MADISON, NJ - On April 10th, in the courtroom of the Hartley Dodge Memorial Building, the Historic Preservation Commission resumed its consideration of Saxum Real Estate’s plan to redevelop the Madison Movie Theater into a commercial and residential building. The meeting was restricted to discussion of the condition of the existing structure.
Saxum’s attorney, Peter Wolfson of Day Pitney LLP, reiterated the belief that the building lacks historical significance and structural integrity. He introduced Robert Kornfeld, Jr., AIA, a principal of the architecture firm of Thornton Tomasetti, who was engaged by Saxum to evaluate the current condition of the movie building. Kornfeld referenced the National Register of Historic Places of 1989 which he explained denoted the movie theater as “contributing” to the historic district but not a “key” building in the historic district. He opined that the theater’s design features are in critical disrepair or no longer there, windows have been replaced, the bricks on exterior walls have been recoated and there is damage to those bricks, the walls are “losing integrity at a granular level,” there is widespread, extensive cracking due to more than settlement, and the front wall is separating from the side wall. Although Kornfeld found the building’s roof is “generally good condition,” he stated that it is several years old and that water is still penetrating and forming puddles below, thereby damaging the floor boards. There is damage to the plaster ceiling and the acoustical ceiling.
Kornfeld further stated that Saxum is willing to salvage certain design features in the theater, including the stone plaque, ticket booth, and the original chandeliers, and would be willing to post a permanent interpretative photo display of the building’s history. He concluded that the building’s diminished integrity makes reconfiguration “extremely difficult” and economically infeasible.
The Historic Preservation Commission members posed several questions to Kornfeld. Chris Kellogg asked whether philanthropy could be used as a source of funds to rehabilitate the theater as he stated has been done in restoring other significant Madison buildings. Kellogg asked Kornfeld whether he was aware of “hundreds of movies that have been rehabilitated.” Kornfeld responded that he has worked on some of these projects, but that few of them were damaged to the extent of the Madison theater. Kornfeld opined that the current state of the theater would not merit a contributing designation from the National Register of Historic Places and that the building is “in worse shape that other people think it is.” He concluded that based on his experience, physical deterioration is a driver of demolition.
The audience was invited to question Kornfeld and several members of Save Madison Theater spoke. Sandy Kolakowski asked him why his conclusions were more negative than those of the structural engineer who had presented his findings at the last meeting on March 12th. Kornfeld agreed that he found the building in worse condition, citing the inadequate systems, inability to meet codes, “terrible wiring.” Deborah Fennelly, also of Save Madison Theater, asked whether Kornfeld was aware of the Mayo Theater in Morristown that had been closed due to extensive water pouring in but has been rehabilitated into “one of New Jersey’s premier performing arts centers in New Jersey.”
Kornfeld’s presentation was followed by John Hatch of Clarke Caton Hintz, an engineer engaged by the commission. He stated that he had reviewed the historic preservation ordinances of the Borough and reviewed Saxum’s submissions, and had toured the site. He opined that there have been no significant changes to the building since it was designated “contributing” by the National Register in 1989. He describes the appearance of the building as “utilitarian, especially because of alteration.” He believes that the renovation would be expensive but not impossible. If the building reverted to a functioning movie theater, this would reduce costs of renovating. If it were converted to a performing arts center, there would be additional costs to create spaces backstage, changing rooms, and other necessary adjustments. To change the building for other purposes would be problematic because of the sloped floor. He opined that demolition is the most drastic step one can take in a historic district and has a major impact. He agrees that the theater has cultural significance as a downtown movie theater, that its easiest use would be as a movie theater, that it is not architecturally significant to the downtown and that its placement on the edge of the district would lower the impact of its removal. He further stated that it would be easy to reproduce the front of the theater in a new iteration and one would not want to replace its sides and back. He feels that having a downtown movie theater in Madison is an attractive feature for residents, prospective home-buyers, and out-of-towners. He also feels that the theater’s location across from the train station is an attractive characteristic when it is up and running. He opined that it would not be feasible to move the theater to another location and that Saxum has agreed to retain some of its significant features. He concluded “it is difficult to imagine rehabilitation in its current form.”
Members of the Historic Preservation Commission asked Hatch questions about his presentation. Member Jane Foster stated that “the nuclear option is to demolish.” She asked what the removal of a “historic” building in a historic district would have. He answered that the “building is distinctive as a 1925 downtown movie theater” and that it is an important site because it is across the street from the train station. Nancy Wallace asked whether demolition in a historic site sets a precedent. Hatch responded “Setting a precedent is not the issue. The ordinance is.” Upon questioning by attorney Wolfson, he explained that under the relevant ordinance, “a property owner has the right to demolish its building.”
The meeting was adjourned. The next meeting will be announced on the Rosenet website.
On April 10, Saxum Real Estate issued a statement that reads:
The new rendering, along with additional materials related to Saxum’s application for the redevelopment of the 14 Lincoln Place site, can be found at www.14lincolnplace.com or by clicking here. Saxum Real Estate has adjusted its previous façade aesthetic plan for the Madison Theater redevelopment project in response to comments made by Madison Historic Preservation Advisory Commission.
To speak further with Anthony Rinaldi, Saxum’s Founder and President, please call Ron Simoncini at 201.424.9017.