ELIZABETH, NJ – One of Norene Navarro’s memories of growing up in Elizabeth is taking the bus with her grandfather to pay his rent to Mr. Whyman at his house at 705 Newark Avenue.
“Walking up to the front door, it looked like a palace,” she remembered. “I could see the piano. It was huge! It was unbelievable. In my family, we had people who played, but I had never seen a piano like that.”
Today the “palace” is a dilapidated house, and drivers speeding by hardly notice it sitting behind the broken picket fence. The majestic front door is gone and so are the shutters. The windows are boarded, and the fountain that once greeted visitors has long been dry. Now this Italianate villa, once the home of the wealthy Whyman family, has the dubious distinction of being named one of the 10 most endangered structures by Preservation New Jersey despite its listing on the National Registry of Historic Houses.
The threat is real. At present, there is a letter dated April 12 from the city posted out front, addressed to the owner, Central Baptist Church, placing Whyman House on the list of abandoned buildings. The city gave the church 40 days to respond or else the city can exercise its rights to eminent domain according to the Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act, but the city is not condemning the house. Eduardo Rodriguez, director of planning & community development, said that there are several options the City of Elizabeth has under the abandoned property law, and he is willing to sit down with the owner within 20-30 days after the end of the 40 day period.
When contacted by TAPinto Elizabeth, the church’s Interim Pastor Edwin Aymat said he didn’t own the house and didn’t know anything about it. When reminded that the church has possessed the house for the last 50 or so years, he referred the caller to the American Baptist Church of New Jersey. A call to that organization was unanswered.
“The church has not been helpful in any way,” said Leo Osorio, an architectural photographer and author of Photographic Tour of Elizabeth, NJ, and Beyond. “They do not want to talk to anyone. We reached out to tell them that there are ways to save the house, to get grants. Due to the fact that they have not communicated is the reason the house has deteriorated. The house has been left here.”
The house, which dates from about 1860, has declined rapidly in the last three years, said Osorio. Squatters have broken in and ripped the chandeliers from the ceiling, stripped the pipes, stole the stove and refrigerator. “Anything that had to do with metal went missing,” said Osorio. “There was a 1938 Cadillac sedan here, and now it is gone.”
The house was given to the Central Baptist Church in the will of the last Whyman, Joseph, who died in 1965. The family had run a successful construction and property management company, established by German immigrants Thomas and Carrie circa 1852. They had six children, none of whom married. As a member of a deeply religious family, Joseph left the house and its contents to the Central Baptist Church with the stipulation that it be used as a parish house and never be sold.
Much of the contents were auctioned in 1967. “It was slipping back into the 1880’s,” remembered Charles Shallcross, president of the Union County Historical Society and a retired Elizabeth history teacher who toured the house then. “It was like slipping into that era. Nothing had changed. In the parlor, there was a picture of President William McKinley. It was like a time capsule. The music room had a square piano with an Edison phonograph.”
Today, the grandeur of the house has been reduced to squalor, but Whyman House is not without friends. Besides Osorio, Paula Borenstein, a founding member of the Elizabeth Arts Council, has also been actively seeking support for preserving the house. Former Elizabeth resident Susan Matlosz has established a Facebook page, Save the Whyman House. It is a cause dear to her heart. She visited the house as a child and knew Mr. Whyman.
Help may also be on the way from Sal Garcia, owner of MAS Development Group, who is interested in restoring old houses. “I am a real estate developer, but I have a soft spot in my heart for history,” he explained.
That is what places like the Whyman House can be, holders of a city’s past, a place that tells a story.
“It is sad to see what is happening,” said Osorio. “I have a personal attachment to the house because it is like I got to know the family through newspaper clippings. They were good people who had the best intentions for the house. They lived their whole lives here. This is not what they would have wanted.”