HAWTHORNE, NJ - Tuesday afternoon, a massive renovation project by Passaic County was concluded. The John W. Rea House, found in Goffle Brook Park near the intersection of Rea Avenue and Goffle Road, had fallen into disrepair after years of neglect. Tuesday, however, it was officially opened as "The Passaic County Arts Center at the John W. Rea House."
The top floor, previously a ruin, is an ideal space for art classes and visual studies, with new floors, tall ceilings, plenty of light, and a sink. The first floor is a gallery, currently displaying paintings and sculpture works of various mediums by area artists. The basement houses offices, including a space for the Hawthorne Historical Society. It was in the upper-floor gallery that locals and officials gathered to begin the ceremony. Among those present were Passaic County Freeholder Director John W. Bartlett, Deputy Director Sandi Lazzara, T.J. Best, Terry Duffy, Pat Lepore, County Administrator Anthony DeNova, Mayor Richard Goldberg, Director of Passaic County Cultural and Historic Affairs Kelly Ruffel, Passaic County Historian Edward Smyk, Passaic County Historical Society President Michael Rubin, Hawthorne Historical Society President Al Ianacone, Vice President Jackie Walsh, Hawthorne Police Chief Richard McAuliffe, and members of the law enforcement community.
Local artists were also on hand, including Hawthorne-resident Tina Ishihara, who has a painting on display in the gallery.
Passaic County Administrator Anthony DeNova introduced the dignitaries and welcomed Kelly Ruffel to give a brief history of the John W. Rea House. "As you may know our slogan is 'Rich History, Bright Future' and at the opening of the Passaic County Arts Center at the John W. Rea House, our slogan especially resonates." The house, Ruffel said, was built about 1810 by Henry Doremus until purchased by the Rea family, which occupied the house. Over the years, the house had been made into a tavern with additions put on, and sold to the Passaic County Parks Commission in the 1930s. The county renovated the building and used it as an office. From 1943-1965, the house was the headquarters of the Hawthorne Boys Club.
Ruffel lauded its two centuries of existence and the changes it underwent, but credited its namesake to its particular importance. "Its historic significance derives from its association with the productive life of John W. Rea who was a musician, co-owner and manager of a prominent musical ensemble celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic." Rea's musical career brought him to perform for various prominent audiences, among them, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.
"Rea was also well recognized for his contributions to civic life," Ruffel said. "The Passaic County Arts Center will breathe new life into the Rea House and Goffle Brook Park. Art is a distinguishing part of our public history and our culture, as it adds meaning to our communities. The Passaic County Arts Center will serve for workshops, lectures, changing exhibits, and will celebrate, ultimately, the diversity that makes Passaic County special. This would not be possible without the support of so many, including the Freeholder Board, the administration, our engineers, parks department, staff. I want to thank everyone who has been involved in completing this wonderful preservation project."
DeNova praised Ruffel, saying, "She has done a terrific job for Passaic County historic sites. We're happy to have her, we're very proud of her, and the great job she's been doing." DeNova said that the changes were "remarkable" and that the house, before the renovation was "virtually uninhabitable." He thanked the Freeholders for their efforts to bring about the renovation. "This is certainly a part of the renovations which have gone on here in Goffle Brook Park," citing the installation of walking paths, the turf field, and renovated ball fields. "Goffle Brook Park is truly a gem in the county park system." DeNova said that future Goffle Brook Park projects will include refurbishing the bathrooms, parking areas, and a new playground.
Architect Michael Hanrahan of Clarke Caton Hintz next ascended the podium. "On behalf of our firm I would like to express our sincerest gratitude to the county of Passaic and Board of Chosen Freeholders, Administrator Anthony DeNova, and Deputy Administator Matthew Jordan. We appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with the county on its restoration and rehabilitation. We're excited to see the John W. Rea House repurposed as the new Passaic County Arts Center. We'd also like to thank Andrew Thompson, County Architect, and in particular Kelly Ruffel, Director of Cultural and Historic Affairs, and Jessica Bush, for their tireless efforts as proponents for the county's heritage. Because of this enormous team effort, together with Rowe Construction, the building is preserved today for county residents and the building will be available for future generations to enjoy the county's sustained efforts in the arts and history program."
DeNova introduced John Bartlett to offer his remarks. "More than a decade ago, your Passaic County Freeholders embarked on a multi-million dollar, multi-year effort to restore the remarkable natural and historical parks in our towns. We created a non-profit foundation, the Friends of Passaic County Parks, and developed a parks master plan for the Dey Mansion in Wayne, Lambert Castle and Tower, and articulated a new vision to preserve and restore our historic sites." He said that the effort was part of developing a shared vision of where the county was going into the future.
"Through the Parks Foundation and the amazing work of Kelly Ruffel and her staff, Passaic County is providing more educational and cultural programming in our parks and historic sites than ever before. Lectures, exhibits, and historic reenactments coexist with the escape rooms at the Dey Mansion in Wayne, kids' yoga in the Vanderhoef House in Clifton, Shakespeare performances here in Goffle Brook Park in Hawthorne, and so much more," Bartlett said. "The pay off: fun and education, of course, the preservation of beautiful sites like this one, a NJ Historic Preservation Award for our work on the Dey Mansion, but also economic development. Passaic County's tourism economy was the fastest growing in New Jersey in 2016-2017. Over the past five years the tourism sector has added 600 new jobs in our county. Historic tourism is a big part of that story. Today we're staking our claim and our commitment to the arts. The Passaic County Arts Center is dedicated to providing high quality and accessible arts events and educational programming. The Passaic County Arts Center will promote an appreciation for the visual and performing arts by engaging the community in an environment that nurtures creativity and expression. We will enlist local artists to provide high quality, free and low cost arts programs for all residents of Passaic County. We will feature the work of New Jersey artists." Barlett thanked the artists for their work and those who came to view the debut exhibitions, calling it "a new chapter" for Passaic county arts and culture.
DeNova told the audience that the John Rea House will also host the office of the Hawthorne Historical Society.
Taking advantage of the clear weather, which has been tempestuous over the last week, DeNova encouraged everyone to gather outside for the ribbon cutting ceremony. Wielding Mayor Goldberg's famous giant scissors, a red ribbon was cut across the doorway, drawing applause from the crowd.
"This is an agenda, this is a to-do list and we've been working our way down it," Bartlett told TAPinto Hawthorne. "More people are coming out to our parks and we're having more, different kinds of programing. When we created the Friends of Passaic County Parks, we did a couple concerts on Garrett Mountain. Fast forward a decade and we're doing yoga, escape rooms, nature walks, Shakespeare, Paws in the Park, and we're doing it across all of our county park system. It's really rewarding. It's this nice private-public partnership--we've got the exercise equipment which the Horizon Foundation funded through the Friends, we've got our investments here at the John Rea House, the roof was from the State Historic Trust, the rest is county Open Space Funding which we also spent on improvements along the brook."
"I'm ecstatic," Al Ianacone said, "I'm trilled and so pleased. I look forward to the future and hope we'll be able to really broaden our membership in the Hawthorne Historical Society. I also want to reach out to the schools to give the school children not only in Hawthorne but in other towns about the history they can learn. We've been in the library since our founding. This is the first time we have our own place."
Jackie Walsh gathered the Historical Society for a before-and-after photo, contrasting the state of the Rea House then and today. "It's beautiful, we're so happy to have a room here," Walsh said. "They did such a fantastic job restoring it, and they did it so quickly. We can have our board meetings there, we can store things, the Society has so much stuff."
"It's just remarkable, I'm very happy to see another county historic site be repurposed and reused," Ruffel told TAPinto Hawthorne. "Other places have a hard time preserving these Dutch buildings and there aren't many left in New Jersey. It marks our period of settlement and the more we lose the harder it is going to be to tell that story."
The decision to restore the house versus repurposing it was a significant one. "For us, adding another historic house museum was just not viable, given the county is managing two," Ruffel said. "In repurposing the house, we did not destroy any of the structural interior integrity other than the second floor which was not salvagable. It was already gone by the time we came in. The first floor we brought back with the fireplaces, keeping the plaster work, and the center hall."
Ruffel felt that repurposing the house as an arts center seemed appropriate. "Rea was an artist and I think he would appreciate that we are having the arts in his building."
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