Real Estate

Westfield Residents Fight to Preserve Historic Homes

July 1, 2014 at 10:04 AM

WESTFIELD, NJ – Pat Velderman is in the midst of a multi-phase renovation on the Kimball Ave. home he has owned with his wife since 1982.

Their Victorian was built in 1897 and is situated in Westfield’s only locally designated historic district, the Kimball Avenue Historic District. While the couple is dedicated to preserving its exterior in keeping with the older style, Velderman has updated much of the interior, turning the third floor maids’ quarters into a guest suite and installing new gas service and a high-efficiency boiler.

“We’re doing a major renovation on the house to keep the original character and feel and yet make it usable for a modern lifestyle,” he said.

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For Velderman, who raised two sons on Kimball Ave., owning a home in a historic district has allowed him room for creativity, despite the parameters of living in such a district.

“We wanted a Victorian, and we wanted to restore it,” he said, pointing out that others on his block shared a similar philosophy. “That whole group that bought in at that time were interested in preservation.”

He and his wife keep pictures of their house from its early days and have stayed true to its original style and materials as they renovate. For example, when the couple purchased the house, its front steps were brick. A picture dated 1897 showed wooden steps, so Velderman proceeded to have the brick steps jackhammered out and wooden ones installed.

“The idea is to bring it back, step by step,” he said.

Second Historic District in the Works

Founded in 1720 as the fields west of Elizabethtown, Westfield is dotted with such historic homes, buildings and neighborhoods that retain the charm and architecture of the town’s past. Some of the earliest surviving houses in town still have ties to Westfield’s roots as a farming village.

Listed on National Register of Historic Places and designated an historic site by the town, the Miller-Cory House Museum on Mountain Avenue is now dedicated to educating the public about life in the 18th Century, while the Matthias Sayre House on the corner of Fourth Ave. and South Chestnut St. is a family residence.

A vocal group here in town aims to preserve and protect more homes that it believes remain important resources for Westfield, especially as construction of new homes has changed some parts of town.

“They really are what make Westfield Westfield,” said Kelly Kessler, chairperson of the town’s Historic Preservation Committee (HPC).

Among the committee’s responsibilities are advising the planning board and the board of adjustment on applications for development, as local designation as a historic district limits construction. The committee also monitors applications for renovations on historic homes, but is mainly concerned with the view of these structures from the street.

Robert Wendel, vice president of community relations for the Westfield Historical Society, believes that preserving older homes and buildings also benefits the town financially.

“Historically based towns tend to draw larger crowds to its shopping districts and the average receipt totals also tend to be significantly higher,” he noted.

The preservation committee is currently reviewing a report on Walnut St. that concludes that it does qualify to be the town’s second locally designated historic district, Kessler said.

Residents of Walnut Street, which runs parallel to the Kimball Avenue Historic District, were spurred to pursue the designation after a builder tore down a home on the street and built a modern duplex. The HPC will hold a public hearing on the designation before it moves to the town council, a process which could take several more months.

“The street still maintains a lot of its original feel,” Kessler said. She added, “There are many others that are candidates.”

Many Potentially “Historic” Neighborhoods

In 2002, the HPC published a historic preservation plan intended to outline the basis for historic designation in Westfield. The plan also highlights 10 proposed historic districts and numerous sites in town that are candidates for designation.

One neighborhood, Stoneleigh Park, an early 20th Century upper middle class residential area on about 20 acres of property, is listed on the federal and state registers of historic places, yet it is not a locally designated historic area, according to the preservation plan.

With its entrance near the corner of Westfield Avenue, Stoneleigh Park features 29 houses built around a looped drive, with 22 of them facing inward toward a center driveway, while the other seven sit on the island facing out. Wiring in this section of town is underground.

“It was the intention of Stoneleigh’s developers to create a park setting that all residents could enjoy,” the HPC report notes.

Westfield is also home to the proposed Boulevard historic district. Stretching southeast from South Ave., Boulevard is a wide, stately street that is home to many gracious turn-of-the-century revival houses.

The 500 block of Boulevard, along with several adjacent Park Street structures, was built up in the 1880s and 1890s as the town was becoming a railroad suburb and followed Westfield Ave. as the most prestigious address in Westfield.

A notable home on this block is 545 Boulevard, an 1890 Federal revival house with a semi-circular entrance. Henry C. Sergeant, the founder of Ingersoll Rand, once lived at 515 Boulevard.

Lately, some residents feel the pressure to get homes like these under the protection of historic designation sooner rather than later.

“In recent years, the concern is that many of the historic homes have fallen to the wrecking ball in the name of progress. There is always a balancing act between historic preservation and real estate property development,” said Wendel of the WHS.

Wendel noted, “If most of these historic edifices are destroyed in the coming years, the label ‘Historic Westfield’ will have little to no meaning."

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