W.O. has plethora of potential historical landmarks

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
Patrick Harshbarger presents a report about which locations in West Orange qualify for local landmark status at the Dec. 5 council meeting.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Historic Preservation Commission gave a presentation at the Dec. 5 Township Council meeting to inform council members and the public about a survey recently conducted in several sections of the town that revealed several locations meet the criteria to be named local or state landmarks. Patrick Harshbarger, the principal historian and architectural historian at Hunter Research Inc., shared his insight and fun facts about the West Orange of the past.

Harshbarger spent time in the St. Cloud, Main Street Corridor and Lower Gregory sections of town, and also began to look at properties in the Upper Gregory area. Approximately 200 places in West Orange were surveyed, and according to Harshbarger, approximately 20 percent qualify for landmark status.

“There really is quite a high number of really fine period architecture throughout the town,” Harshbarger told the West Orange Chronicle in a phone interview Dec. 8. “Lots of it is well preserved. There is a lot of original (structures) throughout the town, though there are things that have been modified that don’t appear as it did when it was new.”

According to the HPC’s bylaws, to qualify to become a local landmark, a piece of property has to be at least 50 years old, be associated with events or lives that are significant to the town’s past, and embody a distinctive type of character or construction. The HPC commissioners vote on which ones they wish to submit for landmark status, hold a public hearing, and then take the recommendation to the West Orange Township Council. The council then votes on whether a location should be a landmark. If the landmark in question is private property, permission from the owner is needed.

Harshbarger said that over time the perception of something can change, making its historical context more poignant; at the meeting he used the example of Queen Anne-style houses. Years ago, the architectural style was not very popular, but now it is considered classic. People and events can also alter the historical value of a place.

“If the property doesn’t have architecture that is necessarily historical, it can have associations,” Harshbarger said. “It doesn’t have to be completely intact, but we would ask, if someone who lived when it was built came here, would they recognize it 100 years later?”

Harshbarger found a few specific locations especially interesting in West Orange.

“The State Diner is a unique and extraordinary resource,” he said, also mentioning Schneider Hardware on Main Street, which was built in 1932. “It’s an interesting building because it was built as a combination store and assembly hall that would be used for social events. It was the time of silent films, so they would probably show movies there and the Town Council probably met there.”

The churches in town were also of interest to Harshbarger, as well as some school buildings. The building that currently houses Seton Hall Prep students used to be West Orange High School, and was sold to SHP in 1984; it was built in 1922.

“Seton Hall Prep is a fine Gothic Revival that was popular for schools that were built from around 1890 to 1930; it’s an example of that,” he said.

Harshbarger also mentioned three houses on South Valley Road in the Gregory section of town that date back to West Orange’s farming days, saying that the basic structures of a two-room farmhouse are still there.

“It’s hard to imagine, driving around, when it was a country space,” Harshbarger said.

It’s up to the HPC commissioners to decide which locations in town they want to designate as landmarks. Harshbarger said the members’ local knowledge of the town could be used to their advantage as they decide what would be best for the community.

According to HPC Chairman Brian Feeney, the commission has not yet decided which locations it wants to designate as landmarks.

“In 2018 the commission plans to designate two properties as Local Historic Landmarks, one commercial and one residential,” he wrote in a Dec. 10 email to the Chronicle. “A final selection of these properties will be made by the commission in January or February, with a detailed designation report written for each in the spring.”

“We recommended 40 very solid candidates, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they meet the criteria, so it’s a matter of picking from that list,” Harshbarger said. “It’s what’s best for the community and for historic preservation. It’s a testament to the community that there’s so much.”