were Barr, Ianuale, and Craig Brandon; Schwartz was joined by Loughman, DeSalvo and Keith Brodock.
Residents of the neighborhood are upset and are pushing for the designation in order to stop the tear down and development in its place.
“Tearing this historic home down is a slap in the face to the rich African American history of the South End and of Montclair,” says Cynthia Fitzhugh, a resident who lives across the street from 44 Pleasant Avenue.
Fitzhugh says there were many accomplishments of African Americans in the neighborhood and that there are no plaques or traces of the rich history.
“Tearing down another significant piece of this proud history will be lost to new frame garish construction. The devaluing of the South End with Jim Crow, red-lining and the building of inferior homes continues…Now that land is scarce, new home buyers are taking a second look at the once frowned upon South End,” Fitzhugh adds.
Sharon Anderson, another Pleasant Avenue resident, agrees and says she believes the existing house should be preserved at all cost.
“I feel like this area of Montclair that has been historically disenfranchised primarily because of it historical racial and economic makeup. I believe this area has a rich cultural black history that been be largely ignored by this town. My house was previously owned by one of the Tuskegee Airman and I found out after the death of one our elderly neighbor that her husband was a buffalo soldier,” says Anderson who goes on to explain, “Trying to replace a large historical mansion with eight would drastically change the facade and appeal for houses on our street. I believe the setback on any new additional to this street should be consistent with at least 80% of the houses on that side of the street and have a setback of at least 60 feet from the sidewalk should be strongly enforced with a maximum of four houses.”
Historian, artist and architect Frank Gerard Godleswki also agrees.
“I fully appreciate that historic properties must be self-sustaining economically when they are being considered for preservation. We have a duty to find intelligence solutions to preserve Montclair’s historic architecture and landscape. It would be wrong to demolish a house of such historic value like this one. It was the home of an important historic figure Aubrey Lewis and designed by Dudley Van Antwerp.”
Godlewski says there are regulations and guidelines already in place that would prevent the demolition of the house for a good reason.