In today’s post, we will examine the events surrounding the purchase, assessment and demolition of a major historic and cultural landmark in Freehold, courtesy the News Transcript at gmnews.com.
First you’ll see a summary article written at the time of its demolition after it was purchased by a developer for preserving and then deemed unsalvageable. Following this is a letter by a New Jersey Senior Preservation Specialist submitted to that newspaper after its demolition that disagrees with the developer’s latter assessment.
The lessons learned from this account are important in making development decisions regarding our borough’s own cultural landmarks that will forever be in danger until officially recognized and protected under local, state and national historic trust directives.
January 16, 2008
The News Transcript
Greater Media Newspapers
Downtown Freehold Borough took a hard shot to the body in the second week of the new year when the landmark American Hotel was demolished.
The historic building, which stood in Freehold for about 180 years, held many memories for generations of area families who celebrated their most cherished occasions there.
At the end, and for the past few years, those memories were encased in a decaying shell of rotting wood, peeling paint, and cold, dark, damp ballrooms. It was difficult for those who loved this Main Street classic to watch the grand old landmark waste away.
Two years ago businessman Steve Goldberg bought the American Hotel at public auction and said he was determined to restore the building to its former glory with new uses.
However, according to Goldberg, preliminary interior work in the building revealed that years of neglect had taken too much of a toll to save the structure. The developer’s original plan to remove only the third floor of the oldest portion of the American Hotel had to be scrapped.
Instead, most of the hotel building fronting Main Street, three stories of history and memories, came down. Now there is a large open space where the bulk of the American Hotel once stood. One section of the building that fronts Main Street will remain in place.
Goldberg says he will construct a new building that will resemble the old hotel. Freehold residents and municipal officials will wait anxiously to see that happen – hoping this businessman will provide the town with a building that may itself become a landmark and stand for 200 years.
One wonders whether the men who built the American Hotel in the early 1800s imagined that it would stand for almost two centuries. Could they have envisioned the thousands of family affairs that would be celebrated there? The countless meetings of area business and philanthropic organizations?
With the demise of the American Hotel, those people who celebrate local history and are its guardians are feeling a deep sense of loss. They may believe that they came up short in their efforts to protect an old friend, but they are not to blame.
Previous owners who let the American Hotel run into the ground were the true culprits in this sad turn of events. It seemed to be wishing beyond all realistic hope that Goldberg would be able to salvage the oldest part of the building.
As a newspaper that traces its roots back more than a century in Freehold, we, too, feel the loss of another piece of the town’s history. This unfortunate development should serve as yet another reminder that the community’s efforts need to be redoubled in order to preserve and protect Freehold’s remaining architectural and historical landmarks.
Resident Doesn’t Buy ‘Structural Problems’ Explanation
It is horrific to hear of the news of the destruction of the American Hotel in Freehold Borough. I am positive the building could have been saved, restored and used as a hotel again. “Structural problems” is a cliché often used to rationalize the demolition of a historic building – a cop-out. Unfortunately it is accepted at face value by the majority of people today. Several years ago the house on the corner of Main Street and Park Avenue was slated for demolition due to “structural problems” to make way for a new building. Thankfully it’s still here.
I am not a structural engineer. However, as a Senior Historic Preservation Specialist, I have been involved with the restoration of numerous historic buildings throughout New Jersey which have been determined by historic preservation specialists to have had serious structural problems but have been rehabilitated and/or restored.
The problem in this case is that those involved were not qualified to make such a decision on a building of this age, especially a historic landmark. You need qualified specialists. Those involved qualified for modern structures are not necessarily qualified for historic structures.
There is a great difference in the professional (engineer, architect, etc.) trained to specialize in historic preservation, and the professional who has the minimal required coursework in the preservation of historic buildings. It is the same difference between the general practitioner vs. the specialist.
The State Office of Historic Preservation provides a list of qualified professionals who meet the minimum federally required professional qualifications to work on historic preservation projects. A project such as the American Hotel, therefore, should have been evaluated by a qualified preservation architect overseeing the project architect, engineers, etc. The Freehold landmark might then be preserved for years to come instead expanding the landfill.
The Drake House, a historic house in Plainfield much older than the American Hotel, can now hold over 100 people on the second floor as a result of specialists. When will Freehold learn to protect its cultural resources?
Another great loss to Freehold Borough was the Bartleson house. This building was really demolished by Freehold Borough – not by the developer, because municipal land use zoning laws were not set up to protect the building from the developers. As much as the residents tried to stand in the way of the developers, there was no ordinance to protect it – the door was left wide open.
As a result, a preservation commission was created. What is its purpose? Why was demolition approved so quickly without further investigation? How many more buildings will it take to know what to do?
It was said in the newspaper that the new building will be exactly as the original. This is a worn out phrase that’s usually used to rationalize over the “structural problem” excuse. We can all be sure there will be a new structure that will look nice, but that’s it. The new building will “resemble” the original, especially to the untrained eye and those driving past, but it will definitely not have the character of the original.
The detail and relief will be diminished. All wood trim will definitely look totally different than the original. Fenestration, the most pronounced character defining feature, will most likely be a different size, window frames will be narrower with less detail, and probably plastic grids instead of true divided light window panes. Original character defining features will be lost forever.
As I am sad to see this happen, I hope readers will learn that when it comes to historic buildings, you need qualified professionals.
January 23, 2008