Is Historic Bergen Worth Saving?

It may depend on George Washington’s image— the one on the dollar bill, that is.
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Two years before New Jersey was granted its own governor, 32 years before the founding of Rutgers University and four decades before the American Revolution, the Van Zile family built a stone house on an expansive farmstead in what is now the borough of Midland Park. The sturdy structure, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, withstood the winds of change for nearly three centuries. What it couldn’t withstand, though, was the relentless 21st-century push for development in the third-densest county in the densest state in the U.S. In May, the Van Zile House was bulldozed into history to make way for multi-family housing, and Bergen County lost another piece of its living past. The homestead joins a growing list of historic buildings razed in the name of development. They include the Ackerman House in Ho-Ho-Kus, the Crim-Tice and Jacob Wortendyke homes in Woodcliff Lake, the Thomas Demarest House in Englewood, the Valley Hotel in Tenafly, the Van Gelder House in Wyckoff, the White Tenant House in Waldwick and the Zabriskie Tenant House in Paramus.

The Captain William Tyson House, a 156-year-old structure in Rochelle Park, was named one of New Jersey’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in 2018. Township officials say repairing and restoring the building would cost approximately $1 million.

While Bergen has the greatest number of historic buildings among New Jersey counties—273 of them on the National Register of Historic Places—there’s no guarantee that most won’t go the way of the Van Zile House and others like it. A space on the National Register can’t save a private home if its owner decides to sell it to a developer, and because so many historic houses in the county stand on large lots, they’re particularly vulnerable to development. Municipally owned structures are no less assailable if towns lack the public support, or the funds, to save and maintain them. In the years to come, Bergen County will increasingly be forced to decide which is more important, development or historic preservation.

Ultimately, it comes down to value: specifically, the value of history versus the value of land. But while it’s easy to determine the value of land—and in Bergen County, land is at a premium—it’s harder to put a price on history. Tim Adriance, chair of Closter’s Historic Preservation Commission, would argue that history is priceless. “Historic structures represent a physical element of our past,” he says. “They create a sense of place and become part of the fabric of the culture.” He cites the example of downtown Ridgewood, whose charm and appeal derive largely from its collection of historic buildings.

But if history is priceless, its upkeep can be costly, and municipalities are being asked to shoulder that cost. Ridgewood’s Zabriskie-Schedler House is one of only a handful of 19th-century Dutch wood-frame structures in the county. In 2009, the village of Ridgewood purchased the house and property with the intention of repurposing it as a sports hub and building a 90-foot baseball field on the property. Neighbors balked, claiming the proposed use would harm their quality of life, so the village formed a committee to determine the future of the house and its property. Meanwhile, the projected cost of restoring the 200-year-old dilapidated structure has risen well beyond the initial estimate of $780,000, with the first two bids coming in at $1.14 million and $1.25 million. The village is now seeking additional bids, but not everyone in town is sanguine about the restoration. Councilman Jeff Voigt, for one, anticipates that Ridgewood residents shouldn’t have to bear the substantial costs, which he believes will be close to $2 million when unexpected expenses—including a recent $90,000 estimate for asbestos remediation—are factored in.

Half of the costs of restoration, in fact, would be paid for with grants from the catchily named Bergen County Open Space, Recreation, Floodplain Protection, Farmland & Historic Preservation Trust Fund.

(You can call it the Open Space Trust Fund for short.) It reimburses municipalities 50 percent, and nonprofits 75 percent, of restoration expenses. But Voigt notes that annual upkeep of the house and property has been estimated “at anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000.” He’d like to see the building used for a revenue-generating purpose, preferably in a public-private partnership. “We should think about this very carefully,” he says, “and have a plan in place knowing that it can be sustained. Our budget’s tight as is, and we’re just going to be spending more and more on this, and the question of whom it will benefit and how it will be used to help everybody just hasn’t been thought about.”

Questions of cost have also dogged plans for restoring Rochelle Park’s Captain William Tyson House. That 156-year-old Italianate structure ended up on the auction block for the first time in August after township officials couldn’t agree on a plan for its reuse and residents raised questions about the affordability of restoring it. The house was offered for sale with a stipulation that the new owner preserve its historic integrity. But there were no buyers, so township officials decided to remove the historic constraints and hold a second auction. (At presstime the fate of the house—named one of the state’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in 2018 by the watchdog organization Preservation New Jersey—was uncertain.)

Committee woman Linda Boniface says that the town should never have purchased the house in the first place. “We’re a squaremiletown,” she says. “Our yearly budget is $12 million, and we’re in debt for $12 million, so the burden of restoration would have been on the taxpayers.” She notes that, when the town acquired it, the house was in poor condition, beset by mold, crumbling plaster and other potentially expensive problems and would probably require $1 million to restore.

Not all of the county’s municipally owned historic properties have proven so problematic. Wood-Ridge’s Arnault-Bianchi House, for instance, was built in the 1880s by Fridolin Arnault, one of the town’s founders, and deeded to the borough in the 1970s. Starting in the mid-2000s, the borough embarked on a 15-year project, eventually restoring the graceful Italianate structure (along with a carriage house and privy) to its original 19th-century glory. Renovations were funded by a 50-50 combination of borough appropriations and grants from the Open Space Trust Fund. Today, the building houses the Wood-Ridge Historical Society and is also used by the town’s library for public events; the surrounding property is a public park.

The Arnault-Bianchi restoration probably owes its success to the crucial combination of widespread public support and the existence of a town historic preservation commission (HPC), which often go hand in hand. As chairman of Tenafly’s Historic Preservation Commission, Karen Farris Neus notes that “part of our mandate is to educate the community about its history.” Historic preservation commissions, she says, “advocate for the character of the community and for preserving its history.” An HPC, which must be established by inclusion in a municipality’s master plan, also empowers the community to identify, evaluate, designate and regulate historic sites and districts. “Some of the strongest oversight to historic properties comes when a community has a preservation commission,” notes Elaine Kiernan Gold, Bergen County historic preservation consultant.

Perhaps most crucially, the HPC enables a community to be proactive. “The way to deal with developers,” says Adriance, “is to try to stay one step ahead of them and head them off before they get there, by inventorying historic sites, courting the community, getting people involved, and so on. You can’t chase bulldozers and win.”

Consider the Harold Hess Lustron House in Closter. Designed in the late 1940s to respond to a nationwide housing shortage and the return of GIs from World War II, Lustron houses were inexpensive and easy to build, consisting mostly of steel frames and porcelaincoated steel exterior panels. There are only two left in Bergen County (the other is in Alpine), so convincing town officials that the house needed preservation should have been a slam dunk. Except, says Adriance, that the house, built in 1950, didn’t look “historic” in the traditional sense. “We had comments like, ‘It’s a tuna can,’ ‘It’s the ugliest house in town,’ ‘George Washington didn’t stay here—why should we save it?’” It took an extensive education campaign on the part of the housing preservation commission to convince officials and residents that the house was worthy of preservation. “But once their eyes were open,” says Adriance, “they supported the project.”

Nevertheless, HPCs don’t win every battle. Owners, for instance, don’t always appreciate historic designations, which limit what they can do with a property. Farris Neus says that Tenafly has been mostly successful with its historic designations because “we’ve tried to overcome some of the preconceptions about dealing with an HPC by being very user-friendly.” Except in the case of borough-owned buildings, Tenafly’s local ordinance specifically states that a historic designation covers only “the exterior of the building as viewed from the street.” If a homeowner, say, wants to redo the front stairs, he has to get approval from the HPC; if he wants to redo the interior stairs, he’s free to change them in any way he desires as long as plans meet building codes.

Sometimes, though, as in the case of Tenafly’s historic movie theater, an owner can effectively resist a historic designation. When the HPC attempted to designate the building as historic, its owner, Bow Tie Cinemas, threatened to shut down the theater. Reluctantly, the HPC caved. “We need to do a better job of educating the public about what historic preservation is,” says Farris Neus. “There’s a huge misconception that it somehow tamps down property values. In fact, there are examples where it’s increased the value of the building and adjacent buildings.”

Once an undesignated historic property is sold to a developer, an HPC is relatively powerless to preserve it, though sometimes compromises can be struck. The borough of Fair Lawn, for instance, was unable to save the 264-year-old Jacob Vanderbeck Jr. House intact when a developer, Barrister Home Construction, bought the property on which it stands in order to build a 55-an-older community comprising 23 townhomes. The borough saved much of the house by agreeing to the demolition of a more recent addition on the home’s east side and allowing the developer to attach the historic structure to two townhomes and use it as a meeting and activity room. “I would rather have seen more of it preserved,” says Fair Lawn’s deputy mayor, Gail Rottenstrich, who wasn’t on the council when the deal with the developer was made.

In fact, notes Kiernan Gold, “not every historic structure is going to make it.” It’s a reality of historic preservation, and not one she’s happy about. But she’s adamant that some structures are too important to lose. “There are buildings that are threatened that are irreplaceable,” she says, “so that when they’re gone, they leave a hole in the fabric of the county.” To keep that fabric from fraying further is going to require commitment, a more widespread understanding of the importance of historic preservation, and yes, the money to finish the job.

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