NEWARK, NJ - A solitary note from a piano rang through 276 Delavan Ave. when a potential buyer mistakenly pressed down on one key.
The instrument sat among broken lamps and damp books in a corner of the dark living room. It was one of many remnants leftover from the previous owner that was looked over by those interested in bidding for the house.
None knew the home had once belonged to Harold Scott Jr., an African American actor who would go on to break racial barriers in the theater. But there were clues strewn about the house: a large collection of tape cassettes, tattered playbills and theater posters.
The two-story brick Colonial home is up for auction by the city after spiraling into disrepair as it sat abandoned for 13 years.
Upstairs, Danny Espaillat took stock of the crumbling ceiling while maneuvering through broken furniture and piles of clothes on the floor.
“This still has all the character,” said Espaillat, a Newark firefighter, his breath casting puffs against the cold air inside the home. “This is what I like.”
The house, built around 1925, is about a block away from Branch Brook Park in the North Ward. The city’s open house even caught the attention of Aisha Glover, who would know a good deal when she sees one. She heads the Newark Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to the city's revitalization.
“Everything in this area becomes a hot commodity, so I’d just jump on it,” she said while observing the wainscoting on the first floor. “I’m sure it’s going to be a very strong contender at the auction.”
Whoever puts in the winning bid next week will not only gain a home with a story. They’ll be contributing to a community that has kept a watchful, loving eye on the property since its owner died.
ACTOR, DIRECTOR, PIONEER
The home began to fall into disrepair after Scott's death in 2006 at the age of 70. The New York Times wrote in his obituary that he died of natural causes and had no immediate surviving family members.
Scott made history in 1972 when he became the first black artistic director of the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. He was also an outspoken critic of the underrepresentation of African Americans in theater, eventually leaving acting to become a director.
For nearly 20 years, he was head of the directing program Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. He would direct Morgan Freeman in a 1978 production of "The Mighty Gents” too.
Hints of Scott’s life still lay in his home, like grade books and posters for “The Mighty Gents.” A photograph in a broken frame depicted a group of young-looking people standing in front of a marquee with the words "Theater at Rutgers."
Laying forgotten on a couch were two proclamations Scott received: one from former Newark Mayor Sharpe James in 1999 and another from then-East. St. Louis Mayor Carl Officer in 1986. The framed documents recognized Scott and others - like Amiri Baraka - for their role in the arts as African Americans.
FOREST HILL COMMUNITY PITCHES IN
Although the interior of the house is in poor condition, the exterior hasn’t deteriorated as much. That’s because members of the Forest Hill Community Association have been tending to the grass and cleaning up garbage around the home in the hopes of warding off any would-be squatters.
“This house sort of became like a topic of conversation,” said Byron Clark, a volunteer with the Forest Hill Community Association. “Because we’re all concerned about it.”
The Forest Hill neighborhood is on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places, which was granted in 1990. The area features turn-of-the-century stately mansions, elegant pre-World War II era homes and late 19th Century row houses.
The neighborhood was known for being home to many well-to-do-families and artists, like 20th Century opera singer Maria Jeritza. But in the early 1900s, many began to move to nearby suburbs like Maplewood or Glen Ridge because of advances in transportation.
“Forest Hill has had a long history of creatives, whether it’s playwrights, filmmakers, artists, authors,” said Clark. “A lot of people in the visual arts and other genres and other types of arts have lived in the neighborhood because obviously, it’s close to New York City. It’s a great location and it’s just a very open and accepting community as well.”
The average home in the area today goes for about $400,000 and some larger homes could go up to about $900,000 according to Clark.
The 276-280 Delavan Ave. home, which property records show was in Scott’s name until 2017, became a concern for neighbors. After all, a vacant home leads to lower property values, Clark said.
Although Clark had heard of people interested in buying the home, it was a hard sell since it had so many liens. Throughout the years, neighbors would keep an eye on the property, all the while advocating for the city to intervene.
“We needed a Hail Mary,” Clark said.
CITY LEVERAGES STATE LAW TO BRING CHANGE
The home is one of the few properties in the entire city that used the Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act to get it out its tangled web of liens, said North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos.
Under the state law, a public officer holds a hearing to determine if a property is a nuisance. Lienholders may challenge the decision, but only if they prove that the property doesn't meet the legal designation of being abandoned.
“What it really does is enable a municipality to push the process - or expedite the process - of taking ownership of some of these privately owned properties that are pretty much abandoned and neglected,” Ramos said. “Many of them kind of fall in the ownership of banks but they're very poor keepers of these properties.”
The city is now putting the home up for auction on Jan. 24 at Newark Symphony Hall. The bidding will begin at 9:30 a.m.
The bidding will start at $58,200, which would be considered a bargain on a home that was assessed last year at $291,000. It's a win-win for whoever moves in and the city, which will finally be able to collect property taxes on it.
That’s music to the ears of the Forest Hill Community Association president, Paul Agostini.
“Thanks to Councilman Ramos’ intervention on behalf of this historic home, this longtime neighborhood eyesore has a legitimate chance to be restored to its original glory,” he said.
Espaillat, the firefighter who viewed the home last week, considered the starting bid price of the home to be a steal. He conceded, however, that the number of renovations was a bit daunting.
“It might be too much for me,” he said, as he looked up at the ceiling caving in.
Whoever buys the home won’t be able to simply knock it down either. Since the house contributes to the Forest Hill Historic District, the bar for demolition is set very high.
Any exterior modifications will have to first be cleared by the city’s Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission. The city also stipulates that anyone who buys the home will have to live in it for seven consecutive years after work is completed on it.
The stipulation was significant for Clark, the Forest Hill Community Association volunteer. It will mean that a community that has watched over the empty home for so long will soon get the chance to welcome a new family.
“It’s a reflection of the City of Newark and also a reflection of the neighborhood,” said Clark, who’s lived in Forest Hill for more than a decade. “That people care so much and continue to advocate for - not just their home - but the neighborhood at large. It just shows that things can happen.”