The recent demolition of two 19th century homes in Metuchen has raised concerns


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METUCHEN —  The recent demolitions of two 19th century homes on High Street have raised concerns of the members of the Metuchen Historic Preservation Committee.

The committee is concerned about the potential loss of a third historic home in the area.

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“I know this is happening in various places around the town, but our focus is in the area of Graham [Avenue], Lake [Avenue] and High Street,” Nancy Zerbe, chair of the historic preservation committee, said.

Zerbe shared her concerns at a Borough Council meeting on March 19.

“In 2010, our committee received a grant to hire a professional to come into the town to look at possible historical districts,” she said. “That professional recommended [in a report] the [Middlesex Avenue] Woodwild Park area that we just nominated.”

The Middlesex Avenue-Woodwild Park Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 31, 2017.

One of the other possible historical districts named in 2010 included the Graham Avenue-Thomas Pond Historic District.

The Graham Avenue area includes Franklin Place, Lake Avenue between High and Spring streets, Spring Street between Lake Avenue and Main Street and parts of High Street and Graham to Lake avenues.

“We’ve lost two properties in the last year, one on 59 High [Street] at the corner of High and Thomas [streets] across from the [Metuchen] Y,” Zerbe said, noting the home was circa 1872. “It went into foreclosure, was sold and demolished.”

Zerbe said the second home sold and demolished was at 47 High Street built circa 1865.

“Our concern is we are losing our historical resources,” she said. “Currently we are concerned about the David Graham Thomas house at 59 Graham Ave., built circa 1850 around the corner.”

The home is described as an Italianate architectural style home in the historical district report.

“The house is still there, but we are aware that it has gone into foreclosure and we are very concerned about what is going to happen to that house,” Zerbe said.

David Graham Thomas was a prominent resident and large property owner for whom Graham Avenue and Thomas Street are named.

The most famous resident of the neighborhood was George S. Siltzer, a former state senator who became the 38th governor of New Jersey. He lived at 79 Graham Ave.

Also in the area is the Mary Wilkins Freeman House located on Lake Avenue.

Freeman was a prolific, critically acclaimed author during the 1880s to 1930 period. She was a friend of Mark Twain and other important writers of the period.

Through her association with Metuchen resident Henry Mills Alden, editor of Harper’s Magazine, she met and married another Metuchen resident, Charles Freeman, and the two established their home at 207 Lake Ave.

Thomas Pond, known as Tommy’s Pond, and the surrounding park fronts on Lake Avenue and Franklin Place.

The 1.8 acre park, which includes the 0.4 acre pond, was donated to the borough in 1929 by the grandchildren of Thomas.

Zerbe said the historic houses are very important for the history, architecture and nostalgia factors.

“These are prominent people in our town’s history,” she said, adding the architecture and history are important components to a historical district.

Zerbe said the homes are part of what makes an area special and the reason why people such as those on the historic preservation committee who want to live in an old house.

“We are here [in Metuchen], we don’t want to live in suburbia and we feel like a lot of people feel the same way and we are hearing from those people,” she said.

Zerbe, who works in the field of historic preservation, said there needs to be a level playing field.

She said after the two homes were demolished on High Street, she said they heard from a lot of people interested in buying the homes and/or realtors who had potential interested clients.

“These people didn’t have an opportunity to get access,” she said.

Zerbe said a municipality can have a policy that encourages realtors through educational programs to become certified in historic houses and try to encourage, look for or reach out to clientele who want historic properties.

She also noted for several years there has been legislation pending in Trenton for New Jersey to set up a tax credit program for rehabbing historic houses, which an owner can take advantage of.

“It’s a very important economic tool,” she said. “I encourage the borough to look at that and decide if it is something that we think would help our town and consider a resolution supporting the legislation.”

Zerbe said some towns also have a historical preservation ordinance.

“It’s really the only way we have, under state law, some control over demolitions,” she said. “From my understanding, municipalities cannot stop a demolition, but what it can do, through a historical preservation ordinance, is at least level the playing field. It will give an opportunity for a historic house to have a delay in demolition and the borough and council can put on requirements and say this is a historical house, market it for whatever period of time before authorizing a demolition.”

Zerbe said the ordinance is a tool that the borough looked at in the 1980s and it was rejected.

“That’s a long time ago … maybe we should look at it again,” she said.

Richard Miller, a member of the historic preservation committee, said in the past when developers would subdivide the historic properties, they would save historic properties and build around it.

“They’ve done this on Honey Court and the corner of Graham and Thomas,” he said. “Now it seems like the prevailing wisdom is to tear everything down and there are other ways to preserve the house and maybe not tear it down. I don’t know if there is any way we can encourage to [not tear down the homes]. An ordinance would help for certain.”

In the 2010 report, principal threats to the Graham Avenue-Thomas Pond Historic District included loss of integrity due to inappropriate alterations and demolition leading to inappropriate infill.

Mayor Jonathan Busch said historical preservation is very important and is part of Metuchen.

“It is a big fabric of this town’s history,” he said. “The homes and its structures are highlights of Metuchen.”

Busch asked the historic preservation committee to take the lead on the issue and report back to the council on what the community is interested in.

“We really don’t want to lose 59 Graham,” he said. “It’s a beautiful home … it would be really a shame if it were torn down. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and at the same time do whatever we can under the authority of the law. I understand these are private properties and we want to try to preserve our history as much as possible.”

Zerbe said the committee is definitely willing to pursue it more, get comments from the public and report back to the council.

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