Letter to the Editor: Preserve Union Street Home, Stop Demolition

Montclair is a town known for its abundance of fine old homes and more importantly, for long established characteristic neighborhoods, all over town. To be relevant today, Historic Preservation must consider safeguarding the existing social and built fabric of each neighborhood and the existing landscapes’ environmental qualities. Buildings and their architectural character are contributing factors to each neighborhood. Designated landmarks and historical districts statically increase overall property values.

Preserving and repurposing existing buildings and their landscapes contributes to the economic common good of the social fabric. It also maintains a town’s character and standards of quality for the whole community and protects from overdevelopment.

What to do in a scenario like the demolition permit for 109 Union Street requested due to the presence of mold, lead and asbestos?

109 Union Street is a characteristic Tudor Revival house on a large property in the First Historic District.

To summarize from the Historic Preservation Commission’s Preservation Specialist’s report:

    The subject property, 109 Union Street, is one of 240 structures in the First Residential Historic District in Montclair, which is listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places.

    Union Street was also part of “Preservation Montclair”, town‐wide survey that determined possible notable architectural resources in the Township. The properties along Union Street were part of the Phase I survey; 109 Union Street was one of several properties surveyed.

    The residence is a fine example of Tudor Revival architecture and is one of many similar houses found in Montclair. The house also fits within the neighborhood, which is distinctive due to its mix of residences of similar size and placement along the street adopting the popular architectural styles of the period, such as the Tudor Revival, Queen Anne, Shingle style, and others.

    The information provided by the applicant justifying the need for demolition appears incomplete.

    Execution of asbestos removal is a NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) regulated construction activity that should have a clear permitting and testing protocol as part of its removal.

    In addition, if there is loose asbestos‐ containing material in the house, how is this going to be addressed during demolition so as not to create a continuing environmental issue on the property and possibly prevent construction of a new residence that could be designed to be sympathetic to the neighborhood.

    The demolition of this structure is based on insufficient documentation could potentially set a bad precedent in this district. 109 Union Street is a significant part of the fabric of the First Residential Historic District, in and of itself has high degree of architectural integrity.

To summarize from Montclair’s Code 347-142.1E(3) – Review Criteria for Total Demolition, there are several factors that are specific to the scenario of the 109 Union Street demolition application:

    Its historical, architectural, cultural and aesthetic significance

    The probable impact of its removal upon the ambience of the landmark district. 

    The technological feasibility of structural rehabilitation. 

What could be a good solution? 109 Union Street is an architecturally significant contributing element to the neighborhood’s historic district. Preserve the exterior building structure and rebuild the interior. The building’s exterior and surrounding green spaces are what’s most valuable as a contributing historic element to neighborhood.

Mold and asbestos can be common in old structures and there are safety codes, regulations and industry standards to properly mitigate these instances. Demolishing a building can possibly create environmental hazards for the surrounding neighborhood. Permitting demolition without following through with the correct process could set a negative precedence in a town that is characterized for its abundance of fine old housing stock.

Frank Gerard Godlewski

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  1. And here is the rub with the new demolition ordinance…it designates by inference. The HPC should have had a 3rd vote related to the site…to prepare a municipal landmark nomination report.

    Throughout the entire discussion and application documentation, there is no question this house meets at least 2 criteria for designation by the Township Council. But, the HPC never discussed the obvious “what’s next”…should the Township designate it?

    We will have future demo application requests for historic structures. The ordinance is there to answer the question to preserve (deny permit) or not (approve permit). If the HPC votes to deny demo permit, then doesn’t designate the property, the applicant should appeal for obvious (to me) reasons.

    We can’t call it a historic resource and then not subject it to ordinance. It would be like spot zoning.

    PS: It is immaterial if this or any other a specific property is in a State Historic District. It’s protected class is because it is a local historic resource under our Master Plan. But Master Plan protections do not offer zoning protection…only requires consideration & written acknowledgment.

  2. Frank Rubacky – Thank you for the details. Did you know that the Geyer House, 39 Afterglow was just demolished? It was the famous Pagoda House on top of the mountain overlooking Montclair and the NYC skyline. Its an important landmark seen from all over town. It was published in Architectural Record in 1959 because of its architectural qualities. I looked all over for it in the historic resources surveys but realized the address is in Verona. None of the neighbors within 200 ft got notice. Some of the property is in Montclair. Why wasn’t this demolition in the Montclair planning Dept purview if part of the property is in Montclair. Its a Montclair Landmark. It was the Geyer’s house built on the property where Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth lived. What a shame. We’ve lost another landmark and a fabulous house. https://www.facebook.com/ForTheLoveOfOldHouses/posts/39-afterglow-way-montclair-new-jerseymidnight-magicc1965-5300-square-feet-6-bedr/2655684371364266/

  3. frankgg,

    I knew the house was to be demolished. As you noted, the structure is in Verona and not subject to Montclair’s HP. I believe it was built in the ’60s. It was somewhat interesting, but not an architecturally attractive house and obsolete shortly after it was finished. It was centered on 3-4 acres of prime ridge line w/ high privacy-gates/fencing/landscaping/etc. The physical site layout was the best part, but even Montclair doesn’t offer consideration of historic site protection. We only review the primary structure. A very narrow preservation focus.

    I thought the primary structure was a disjointed design with only a few stand-out elements (e.g. redwood pagoda-style ceiling) and numerous really poor choices (e.g Terrazzo floors).

    It will likely be replaced with a very, very highly illuminated, very tall residence & grounds.

  4. Yes that’s right Frank. It was the Niven house and it was later used as the Yankees summer camp. Before that point in history Monclair was known as a climatic station and resort with good healthy air!

  5. In fact, when Lou Gehrig became ill they thought that his conditions could improve if he were to stay at the Niven house because it has such good air. His dear friend Babe Ruth stayed there with him and took care of him. Babe Ruth was known to visit the sick. There is a plaque in Essex Fells where a house once stood. It was known that Babe Ruth would always come to visit a sick child who lived there. It seems that the sick child became well and grew up into a healthy adult. When Lou Gehrig passed away I think the house was burned down intentionally.

  6. To everything (turn, turn, turn)
    There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
    And a time to every purpose, under heaven

  7. I agree Frank… it the Geyer house was good architecture. I’ve heard that there was structural deterioration due to water infiltration and that the new owners are replacing b the house with another contemporary house.

  8. 109 Union aside, I seriously doubt people are pulling building permits these days.
    I called about the status of mine. Per instructions, I had to leave a message. I’m still waiting for a call back to learn its status.

    I think there will be a preponderance of those foregoing the permit process and asking for forgiveness if the Township ever catches on. This will be especially true in the Estate Section. The historic district review has been put off for 6 months until April. Many property owners will forego permits if it risks submitting to HPC review.

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