Historians suggest seven properties as historic landmarks

Historic sites considered include Condit, Tompkins houses

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Two architectural historians suggested seven properties in the lower Gregory neighborhood as possible historic landmarks during the West Orange Historic Preservation Commission’s Feb. 8 meeting.

Patrick Harshbarger and Eryn Boyce, of Hunter Research, made their suggestions after conducting a survey of 45 area properties put forward by the commission as having a potential for historic status. The study was completed in September and is the first in the lower Gregory neighborhood since a 1992 townwide analysis; it was commissioned by the HPC with a grant obtained through the township’s participation in the Certified Local Government Program.

The study’s intention was to identify which properties might be eligible for historic landmark status on the township, state or national level. While the HPC only has control over West Orange’s historic landmarks, this paperwork would assist future quests to designate West Orange properties on the state or national registers. As such, two of the properties included on the list are already West Orange historic landmarks.

Each of the seven properties chosen by Harshbarger and Boyce met West Orange’s criteria for local landmarking, which means they are eligible for local, state and national landmark status since the standards for all three registers are basically the same. These include: being associated with a historically significant event, being linked with a historically significant person, embodying the distinctive characteristics of a particular construction type and yielding information important to history or prehistory.

Those first three criteria certainly cover the initial building discussed, located at 50 Beverly Road. According to the summary report provided by Harshbarger, the private residence was constructed as an English-style manor house circa 1920, which makes it stand out from the rest of the houses in the area, Boyce said.

“Its style is very unique for that part of the neighborhood,” Boyce said. “It has the feel of the larger estates that are up on the hill, although it is much later in origin than those, which are mostly mid to late 19th century.”

The building was the home of notorious gangster Abner “Longie” Zwillman from 1946 to 1959. In fact, Zwillman hanged himself in the house, though many contend he was more likely murdered there. Either way, the report states that the structure is eligible for historic landmark status due to its connection to a significant historical figure and event.

Another unique property suggested by the architectural historians was 31 Carter Road, which their report describes as the only modern style house in the lower Gregory neighborhood. It specifically has the characteristics of the contemporary style subtype, per the report, including a flat roof, a lack of decorative detailing and a steel beam frame. At the same time, it noted that the house shows influences from the international style such as curtain walls covered in white stucco, floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows and obscured entrances.

Boyce added that the building was surely designed by an architect, though she could not discover which one in her research. HPC Vice Chairman Martin Feitlowitz said he believes the house was designed by one of two particular firms, though he will have to look into it more. Knowing the specific architect could bolster the application if the HPC decides to pursue historic landmark status for the structure.

A third private residence determined to be eligible for historic status is located at 4 Ridgeview Ave. and known locally as the “Meeker House,” due to its association with the prominent West Orange family who helped develop the lower Gregory neighborhood as a suburb through several generations. That historical connection may be enough to qualify the house as a landmark, though the report states that more research will need to be done first.

But Boyce said the building is unquestionably eligible for historic status since it is an example of the East Jersey cottage, a type of house common in the region at the time it was constructed circa 1790. Granted, the report states that the Meeker House was eventually adapted into a Colonial revival style structure during the early 20th century. Still, the architectural historian said the house having remnants of the cottage is significant.

“You don’t have a lot that survive,” Boyce said.

The Condit House at 29 South Valley Road is another rare surviving East Jersey cottage recommended by Harshbarger and Boyce. Like the Meeker House, the report states that the Condit House was altered in the vernacular Italianate taste, but it is still one of the oldest existing buildings in West Orange. It has even been named a West Orange historic landmark since it was occupied for approximately 150 years by the Condit family, one of the founding families of the township.

Harshbarger and Boyce suggested a second property that has already been listed as a West Orange historic site — the Tompkins House at 21 South Valley Road. According to the report, the building is an “outstanding local example” of a vernacular Gothic revival style house, which was a popular design in the mid-19th century. In fact, the report states that it is one of just two in the neighborhood. But its core dates back to around 1790, which makes it another of the oldest homes in town.

Private residences were not the only structures examined by the architectural historians, though. Harshbarger and Boyce also studied schools in the area, eventually deciding that Seton Hall Preparatory School would be eligible for historic status. Their report said the building — which originally housed West Orange High School when constructed in the early 1920s — is an excellent example of work by Guilbert & Betelle, a prominent architectural firm at the time known throughout the Northeast for its scholastic buildings. And though numerous additions to the building have been made, Boyce said they do not detract from the main facade since they are all behind it.

Overall, Boyce said the building holds much local historical importance.

“It’s the oldest surviving high school in West Orange, so it’s also significant for its role in the growth of West Orange as a suburb in the 20th century,” Boyce said.

Last, the two architectural historians suggested the State Diner, also known as the Valley Diner, as a possible historic landmark due to the fact that its exterior and interior appear to be largely unchanged since being constructed in approximately 1947. Boyce pointed out that it is located in a prominent place on Valley Road without many buildings next to it, which adds to its appeal.

“It’s just kind of a cool building,” Boyce said. “There’s some really good potential there.”

Judging from its design features and age, Harshbarger attributed the building to the O’Mahony Diner Company, though he was unable to confirm that lineage. Fortuitously, West Orange Council President Joe Krakoviak said he could arrange for the architectural historians to go inside the closed diner since he is working with property owner Housing and Neighborhood Development Services to reopen it. That would be helpful, Harshbarger said, because the interior might have a plaque detailing exactly who the builder was.

Aside from the seven properties eligible for individual historic status, Harshbarger and Boyce also suggested that two clusters of properties in the lower Gregory neighborhood might qualify as historic districts due to their collective architectural characters. One, which they called the “Northern Enclosure,” features several English cottage-style houses along the Colony drives and landscaping details such as the mall and gates that express the “suburban middle class ideal of the 1920s.” The other, which they named the “Forest Hill Road and Hillside Avenue Victorian District,” includes a concentration of late-Victorian houses and the incline railroad right-of-way.

“We really felt like that section of the neighborhood has a very strong architectural identity that could potentially someday be a historic district,” Harshbarger said.

Yet Feitlowitz told the Chronicle in a Feb. 10 phone interview that the HPC has no plans to create a historic district any time soon. Right now, he said it is only focusing on individual properties.

Now that Harshbarger and Boyce have presented their survey results, Feitlowitz said the West Orange Planning Department will keep the suggestions on record. Then, if someone proposes to renovate one of the properties, he said it will forward the application to the HPC so that the commission can ensure the building is not destroyed or inappropriately altered.

At the same time, Feitlowitz said the survey will come in handy if anyone requests that one of the properties listed be designated a local landmark. Being suggested in the survey would certainly serve as evidence that the building deserves to be so recognized, but the vice chairman said it might have to commission another survey focusing on it more in-depth. If the HPC is satisfied the property meets the necessary criteria, he said it will make a recommendation to the West Orange Planning Board and Township Council. Once those groups approve the idea, the property will receive historic status.

Meanwhile, Feitlowitz said the commission will likely next initiate a survey of the upper Gregory neighborhood to see which properties there could be historic landmarks. In recent years, he said it has commissioned surveys for the St. Cloud and Main Street areas in addition to a survey last year of lower Gregory. Those three sections of West Orange were chosen because they were among the oldest in town, he said, and therefore would be the most likely to contain historic sites.

The vice chairman said the results of those surveys supplant the data for those parts of town in the 1992 town-wide analysis. Feitlowitz explained that the HPC is obligated to update its town surveys every five years, but it was not until the commission started obtaining grants that it has been able to afford a firm such as Hunter Research to do the work.

Photos by Sean Quinn