Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 6/28/16
The city may have about 20 listings on either or both the National and State Historic registers, but only one of them is in such dire need of help that it was placed on Preservation New Jersey’s annual list of the 10 most endangered historic sites of 2016, released on May 12.
The Whyman House, 705 Newark Ave., dates to about 1860 and is one of the last examples of an Italianate villa home in Elizabeth. The property, owned by the Central Baptist Church, was placed on Elizabeth’s Abandoned Property List on April 12.
When a property hasn’t been legally occupied for more than six months, “is in need of rehabilitation in reasonable judgment” and “has a presence of vermin, accumulation of debris, uncut vegetation or physical deterioration of the structure or grounds that has created potential health and safety hazards and the owner has failed to take reasonable and necessary measures to remove the hazards,” it is placed on the list, according to a letter to the Central Baptist Church from Eduardo J. Rodriguez, director of planning and community development of Elizabeth.
According to Paula Borenstein, co-founder and vice president of the Elizabeth Arts Council and a city resident, the letter’s statements are not unwarranted.
She said that the building is weathered, the exterior fountain is eroded and no longer works, the grass is overgrown, debris litters the house and pipes, the chandeliers, stove and refrigerator are gone, the fences are broken, the front door and shutters are gone and the windows are boarded. The outbuildings are also dilapidated and some are no longer standing.
“It’s in a mixed-use neighborhood with some office buildings and residents, so there weren’t consistent neighbors,” she said. “I asked the city if they had any record of complaints and they didn’t have anything. It’s just a lot of people not paying attention.”
However, besides the obvious fact that the house has been ignored, the situation gets complicated.
Joseph Whyman — who died in 1966 and left the house to the Central Baptist Church after it had been in his family for 64 years — ran a successful construction and property management company. Whyman, a deeply religious man, stipulated in his will that the house be used as a parish house and could never be sold.
According to Borenstein, however, the church fell into financial difficulty and posted the house for sale for over $1 million in December 2015, worrying locals because a buyer of the property could simply raze it. Plus, it would no longer be in the church’s possession, a stipulation of the will.
The church didn’t respond to a request for comment, nor have they responded to any parties interested in preserving the house.
“We don’t want to be adversarial because we are concerned with both the church and the house,” said Borenstein. “But they made it clear that they didn’t want to talk to us. The city has been negligent, too, in not keeping an eye out in what is happening there.”
Rodriguez, however, asserted that since the house is not a municipally owned property, they have no control, and he did not have a comment on partnering with the church until deed restrictions are removed. Per the letter sent to the church, the church had 40 days (ending May 22) or Elizabeth can exercise its rights to eminent domain, according to the Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act.
Rodriguez said that since the church has paid all of its taxes, the city will not interfere unless an unpaid tax occurs (which couldn’t happen until June 2017). In the meantime, the city will not take further action until the church responds, which it has not done yet. The church’s attorney, David Coates of Turp, Coates, Essl & Driggers, was not immediately available for comment.
For now, the options are limited for those who want to see the house saved.
“We want the city to get together with the church with representation and try to figure out how we can help both the church and the city,” said Borenstein. “The church will have to get out of terms with this will. We want it to be sold but to the right person.”
Borenstein said that those interested in saving the house should contact the city and express that the house is a historical asset that should be saved.
Former Elizabeth resident Susan Matlosz and Leo Osorio, architectural photographer and author of “Photographic Tour of Elizabeth, NJ and Beyond,” set up a Facebook page to build support for their cause, “Save the Whyman House.”
Kathy Cevallos, originally from Elizabeth, now living in Linden and is managing the page while Osorio is away, said that she thinks the cause needs a bigger following.
“We need to build exposure. There is not a big following so far, so we need to find more people who remember the house or had a connection to the family who can offer an opportunity to restore the house,” she said.
Borenstein said that there aren’t many houses left like this in Elizabeth, and since the city wants to appeal to the history, they should utilize the house for tourism.
“Our historic buildings set up a conversation between the generations,” she said. “It’s a gorgeous house — or it once was — and it is one of the last of its kind that we have, so we should do every effort that we can to preserve it.”