South Orange Historical and Preservation Society
CONTACT Joel Levin
MediaJoel@gmail.com CELL 973-568-6000
FOR RELEASE 14 May 2020 at 11 a.m. EDT
South Orange, NJ - 'Old Stone House,' South Orange landmark, named to 'Most Endangered Historic Places' list by Preservation NJ
S.O. Historical Society president calls it 'scary badge of honor'
Ideas for preservation, renovation, and reuse proposed by Society
The Old Stone House in South Orange, believed to be the oldest standing building in New Jersey, was named one of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in the state by the Preservation New Jersey organization at a virtual press conference on Thursday, May 14, 2020.
Built sometime between 1666 and 1680,The Old Stone House’s (OSH) original stone foundation and walls sit within the building's expanded and remodeled footprint. This valuable piece of history sits nearly out of sight behind the South Orange police station between Grove Road and South Orange Avenue. The original was a 1-1/2 story Dutch Colonial on 75 acres of farmland.
The Most Endangered program spotlights irreplaceable historic, architectural, cultural, and archeological resources in New Jersey in imminent danger of being lost through neglect and deferred maintenance, threats by redevelopment and new construction, difficulties raising adequate preservation funding, or lack of creative adaptive reuse proposals.
The places on the list were chosen for historic significance and architectural integrity, the critical nature of the threat identified, and the likelihood that inclusion on the list will have a positive impact on efforts to protect the resource.
Nominated by S.O. Historical and Preservation Society
The South Orange Historical and Preservation Society (SOHPS), whose membership includes several distinguished architects and the state's top expert in preservation and renovation, accumulated historical information, studied floor plans and property maps, consulted other architects and conservators, and gathered anecdotal information in order to complete its nomination of The Old Stone House, presenting its case to the Preservation New Jersey selection jury of historians and preservationists.
Architect Duane Schrempp, a board member of SOHPS who has been examining relevant documents for two years, reported that the group discussed the possibility of converting the edifice, at least 340 years old, to a welcome center, offices, museum, meeting spaces, or research center, and possibly stripping away some exterior walls added in the late 19th century. Says Schrempp, “The site, as a Museum and Welcome Center for the Oranges and New Jersey, would dramatically illustrate periods of use and development in the area from pre-colonial times. This could easily become an asset of statewide and national significance and a magnet for tourists and students.”
The Historical Society’s president, Bryn Douds, notes that OSH is on both the NJ and Federal Historic Registers and calls the building’s selection for Most Endangered a ”third badge of honor, but a scary one, since it represents an official acknowledgment that the old property is threatened and won’t survive without intervention. The oldest anything is worthy of saving, and South Orange can boast of having THE oldest house in the state. Restoring the historic OSH would be a great way to preserve its glory and bring more focus to Destination South Orange.”
In 1999, David V. Abramson, AIA, now partner in the CTS Group Architecture, authored a comprehensive report on OSH’s condition. Following publication, stabilization was undertaken as an emergency measure, but 21 years after that vital step, according to Abramson, “the first challenge is to assess the current conditions and to protect the historic house from deterioration. Concurrently, we need to tell the rich story of the historic Old Stone House to mobilize community support while a compatible adaptive re-use is identified.”
Old buildings do not improve with age; they need ongoing repairs and loving attention. OSH is a victim of ‘architorture,’ an impending death by raccoons, birds, eroding rock, and generalized mildew and decay,” says Joel Levin, another SOHPS board member. “The building has definitely deteriorated, but it's not too late to keep the bulldozers away. Based on the reports of some Society members who toured the building in the past, it has good bones and a strong foundation, so survival is possible through smart planning and sufficient injection of capital.”
The following OSH notes are adapted from the official from the Preservation New Jersey news release.
Nearly hidden behind the South Orange police station, the Old Stone House is the oldest extant structure in the Township and, possibly in New Jersey. The original walls of what residents now call the Old Stone House potentially predate 1680 when the property was named in a land grant made to Edward and Joseph Riggs and Nathaniel Wheeler. The earliest reference to the Old Stone House dates to September 27, 1680, when it was mentioned in the minutes of a Newark town meeting to discuss and distribute land grants. Historians estimate that Dutch settlers built the farmhouse between 1666 and 1680 when they arrived in Newark. The original house was one-and-a-half stories with a foundation of native rubble stone.
Nathaniel Wheeler, the first fully documented European settler in the area, was the home’s first recorded owner on his 100-acre farm. Dr. Bethuel Pierson bought the property in 1773; and in 1867, William A. Brewer Jr. bought the home and named it “Aldworth.” Brewer was president of Washington Life Insurance Company in New York City and a civic and political leader who lived in the house for 50 years. Renovations in 1877 and 1896 transformed the farmhouse into a Queen Anne shingle-style mansion.
The Township of South Orange Village has owned the Old Stone House since 1953, when part of its land was taken for the construction of a new police station. The house was then used by the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education, but since 1983 it has stood vacant and suffered significant water damage and deterioration. Despite significant alterations, the oldest parts of the house can still be traced in the present building. Three of the original walls are visible from on the exterior, while a fourth can be seen from inside.
In 1991, the Old Stone House was inscribed on both the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, for which it was deemed eligible under Criterion B due to its association with William Augustus Brewer, Jr. The nomination also noted two archaeological sites that were identified on the property. The house was awarded grants from the New Jersey Historic Trust in 2001 and 2002 for structural stabilization and mitigation of further water damage. A condition of the grants was that their funding would have to be repaid if the Township were to preemptively demolish the building.
Unable to bear the cost of restoring the building, the Township unsuccessfully tried to sell the. A recent increase in funding for the NJ Historic Trust may provide an opportunity for the Township to apply for funds to both stabilize and create a reuse plan for the structure. The reuse plan could contemplate public uses, and/or provide the vision for a use that could entice a private buyer. Without intervention soon, one of the oldest structures in the state will be lost forever.