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Howell officials still searching for solution to MacKenzie house woes

HOWELL – A piece of Howell history is in desperate need of repair, but the Township Council and concerned members of the Howell Heritage Group are caught in a quagmire as to how to go about the task of fixing an historic building.

The MacKenzie Museum and Library, 427 Lakewood-Farmingdale Road (Route 547) is owned by a nonprofit organization, the Howell Historical Society. The building holds many historic artifacts, but it has been closed for years because it requires more than $150,000 in renovations.

The home had its origins as a settler’s cabin between 1730 and 1750. A grist mill was built in 1779 and the cabin became the miller’s home. In the mid-1800s an addition to the home was built. The grist mill burned down in the 1920s. In 1956, Jessie and James MacKenzie purchased the house and the MacKenzie family owned it until 1982.

The Howell Historical Society and the Howell Heritage Group claim rights to the MacKenzie house. The Howell Heritage Group is the newer organization and was formed by former members and past-presidents of the Howell Historical Society.

On Aug. 14, Deputy Mayor Rob Nicastro, Councilman Bob Walsh and Councilwoman Evelyn O’Donnell held a discussion with representatives of the Howell Heritage Group in regard to the MacKenzie home. Mayor Theresa Berger and Councilwoman Pauline Smith were absent from the council meeting.

Virginia Woolley, who was a charter member of the Howell Historical Society and friends with Jessie MacKenzie, said she was “a little disappointed” because she believed the council had decided what to do with the building.

Township Attorney Joseph Clark addressed why the council had not made a decision.

“I was asked to look at some documents and … it looked like we had two valid, organized, competing historical societies to work particular properties. As I learned more, I found out the Howell Historical Society has … a significant amount of (items) in the MacKenzie house,” Clark said.

Clark said based on his research, he could not make any recommendation to the council because of liability reasons.

“If there is a private property interest at stake, the council cannot pick and choose at that point on how to deal with that,” he said.

O’Donnell asked Clark which organization will be recognized because she believes the recognized group would have ownership over the items in the MacKenzie house.

“Originally, (the Howell Heritage Group) had asked if they would be declared (the recognized historical society in Howell) … So it is important for the group to hear the legal background on why this could or could not be the case,” O’Donnell said.

Clark said the original historic organization in the township – the Howell Historical Society – still has an ownership interest in the MacKenzie house and the items inside.

“If the council were to appoint the Howell Heritage Group (as the recognized historical society) … it (would be) taking private property from (the Howell Historical Society) and giving it to a new group and that is obviously a liability issue,” the attorney said.

“I understand there may be some issues among all of the groups, but I think the best thing is that if there is any way for the groups to sort of come together, come to a common understanding about how to deal with all of these issues, it is going to be far better off because it is really a very different position for the council to be in, to have to choose among these various groups and I would not recommend doing it based on what I know about who owns what in these various buildings and the buildings themselves,” Clark said.

Woolley said there are three people in the Howell Historical Society. She said there are 20 people in the Howell Heritage Group who want to help get the museum open and obtain a grant to improve the situation at the historic site.

Nicastro said one issue Howell is facing is that it would cost more than $100,000 to fully repair the house. He said the bottom line is that the house is still unsafe.

Woolley said she has copies of a letter from May 1982 from Jessie MacKenzie’s lawyer to Howell which states that the house will go back to the family if it is not maintained. She supplied the council with copies of the letter.

Members of the Howell Heritage Group and the public shared their concerns with the council regarding the MacKenzie house and the condition of the artifacts that have remained in the home without being cared for in recent years.

Virginia Krzyzanowski said the members of the Howell Heritage Group were shocked to hear the municipality does not have ownership of the MacKenzie house.

“I think the state of facts surrounding this house are sort of in a bit of a whirlwind and that is all the more reason why I would not be comfortable making any kind of recommendation to the council about which group is which,” Clark said.

Walsh agreed it is a dilemma and said, “If I knew an answer I would have given it 13 years ago.”

“All of us were here when the Mackenzie family gave that house (to Howell). We knew the basement flooded, we knew it needed to be pumped every day … So by having leaders who sat there and let the building rot … you now have $100,000 worth of work that you have to do, which is absolute negligence because they knew what to do,” Krzyzanowski said.

She said she donated items to the Mackenzie museum.

“I want my property back, it is probably moldy. (The Howell Historical Society) has not preserved or protected Howell’s property. Tell them to get the heck out, they should not be leaders of that organization. How do they get control and maintain control when you have a citizens group begging you to just tell them to step down? They are not here tonight, they are not representing their side of the case, we are here begging for help,” Krzyzanowski said.

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