WEST ORANGE, NJ — U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen toured the remains of the fire-damaged St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and discussed avenues to pursue in restoring the structure with church representatives and township officials during a visit to West Orange on Feb. 17. Frelinghuysen represents Congressional District 11, which includes parts of West Orange, in the House of Representatives.
The congressman advised those gathered to reach out to Assemblyman John McKeon, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey and State Sen. Richard Codey to learn about local funding that may be available to help preserve the church. While Frelinghuysen himself is not able to help financially since congressional earmarks were banned in 2010, he vowed to work with fellow U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. — who represents Congressional District 10, which also includes parts of West Orange — to help with the restoration process. Hopefully, they can all “play some roles” in returning the historic structure back to its former glory, Frelinghuysen said.
After seeing firsthand the damage wrought by the New Year’s Day blaze and the effect it has had on the congregation and residents, the congressman said he understands the impact of the loss of the 188-year-old church on the town.
“It’s one of the greatest tragedies, I’m sure, to have affected West Orange,” Frelinghuysen told the West Orange Chronicle while standing outside what is left of the building, which amounts to a roofless, hollowed-out shell filled with debris. “This is a symbol of the community that everybody can identify with. It’s so prominent in West Orange history. The church was built in the 1820s, so it’s part of the fabric of the township.”
Those who spoke with Frelinghuysen certainly seemed more hopeful after discussing the possibility of restoring the local historic structure. Councilman Joe Krakoviak told the Chronicle he thought the meeting went very well, with all in attendance on the same page. Krakoviak said everyone — including the representatives from the International Federation of Chaplains, which bought St. Mark’s in March 2015 for the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church to use — was in agreement about restoring the church.
But no restoration will be possible without a significant funds, Krakoviak pointed out. That is why, when federation representatives mentioned during the meeting that they would welcome donations from the West Orange community, the councilman pledged $1,000 of his own money if the federation establishes a rebuilding fund. And he urged other residents to contribute as well.
“This is a huge challenge that is going to involve everyone in the community, all of the different parts of the community, coming together to support this and make it happen,” Krakoviak said after the gathering.
Representatives from the federation did not respond to request for comment.
Krakoviak is not the only one who knows the necessity of fundraising for this project. West Orange Historic Preservation Commission Vice Chairman Martin Feitlowitz said he followed through with his promise to look into establishing a Friends of St. Mark’s advocacy group, getting in touch with someone who is involved with maintaining St. Mark’s cemetery and is interested in helping the church. Feitlowitz said he hopes such an organization can grow exponentially, because the historic structure will need all the monies it can get if it is to be saved.
“We all decided that good intentions are one thing, but money is really going to be the cure for getting this rebuilt,” Feitlowitz told the Chronicle following the meeting. “It’s a massive undertaking.”
Meanwhile, the effort to stabilize the building remains under way. In the past few weeks Optimized Engineering Associates principal Guy Lagomarsino, who was hired by the federation to assess the property, submitted his stabilization report, design plans and permit requests to township construction official Tom Tracey. Lagomarsino recommended shoring the structure from the outside using lateral braces and rakers, before placing beams across the tops of opposing walls to shore the interior.
Tracey must next approve the plans and the permits before any work can start. But the construction official told the Chronicle that a family emergency followed by West Orange’s offices being closed for the extended Presidents Day weekend had prevented him from looking at the plans, other than the cursory review he did before sending them to the Historic Preservation Commission. Now that the commission has returned the plans with its recommendation to him — it requested that an independent engineer be hired to review them — Tracey has had a chance to review them thoroughly and send any needed changes back to Lagomarsino. The Chronicle was not able to ascertain what those changes were by its Feb. 23 deadline. Tracey said Lagomarsino will then add those changes to the plans and return them to Tracey for his final approval, which Tracey said will happen as soon as possible.
“We want to make sure that everything is correct so we don’t have a problem in the field,” Tracey said after the meeting had ended.
Until those plans are approved and stabilization is completed, some stakeholders have expressed concern that the harsh winter weather might cause the unprotected structure to collapse, either due to strong winds or water seeping into the porous sandstone and cracking it. Frelinghuysen, too, thought this was a legitimate concern, suggesting that tarps or other material can be used to shield the building from the elements.
Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but what is certain is that West Orange residents are not willing to let its nearly 200-year-old institution, listed on both the National and State Historic Registers, be lost so easily. As Krakoviak said, St. Mark’s is simply too integral to the township to tear down.
“Think of the generations of West Orange residents and visitors who have come to know and appreciate that incredibly beautiful building,” Krakoviak said. “That’s why we need to restore it. It’s irreplaceable.”