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 Change.org 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!