PLAINFIELD, NJ - It seemed like everyone knew Nancy Piwowar when she walked into City Hall Tuesday night and it seemed like she knew everyone’s name.
Piwowar had come to the meeting of the Historic Preservation Committee to be recognized for her efforts as a preservationist, local historian, and advocate for others with similar passions.
“Except for a phone call and a letter I received, I really had no idea that I was getting an award,” she said. “It’s so nice of them to give out these awards. I’m truly humbled.”
Her passion for the integrity of architectural treasures, their place in history and the pressing need to preserve the past has taken her to other communities in New Jersey, including Hillsborough, where she became a member of the grassroots movement known as DORIS – Demolition of Residence is Senseless – which fought a losing battle to prevent the demolition of the Doris Duke estate for almost one year.
She spent time as an advocate and conducted research on behalf of DORIS into the history of the sprawling mansion, home to Doris Duke and her billionaire father, a sprawling 2,100-acre estate along Route 206. When he died she was 13, and after a long, contentious court proceeding she was able to wrest control of the estate from her estranged mother.
On May 18, Piwowar was recognized by Preservation New Jersey for her compilation and preparation of an application nominating the ornate Trumbauer-Abele greenhouses at Duke Farms as one of the state’s Top 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites of the year.
She was also active in the effort to memorialize a small cemetery near downtown Bedminster that was purchased for $3 in 1801 by three black men, two of them slaves; an unknown number of people are buried in the cemetery, which is designated as a Somerset County historic site with a pole-mounted plaque.
Piwowar works at the restored Drake House Museum in Plainfield, built in 1746 by Isaac Drake as a home for his son, Nathaniel. It is administered by the Historical Society of Plainﬁeld.
It was at the Drake House that George Washington consulted with his officers during and after the Battle of Short Hills which was fought over the entire Plainﬁeld area (present day Ash Brook Golf Course, Scotch Plains) on June 25-27, 1777. Washington and his ofﬁcers were often entertained here when they were in the area on military maneuvers.
Piwowar’s memoirs are featured in "The Duchess of South Somerville." She has had numerous articles referencing her work published locally.
She is president of the Historic Society of Plainfield and a lifelong city resident.
Piwowar said her greatest accomplishment is working with interns at the Drake House. She was most thrilled writing a letter of recommendation for a young man who was later accepted on a full-scholarship to law school.
Along with Piwowar, M&M Home Investors Group, based in Plainfield was recognized for their restorative work at the 715 Plainfield Avenue property at Tuesday night’s meeting.
During her remarks, Piwowar expressed her pride in Plainfield’s history, recalling that her father often took her to demolition sites in the city as a part of his job when she was a young girl.
“I realized that this was probably what stuck with me as an adult. I knew that these old buildings were valuable, and so I wanted to help and learn from them,” she said.
Later on during the meeting, a couple appeared before the preservation commission with plans to modify their home; Piwowar showed just how well-versed she is, asking the couple if they were keeping the bun warmer in their pantry.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story noted that M&M Home Investors Group was recognized for their restorative work across the Plainfield historic districts; it was at the 715 Plainfield Avenue property.