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East Brunswick: A Defunct Library, Suburban Redevelopment, and the Lindbergh Baby (Part 1 of 4)

The DeVoe Library at 166 Main Street, East Brunswick Credits: TAPinto East Brunswick
Some old fixtures are mixed with more contemporary shutters and wooden trim at the location. Credits: TAPinto East Brunswick
Books and historical records are stored precariously in the old library room downstairs. Credits: TAPinto East Brunswick
The second floor had been used as an apartment and is painted in colonial colors though the building dates from the mid-19th century. Credits: TAPinto East Brunswick

EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - The DeVoe Library, the first one in the township, is located in a busy section of Main Street in the section of town called "The Historic Village of Old Bridge."  At its peak, this section of East Brunswick was the hub of trade and activity on the South River.  The great names of our township lived there and made their mark on the history of the businesses and social networks that grew to become the township we know today.  The DeVoe Library has ceased to be a vital part of East Brunswick life, though its legacy of local service to literacy and children formed the basis of the great schools and library which are the pride of East Brunswick.

What should happen to this building now as it weakens with age and lack of use?  The DeVoe Library was seriously impacted by Hurricane Irene in 2011, as were many properties in nearby sections of East Brunswick that fall on the flood plain.  The building needs work, and it can no longer host visitors or house occupants.  

Questions regarding the role and upkeep of the DeVoe Library have sat on the desk of East Brunswick's past few mayors, and now they are on that of Brad Cohen, who is trying to understand the relationship between what we value as a community and what we maintain for purposeful use.

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Recently, the East Brunswick Township administration engaged the engineering firm of Remington and Vernick to evaluate the conditions of the DeVoe Library. According to the Property Conditions Report, the structure dates from the mid-1800's and is comprised mostly of wood and plaster.  The building has been deemed generally a stable structure, though the repair of wooden joints, supports, and windows is necessary.  The building has also suffered some flood damage and is in need of lead paint remediation.

As the building has no basement, it remains in danger of flooding.  It is also not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act that requires ample space for movement that the narrow doorways and staircase do not allow.

The engineers hired by East Brunswick Township have posited that repairs to the DeVoe Library would range in the area of $350,000, with an additional $450,000 to relocate the building and put it on a new foundation.  Restoration to maintain historical accuracy would be another expense, says Township Administrator Joe Criscuolo.  That nearly-million-dollar expense could fall to residents at a rate of 5 tax points if the project to revive the DeVoe Library is funded by East Brunswick.

The question remains after an evaluation of expense is also that of "sustainability," say both Mayor Cohen and Criscuolo. "What is being done with the DeVoe Library now, and what will be done with it in the future?  How does it serve our community?" asks Cohen.

The Mayor has gone to Middlesex County and the office of Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman to ask for help.  Both sources of funding for historical restoration came with strict requirements and offered about $50,000 each, with the township to pay matching funds for each grant. The total is nowhere near what is required.

East Brunswick Township leased the DeVoe Library to the East Brunswick Museum Corporation as a management organization in 1982 so that the building could be used for cultural programming.   The township has paid for maintenance of the outside of the building and has provided other support.  In order to justify the non-profit status as a historical location, the DeVoe Library needed to provide evidence of cultural programming or other purposeful use.  During recent years, there has been very little.

Mayor Cohen has cancelled the addendum that cedes authority to the East Brunswick Museum as of this month, and the township will now take full responsibility for the property.  "Due to the condition of the building, " says Cohen, "it is best that it remains closed down."

In six months, if there is not a plan brought forth to the administration for the use of building and a method of addressing the costs for the repair, renewal, or revisioning of the DeVoe Library, the process for demolishing the building will begin in May, 2018.

*Part 2 of this series will focus on the reasons for maintaining the DeVoe Library's contents and some comments by stakeholders on the historical importance of the location to East Brunswick.

*Part 3 of this series will feature some elements of the historical materials housed in the DeVoe Library and their relationship to significant people and events in local and statewide history.

*Part 4 of this series will describe the role of historic preservation and the arts in the redevelopment East Brunswick.

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