Montclair Historic Preservation Commission Meets with Local Residents on Historic Designation for Wheeler Street and Oakcroft Neighborhoods

A home on Lincoln Avenue in the Wheeler Street neighborhood of Montclair.

The former homes of Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step on the moon, and Aubrey Lewis, Montclair High School football star, one of the first African-American FBI agents and an executive at Woolworth’s, are part of a nomination to designate Aldrin’s Oakcroft neighborhood and Lewis’s Wheeler Street neighborhood historic districts.

A glimpse into the past of these local luminaries, a history of development in those areas and a lively discussion of the benefits of living in a historic district were highlights of the November 12 Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) meeting in the Council Chambers of the Montclair Municipal Building.

Kathleen Bennett, HPC chairperson and Graham Petto, HPC secretary, represented the Commission. Margaret Hickey of Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects, LLC., gave a presentation supporting the nomination of those neighborhoods. Montclair has four historic districts: Town Center, Upper Montclair, Pine Street and Watchung Plaza.

The Nov. 12 meeting was intended to introduce the nominations to the public, review the survey and listen to residents’ concerns. A second meeting on December 10 will solicit formal public comments.

The Wheeler Street neighborhood surveyed is bounded by Woodland Avenue, Willowdale Avenue, Lincoln Street and Maple Street and includes Wheeler Street and Monroe Place, according to the architectural survey (maps courtesy of HPC).

The Oakcroft neighborhood surveyed is bounded by Oakcroft Avenue, Parkside, North Mountain Avenue, and Brookfield Road and includes all of Princeton Place, Godfrey Road and Carteret Street and a portion of Edgemont Road.

The HPC website states their rationale for nominating neighborhoods for historic designation. “Local Historic Districts help to safeguard the heritage of Montclair by preserving resources within the Township which reflect elements of its cultural, social, economic and architectural history.”

Before Hickey started her presentation summarizing her company’s property survey, Graham Petto summarized the nomination process. The town applied for a grant from the state of New Jersey Historic Preservation Office to conduct a historic survey of the Oakcroft and Wheeler Street neighborhoods. The State awarded Montclair just under $25,000. The Town hired Connolly & Hickey, LLC to conduct the survey. After hearing public comments on December 10, HPC will refer the nomination to the Town Council, who will submit it to the Planning Board for comments. The council will then review the Planning Board’s comments and approve, modify or deny the nomination. That entire process will take a few months.

Wheeler Street Neighborhood

After Petto gave his overview, Hickey presented, detailing the architectural and historic significance of the districts based on a survey of 210 structures in both neighborhoods. Development in both districts started in the early 20th century and lasted until the Great Depression in 1929 for the Wheeler Street neighborhood and about 1946 for the Oakcroft neighborhood.

Working class Italians and African Americans emigrating from the South occupied the structures in the Wheeler Street neighborhood, based on U.S. Census data from that period. Housing stock consisted of Craftsman, Colonial Revival and Queen Ann styles, multifamily structures and apartment buildings. Aubrey Lewis resided at 38 Willowdale Avenue.

“On its own, the Wheeler Street Residential area should be considered for, at a minimum, local designation for its association with the history and development of Montclair to provide affordable housing using moderately-dense building types for African-American migrants from the South, Italian immigrants, and on a lesser scale, immigrants from the West Indies,” says the report.

The former home of Aubrey Lewis on Willowdale Avenue in Montclair’s Wheeler Street neighborhood.

Oakcroft Survey

The Oakcroft neighborhood developed due to its proximity to the railroad. Typical styles of homes included Craftsman, Colonial Revival, Queen Anne and Tudor Revival. Some homes in Oakcroft were featured in a 1910 article in American Homes and Gardens Magazine.

According to the Connolly & Hickey report, “the Oakcroft area should also be considered, at a minimum, for local designation for its history and development as upper-middle and middle-class housing as part of the development of Anderson Park in the early-20th century; many of the houses were designed by architects and the houses have seen little change since original construction creating a cohesive whole reflective of its early 20th century appearance.” Buzz Aldrin lived at 25 Princeton Place, which was built in 1910.

Buzz Aldrin’s former home on Princeton Place in the Oakcroft section of Montclair.

For more information, Oakcroft residents can refer to this website

Residents Question Benefits of Historic Designation

During the Q&A residents asked about the financial value of having their homes in a historic district and potential challenges related to renovations.

Regarding the financial impact of living in a historic district, Kathleen Bennett read a statement from Phillip Berman, immediate past president of the West Essex Board of Realtors. He’s also a realtor associate for Berkshire Hathaway home services. “Studies have shown that homes subject to preservation rules increase in value at a greater rate and are less subject to declines in value during a recessionary housing market.”

Petto answered residents’ questions about renovations. He stated that HPC review is required for additions or new permanent structures (such as sheds) on the property if those renovations can be seen from the street. In some cases, especially for corner houses, new additions or structures in the back may be visible from the street. Petto recommended that residents with questions refer to the Q&A available on the HPC’s website.

A public hearing about the nomination proposals by the Historic Preservation Commission will be held on Tuesday, December 10. HPC will be mailing notices about the hearing to residents in the Wheeler Street and Oakcroft neighborhoods this week.

HPC offers a number of resources to help residents understand historic designation and the responsibilities of homeowners living in those areas here.

View a recording of the November 12 meeting here.

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