PLAINFIELD, NJ - Historic Preservation Commission members approved William Michelson as chairman and Larry Quirk as vice-chairman Tuesday before endorsing plans an architect couple has for the former Monday Afternoon Club on Watchung Avenue.

The board also chose Barton Ross as preservationist, Ruben Perez as attorney, and April Stefel as Commission secretary for 2020 after about a half-hour closed session. Next, Planning Director Bill Nierstedt told the commissioners about proposed certificate fee increases for applicants, from $50 to $75, whether or not certificates were approved. Fees had not been increased for seven years, he said, and they were needed for staff to do work

An “after the fact” repair application was carried to the February meeting, leaving architects David and Cheryl Buckman of 1127 Watchung Avenue as the only applicants for a Certificate of Appropriateness.

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David Buckman started by reading a statement tracing the history of the building, from its ownership by the Ginna family through the Monday Afternoon Club’s use for literary and cultural events as well as weddings and parties. The club created a 30- by 50-foot ballroom with a 30-foot ceiling. The building gained notoriety in the 1990s when a horror film was shot there and again when a murder took place inside.

The Buckmans found it “in disrepair and filled with more stuff than you can imagine,” he said.

He and his wife proposed having offices on the ground floor, living on the second floor and renting out the third floor. Buckman showed plans for new fencing, various repairs to the house and an old barn, and an ADA-compliant ramp for handicapped visitors or clients. He had already started work on the building’s chimneys, fearing they would freeze and crack in cold weather.

“We wish to restore the house to what it last was,” Buckman said.

The sticking point for the Commission was use of the ballroom for 11 employees, who would also need parking. Buckman wanted fencing to enclose the parking lot, both for esthetic reasons and security, he said.

After Buckman’s presentation, Michelson quipped, “Let me remind you of one thing – murders and shoot-outs are not permitted uses.”

But a few minutes later, he asked why there were a dozen cars parked at the site. Buckman said they belonged to workers on the site, his daughter, and a cleaning person.

The talk swung back and forth between how glad the board was to see the building and perhaps the whole Putnam-Watchung Historic District improved through the Buckmans’ interest, and fears that a future owner might change the use.   

Buckman also proposed using vines to cover the fences, but his choices of Virginia Creeper and Trumpet Vine drew criticism from Commissioner John Favazzo and Stefel. Favazzo said Buckman was wrong about the vines being colorful year-round.

“They lose all their leaves,” Favazzo said, also noting their tendency to spread through underground runners.

Stefel said they are both considered “noxious weeds.”

Michelson said he wanted the fence bare of plants.

After much more discussion among the commissioners, Michelson said, “This property is at risk of being a white elephant,” and suggested they “need to try to bend a little” in recommending variances to the ZBA.

He said other historic districts had “a spark plug,” and maybe Buckman could fill that role in Putnam-Watchung.

“I probably am the right person,” Buckman said.

But Michelson said the number of employees was still a problem.

Eventually the commissioners agreed to grant a certificate of appropriateness that will not take effect until next month, allowing time for the ZBA to act.

“We’ve got homework to do, all of us, Michelson said, though adding it was “really interesting, I really feel good about this.”