When Red Hot Magazine first went to press in 2003, the Borough of Red Bank was embarking on a mission to preserve
the community’s historic properties. At the time, there were seven buildings, plus the downtown commercial district,
designated as historic. But, the town was at risk of losing the special properties that are such a distinctive part of the Red Bank landscape.
The Rullman House (circa 1830s) on West Front St had been razed in 1999 for the construction of Riverside Gardens Park. Just up the street, the Thomas Morford House (circa 1805), one of the oldest taverns in the U.S., was demolished in 2001 to make way for Commerce, now TD, Bank. These events helped inspire the formation of the Red Bank Historic Preservation Commission and the adoption of the Historic Preservation Ordinance as part of the Borough’s Master Plan.
In just 13 years, the Commission has expanded the Red Bank Inventory of Historic Resources to 210 buildings, and added two more historic districts – the Washington Street Historic District encompassing the town’s oldest existing neighborhood, dating back to the 1850s (The “White Homestead” on South St, circa 1790, is the oldest home in Red Bank); and the “Light Industrial District” on Bridge Avenue near the train station. It has educated homeowners on the history of their properties;
made recommendations on numerous historic building renovations; and implemented a Preservation Awards program to recognize exceptional renovations to historic homes and commercial buildings.
Previous award winners – including the Red Bank Woman’s Club/ Anthony Reckless Estate; 2,8,10 Broad St where Urban Outfitters is located; 199 Broad St, the home of Smallwood Wealth Management; and the Victorian-style residence at 65 Wallace St – demonstrate how properties like these add to the beauty and character of the town. “What a void they would leave if they were not preserved, or worse, no longer existed,” says Red Bank Historic Preservation Commission chairperson Michaela Ferrigine.
Ferrigine is thrilled the T. Thomas Fortune House at 94 Drs. JamesParker Blvd, is the latest to be spared the wrecking ball, and is on its way to becoming the crown jewel of Red Bank’s historic properties. The now-dilapidated home was once owned by T. Thomas Fortune, a freed slave who became a respected journalist, editor of a national newspaper, early civil rights activist, and founder of the National Afro-American League, an organization that became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The property is one of only 57 National Historic Landmarks in New
Jersey, and one of two tied to African American history.
A culmination of years-long efforts by the T. Thomas Fortune Project, the Historic Preservation Commission and other groups, the Red Bank Planning Board recently approved a proposal by developer Roger Mumford to restore and donate the house for use as a cultural center and museum, while creating a residential apartment complex on the property behind the home. “This is an amazing gift to the community,” says Ferrigine.
Made up of five volunteer members and one council representative, The Historic Preservation Commission is appointed by the mayor and acts in an advisory capacity. It does not have authority to regulate alterations or block demolition of historic properties, but it reviews proposals submitted to the Planning board regarding properties on the historic inventory, interceding to make recommendations when plans are out of character. The group also works closely with Red Bank
RiverCenter, the downtown special improvement organization, to ensure renovations to commercial properties preserve the district’s historic look. A property is deemed to have historic merit if it is located within one of the three designated historic districts; is associated with events or people of historical significance; is designed or built by important architects or builders; or reflects a distinctive style of architecture or craftsmanship.
The Commission also encourages “adaptive reuse,” modifying and repurposing the interior of an historic structure, while preserving the exterior. Ferrigine points to successful examples of this practice throughout town: River Street School
(now a housing complex); The Century House (an example of Second Empire architecture, relocated to Oakland St in 2006 to become the Charter School); the Eisner factory (once the country’s largest uniform manufacturer, now The Galleria office and retail center); and Coffee Corral (a former construction company, now a take-out coffee shop).
“We want to educate people,” says Ferrigine. “Sometimes they don’t realize the historic significance of their property. Or, they might think the cost to preserve it would be prohibitive. But, today there are affordable, architecturally correct, alternative building materials that provide a beautiful esthetic.
“When you scrape away the neglect and peel away the vinyl siding and enclosed porches, the structures are so beautiful,” she says. “Each is so different and amazing and adds to the cultural richness and quality of life. Protecting these resources
maintains the historical uniqueness and charm of Red Bank, and enhances all property values. We need to look ahead and make good decisions now.