Former Nathan Robins home, built in 1896, saved with a bit of luck

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METUCHEN – Among the remnants of Dr. Peter Freis’ pediatric office from the 1970s and previous tenants as recent as last April is the interior historic beauty of what was once a single family dwelling built by Nathan Robins in 1896.

Robins had lived in the home with his wife and family. His two daughters inherited the home after their parents died.

Plans to demolish the three-story home at 443 Middlesex Ave. in Metuchen, subdivide the property and construct three single-family homes was met with a bit of divine historic intervention last May. Siding had already been stripped and was awaiting asbestos removal.

“We almost lost this building,” Mayor Jonathan Busch said.

Nancy Zerbe, chair of the borough’s Historic Preservation Committee, called the mayor, who connected her with the developer of the site, Anthony Rosamilia of Aros Development LLC. She asked to document the site for historic purposes.

“It’s a model story of a developer who was gung ho in construction,” Busch said. “[The developer] agreed to meet with Nancy Zerbe, who in her private capacity loves history.”

The developer gave Zerbe a tour of the home and that’s when hours of discussion and negotiations ensued. The developer is in the process of still subdividing the property into three lots, however, the former Robins home will remain for sale to Zerbe and her husband Pete and they plan to preserve the home of five multi-unit apartments.

“We always were keeping an eye out [for a property] along these lines,” Zerbe said, noting they are under contract to purchase the home and once the Planning Board approves the subdivision, they will begin work on the home.

With two grown daughters living out of state and wanting to keep their home base in Metuchen, it was a win-win for the Zerbes as well as historic preservation in the borough.

“The enthusiasm, excitement and support means a lot to Pete and I,” Zerbe said of their decision to purchase the home.

Jay Muldoon, borough’s director of special projects, said “through a lot of work and negotiations, maybe a bit of luck, we came up with a plan that will preserve that house and keep the whole stretch of Middlesex Avenue sort of intact.”

“Nothing happens without a redeveloper, who is always looking for a fair return on their investment,” he said. “What they are doing is a win-win for historic preservation in the borough.”

In 1943, the Zoning Board of Adjustment approved building permits to convert the single family home to a multi-family building of five modern apartments to relieve housing pressure at the time, Chris Cosenza, project manager of LRK, an architect, design and planning firm for the borough.

The third floor was renovated in the 1980s.

The first tenants after the conversion in July 1944 were Frank and Dorothy Poandl and their 11 children – six daughters and five sons. They lived on the first floor.

When one of their daughters Carol married Peter Trecolis, a former borough councilman, they lived on the second floor.

In the 1970s, Peter Freis bought the property and moved his pediatric practice into the first floor. He married Kathleen Poandl.

The existing home is within the Middlesex Avenue-Woodwild Historic District, which was added to the National and New Jersey Register of Historic Places on July 31, 2017. It sits essentially as a gateway of a stretch of wide lots facing Middlesex Avenue with larger homes.

Historic Preservation

Zerbe has been at the forefront in the fight for historic preservation in the borough. With more than 100 historic homes demolished in a five-year period from 2013-18, and the risk of losing older neighborhoods, the borough is in the process of hiring a consultant to ensure historic significance is considered in planning decisions of older homes.

The borough received a $15,000 New Jersey Historic Trust grant through the work of Zerbe and Millennium Strategies, the borough’s grant consultants. The funds will help the borough create a historic preservation ordinance.

Zerbe said the proposed ordinance would evaluate Metuchen’s buildings for historic significance and provide a review process for their protection. She said the borough has review authority over the design of the new infill houses; however, there is currently no legal mechanism for review of demolitions.

Busch during his mayoral address on Jan. 1 said they also hope to add a historic preservation element to the borough’s masterplan.

“This document will evaluate Metuchen’s historic resources, develop goals for preservation and incorporate preservation into other planning processes,” he said.

Discussions about creating a historical preservation ordinance became heightened in March 2018 with the demolition of two 19th century homes on High Street and again in September 2018 when 59 Graham Ave., known as the David Graham Thomas home built circa 1850, was demolished.

In July 2020, the Planning Board approved three new homes to replace the historic Hester Poole house at 101 Rose St. The house was sometimes known as the Isaiah Rolfe House, constructed in 1850.

Discussions by municipal officials regarding such an ordinance date to the late 1980s, but no ordinance was ever adopted.

Benefits of the National and New Jersey Register of Historic Places List

Inclusion in the National Register enables the owner of a property to take advantage of financial benefits, such as a 20% federal income tax credit for a substantial rehabilitation of an income-producing building, according to the state Historic Preservation Office.

Zerbe said they are watching closely an economic stimulus bill package that was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last June that included raising the 20% federal income tax credit to 30%. The U.S Senate did not move on the package at the time.

Since the home is designated as an area in need of redevelopment, the redevelopment authority may provide long-term tax abatements on improvements to the site and may also create a payment in lieu of taxes or PILOT for the area. The redevelopment authority may select a redeveloper for the site and enter into agreements and contracts with the redeveloper in support of putting forth the redevelopment.

Last May, the borough adopted an ordinance designating the entire borough as a designated rehabilitation area in order to stimulate redevelopment and rehabilitation in the borough.