Thursday, August 3, 2017

Now, Southern New Jerseyans can gain expertise in historic preservation.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH), Rutgers University-Camden,  has just launched a certificate program in historic preservation. Now, Southern New Jerseyans can gain expertise in historic preservation and take it back to their communities. Attention HP commissioners, elected officials, city planners and planning board members, homeowners, historic site admins and volunteers, architects, engineers, attorneys, developers, realtors, or just interested folks...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Farms Report II Now Available

My study of four farm outbuildings in Salem County, NJ is complete! In it, I recorded and analyzed a ground barn made of of three 1792-1860 barns, a carriage barn, and two wagon  houses (also called drive-in corn cribs) that are quite distinct from each other. "Salem County Farms Recording Project Volume II" is now available at this link. You can read , download and order a print copy if you like. Thanks to the New Jersey Historical Commission and the Vernacular Architecture Forum for their financial support!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

When Conservation Makes No Sense: The Case of the Abbott House

At the southern end of Abbott Farm Road in Elsinboro Township stands a stuccoed brick house, separated from Alloway Creek by an earthen bank. Here, English immigrants George and Mary Abbott purchased 136 acres from Joseph Nicholson in 1694 for 100 pounds silver. The fine stand of white oak for building and fuel and the salt meadows for growing hay on the site were key assets that appealed to them. On the site was a log house built by the first English settler, Samuel Nicholson (Joseph's father), who had accompanied colony founder John Fenwick to West New Jersey on the ship Griffin in 1675.

The Abbotts occupied Nicholson's log house until 1704, when they built a brick "chambered hall" (one lower room and one upper room) on the west end of the log house. Twenty years later in 1724, the prospering Abbotts built on the site of the old log house a new brick section with a two-room "hall-and-parlor" plan. It may have been very similar to a nearby house built in 1722 by Joseph's brother Abel Nicholson (who may have been George Abbott's uncle). But, unlike at the Nicholson House, the stucco applied to the Abbott house in 1847 hides any gable-end pattern of initials, dates, or decorative designs. However, a gable-end pattern is likely to exist, based upon the Flemish checker bond that has been revealed on the south side of the house (qualifying it as a patterned-brickwork house), the Abbott's Quaker affiliation, the proximity of the Nicholson House, and a possible family tie to the Nicholsons.

Tragically, the owners of the Abbott House, who were unable to sell it after a year on the open market, are set to sell this 5-acre property to the State of New Jersey under its Green Acres program. Green Acres purchases land for conservation and open space. The trouble is, buildings are undesired for this program, and this house--livable, historically significant, and retaining much historic fabric--is slated for demolition within 60 days after the transfer (August 1). New Jersey will spend $295,000 of the public's money to trash perfectly good and very significant cultural property, wasting history and the building's working, embodied energy. How non-green of Green Acres! Sadly, no one will ever again be able to study this house for its architectural signs of everyday life and ideas of the past. Undiscovered historical data, written in the building and site, will perish.

Such demolitions are not new, and point out the conflict of agendas among programs within the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). A chronic conflict is between open space and historic preservation, which is administered by the Historic Preservation Office. This is not a new problem. Just recently, a frame house on Abbott Farm Rd, was deemed to hold no significance and demolished under the same arrangement. However, we recently saw a 1743/4 survey of the Abbott Plantation which showed a "tenement" house on that very site, evidence of a historical relationship to the Abbott House on the original Abbott parcel. This is indicative of another problem in the process--the inability of the SHPO to determine significance of a possibly eligible building or site, through lack of resources to do sufficient research, bias toward the criteria of architecture (one of four criteria), and bias toward elite architecture. The National Register Criteria does provide for the recognition of vernacular, that is, less stylish common houses, but this is harder to argue without extensive research into the land and social history of the property. In this case, the tenement site is a lost example of a place where tenant farmers, or servants, or even slaves lived, and how many examples of that do we know about? Is it important to be able to see and understand such places, as well as those of the wealthiest landowners? Is our view of history complete without an interpretation of the working people who created the wealth for the landowners?

However, eligibility is moot, because unless a property is actually listed on the NJ Register of Historic Places, it has no real protection from a state undertaking, such as a purchase by Green Acres. Listing mandates a binding review under the law. Sadly, most of the distinctive patterned-brickwork houses, which represent an early regional architectural building tradition that is seen most prominently in southern New Jersey, are not listed, and neither are other possibly significant properties like the unfortunate frame tenement on Abbott's Farm Rd. So, the NJ Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has no authority to force Green Acres to change course. Nevertheless (and thankfully), the SHPO is actively consulting with Green Acres to preserve the house. The issue has risen to the level of the DEP Commissioner's office under Bob Martin. But that is no reason to rest. There is no deal yet.

Penny Watson, a preservation architect and principal in the firm of Watson & Henry Associates in Bridgeton, NJ, and I have been working to raise public awareness by social media, email, and TV media, and to find ways to avert the ultimate doom of the house. We are in our third week of effort. Our strategy consists of pushing Green Acres to either transfer the the agreement of sale to a private buyer, or re-sell the house after they buy it (called a diversion). We are pushing for a diversion, and preparing for a transfer.

There is an eager buyer who is working very hard to line up a mortgage and jump through the various hoops that would be required of a lender. This scenario would require a diversion, because they cannot meet the August 1 deadline for settlement under the owners purchase agreement, and the owners would not be inclined to delay the sale. If Green Acres does not elect a diversion, we have the non-profit group Preservation New Jersey lined up to accept the purchase agreement before August 1. The huge hurdle with that scenario would be the need (which falls on Penny and me) to raise the purchase money to the tune of $295,000. The bulk of it would require loans from private individuals, a very difficult and complicated task, along with commitment to purchase by our interested party. But it would be a quick turnaround, perhaps three months at most.

We ask readers to help by doing the following:

Sign the online petition at which currently has 1,169 signers. It will be delivered to the DEP Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner, and our District 3 legislators, Senator Sweeney and Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Adam Taliaferro. You don't have to be a New Jerseyan. Click on this link.

Write the DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, and the Deputy Commissioner David Glass and ask them in your own words for a diversion of the property to a private buyer.

Write our legislators directly by selecting District 3 at this link. Ask them to pressure DEP for a diversion of the property to a private buyer.

Consider a short-term loan of funds to help PNJ buy the property in the event of a transfer of purchase agreement. Many contributions would ease the pain.

Help save the Abbott House!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Zerns Wagon House: A Dutch-like Barn in Mannington

I began fieldwork under my latest New Jersey Historical Commission grant in August, assisted by my colleague Maria Cerda-Moreno. We focused on elevations and sections (more easily done with two people than floor plans) until we could be joined by our third crew member Stephanie Long Fazen in September. Those were some hot days!

The Zerns Wagon House is an example of a ubiquitous outbuilding type that had multiple uses, such as housing a farm wagon, drying and storing corn on the cob for use as animal feed, storing grain in a loft, storing potatoes in a cellar, and miscellaneous storage of implements and animals. Crib barns or wagon houses assume a number of different forms in the area however, though most have one or more drive bays and one or two side aisles, and some have cellars and lofts. Some were built of a piece; others were additive. 

Janet looking. Photo by Maria Cerda-Moreno.
The Zerns Wagon House was built of a piece with a central drive-in runway, adjacent side aisles, a loft, and a stone-walled cellar under the drive bay. It has the form and shape of gable-ended barns from other regions, such as the Dutch barn of northern New Jersey and New York, and those found in the Chesapeake region. This one, however, does not share the structural logic of a Dutch barn, which is built of a series of H-shaped frames called anchor bents. The Zerns barn is framed in the English way, as a principal post box frame.

Maria Cerda-Moreno and I measure the roof projection.
Janet records as Maria measures.
The farmstead was established in 1849 by John R. and Lydia Bassett Zerns. John Zerns was from Pennsylvania and Lydia was a daughter of Joseph Bassett, who was of a large, landed Quaker family in Mannington. The wagon house and the dwelling are the last standing historic buildings.

The farmstead is now unoccupied though the land is actively farmed by a local farmer who lives elsewhere. The last occupant, Ruthann Wright, sold the farm after her husband George, who was the third generation Wright on this farm, passed away in February 2009. Ruthanne has generously shared with me many family photos that chronicled the family and the farmstead since 1904. They will help me visualize the farmstead as it was and how it functioned. I have learned that there was once a three-bay basement barn with a dairying wing and milk house, a free-standing corn crib, a labor house, and an equipment shed. An Italianate-style house still stands, but is now vacant, unfortunately. Here in this wagon house, these farmers sat and cut the eyes out of last years' stored potatoes for planting this year's crop.

Maria, Stephanie and Janet in the wagon house, posing on the steps to the loft.
The wagon house bears evidence of two corn cribs, both within the central aisle at the side walls. A stair accesses the loft above, where we found possible evidence of bins for storing grain. We cautiously made our way down the cellar stair (sometimes they are very deteriorated from dampness), but it was actually quite sturdy. The cellar was floored with brick, and the runway floor framing had a closed-up hatchway which allowed produce such as potatoes to be lowered to the cellar from the runway floor. With headlamps, we recorded a plan and section. Like most such runway floors over cellars, this one had been shored up with many helper posts.

This wagon house was rehabilitated at least twice in its life. George and Ruthann Wright gave this building a complete new skin, including the exterior wall framing. Nevertheless, there was much original historic fabric to see, record and interpret, such as the main timber frame, floor joists, the double-thick wood floor, wood board walls complete with graffiti, staircases, and stone foundations. The crib slats were long gone, but shadows of them on the posts and beams, and empty stud mortises evidenced the former existence or corn cribs. These owners were natural preservationists, practical farmers who tended to save what they had and make it do.

The Wright's wagon house circa 1920.

The John and Lydia Zerns House, a farmhouse no more. The porches and third floor window grilles contribute greatly to its character.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

MOA for the Proposed New Salem Nuclear Reactor Open for Public Comment

Imagine two more, larger cooling towers on the horizon. This was considered an "indirect adverse effect" on three historic properties in Elsinboro Township.

The draft Memorandum of Agreement among interested parties of the Sec 106 process for the Salem Nuclear Plant Early Site Permit application is now posted and open for public comment.

Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires federal agencies (in this case the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) to account for, and avoid, minimize, or mitigate impacts to properties that are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

This MOA is the culmination of that process, and the public has the right to comment (by October 5). It details the eligible properties discovered in the vicinity of the plant, in Elsinboro and Lower Alloways Creek Townships, and how the process will continue in the event that a construction and licensing permit for a new reactor is ever applied for (BIG if). 

Because I inserted myself into the process as an interested party, I was able to help identify eligible properties, and weigh in on mitigation strategies. This is how preservation (at the federal level) happens!

Link to the Federal Register entry on this MOA.

See my other post on this topic.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


The New Jersey Historical Commission today has awarded me a project grant of $13,500 to continue my study of southern New Jersey agricultural outbuildings. This will be my fifth grant from the NJHC since 2008.

The buildings include barns and wagon houses, also known as crib barns, in Mannington Township, Salem County. They date from 1792 through the nineteenth century. I and two crew members will visit each site for several days to measure the buildings. The work will result in architectural drawings and photographs, as well as archival research into their ownership and history. The products will serve as a record of each building, which can then be used by researchers to understand in detail these kinds of buildings and how they might have been used, shedding light on the history of farming, farm people, and rural life in southern New Jersey.

Stay tuned for the start of fieldwork!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Section 106 review for a rural historic landscape: Elsinboro and Lower Alloways Creek

A new nuclear plant is proposed for the Artificial Island site in Salem County, where three reactors and a cooling tower already exist.This is hard to imagine in the light of what happened at Fukushima, but nevertheless, PSEG has put in an application for an early site permit, which is essentially a site plan review. It's a first step, and if granted, the permit is good for 20 years, within which time the utility may or may not actually build it. And further permits are needed, such as for the specific reactor design. So what would earn this a place in my blog on researching the cultural landscape of Down Jersey?

View of the Salem Nuclear Plant at Artificial Island from Mason Point

The reason is that the project requires a permit from two Federal agencies: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Army Corps of Engineer. Therefore, the approval process triggers a review under Section (106) of the National Historic Preservation Act. Potential impacts of the undertaking on properties listed or eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places must be taken into account, and either avoided with alternative designs or mitigated with benefits to the public. The agency handling the Section 106 is the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).

On the surrounding landscape, there are a number of such properties, mostly in Elsinboro township, but also in Lower Alloways Creek Township, both lying along the Delaware River. Two kinds of effects have been identified so far.  One is the visual effects of two new cooling towers on this, flat, rural landscape. Another is the effect of the construction and use of a new, three lane highway running north from the Island across tidal marsh up to and following Money Island Road. The new cooling towers will stand next the existing one but rise 40 feet higher. The roadway will run on a 48' wide elevated causeway over the tidal marsh and a 200' right-of-way on Money Island Road, requiring considerable widening of this quiet back road and possibly the addition of other structures such as a drainage system, guiderails, and signals where it would terminate at Mason Point Road. Such structural and operational changes will drastically alter the landscape experience at Mason Point. The increase in daily traffic during construction and during future daily commuting of Island workers is another thing that will change daily life in Elsinboro--noise, fumes, safety--a general disruption of the daily peace in this sleepy township.

Proposed access road from Artificial Island to Mason Point.

Whether or not this scenario will actually happen is a big IF, but if it does, the review process is a powerful way to influence the outcome. Mitigation measures will be negotiated between the SHPO and PSEG. This could result in benefits to or for historic properties that would otherwise not happen. In addition, because the Abel and Mary Nicholson House is a National Historic Landmark, a higher level of review is required and perhaps more extensive mitigation.

I was given "interested party" status for the Section 106 review. I expressed concern to the staff at the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office after the project came to my attention and I read through the Early Permit Draft Environmental Impact Study ( It seemed to me that some resources and impacts were overlooked. So I ended up getting invited to a meeting of PSEG, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and SHPO representatives on January 9.

So, now, the fieldwork! Yes, there was fieldwork. After discussing the permitting process (which is quite complex) we took to the road and visited eligible and potentially eligible properties that came to light during the review. Three of the five were properties we saw were ones I suggested. Four were not initially detected in PSEG's DEIS. The purposes of the visits were to help the SHPO determine eligibility and to assess the visual affects of the new towers from each. This review has a ways to go before it's done. If any readers have information to share on these houses, please let me know by leaving a comment below. Thanks.

John Goodwin Mason-Edward Waddington House, built in the late 18th century, and presently used as PSEG's field office for education and outreach. It would fall within or very near the access road right-of way.
Sarah Mason House on Fort Elfsborg Road, Italianate with a pattern-brick core. Cooling tower is seen left of center.

Morris-Goodwin House, next door, despite modern cladding, dates from the mid-18th century with a log house core and a pattern brick shed addition. It was recorded  by HABS in the 1940s.

Abel and Mary Nicholson House, a National Historic Landmark built in 1722. It was preserved during the PSEG Estuary Enhancement Project in the 1990s.

John Denn House on Poplar Street in Lower Alloways Creek, built 1725.

116 Mason Point Road, probably built late 18th century, and possibly related to the Mason family.

View of the cooling tower from 116 Mason Point Road.

View from 116 Mason Point Road to the John Mason House, built 1695/1704. There, the access road would terminate.