‘It’s a travesty’ — Did NJ officials demolish 250-year-old landmark by mistake?
BELLMAWR — It survived the Revolutionary War and stood for two centuries more.
But without warning, it all came crashing down this week.
In a move that has shocked and outraged local and federal officials, a state Department of Transportation contractor early Friday morning took a wrecking ball to the Hugg-Harrison-Glover House.
The demolition has raised questions about whether state transportation officials may have violated federal historical-preservation regulations.
The DOT has had its sights set on 515 West Browning Road since 2001 for a planned $900 million interchange construction for Interstates 76 and 295 and Route 42. The state used eminent domain to take the land from the Diocese of Camden's New Saint Mary’s Cemetery in 2010.
DOT officials have maintained that the Hugg-Harrison-Glover House did not meet the criteria for being considered a national historic structure.
But after local preservationists learned only for the first time in 2014 that the state planned to demolish the 18th century structure, the state Historic Preservation Office in the Department of Environmental Protection reached a different conclusion.
A December 2016 document obtained by New Jersey 101.5 reveals that the office found that the house meets two of the four criteria for eligibility in the state and national historic registers.
Transportation officials on Friday did not explain this discrepancy. Nor did they explain why they didn’t wait for a judge to hear the Camden County Historical Society’s request for an order to halt the demolition. The DOT green-lighted the demolition early Friday morning, hours after the group had filed their lawsuit the previous afternoon.
“This has got to be the greatest injustice by any public official in my lifetime,” Camden County Historical Society President Chris Perks said Friday afternoon.
“It’s despicable. It’s a travesty,” he said. “The fact that they would do this under the cover of darkness is just bizarre.”
Condemnations also came in from the Camden County Board of Freeholders, whose director called it a "punch in the gut," and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J. 1st District, who also called it an “injustice.”
Preservationists did not want to stop the roadwork — they were looking to move the house out of the way.
To that end, they had the cooperation of municipal, county and federal officials. The Borough of Bellmawr had already offered a site the house could be moved to and the Camden County Board of Freeholders approved a $50,000 grant to help restore the home after the move. Norcross, meanwhile, was looking into obtaining further federal funds to move the house.
"The destruction of structures with real historical significance undermines the quality of life for our community and does a disservice to our county," Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli said Friday.
DOT spokesman Kevin Israel on Friday told New Jersey 101.5 that the Federal Highway Administration had informed the department that “there are no additional Federal funds available for relocating the structure.”
Israel added that an asbestos and lead abatement project revealed that the “the house was in poor structural condition, including crumbling bricks that made moving it impossible.
“Years of water damage severely affected the physical integrity of the structure.”
But preservationists are not buying that.
The Historical Society’s lawsuit points out that the DOT had claimed last year that it was not feasible to move the house off site. But a DOT consultant’s report from a year earlier found that the house indeed could be moved, although it could be expensive to do so.
In a March 2015 draft report obtained by New Jersey 101.5, Manahattan-based Dewberry Engineers said they conducted a structural inspection of the home and determined that "relocation of the house in its current condition is structurally feasible," although a structural relocation expert would have to determine the logistical feasibility.
The engineers also found "few signs of structural damage or deterioration" indoors, and "no signs of structural damage or deterioration" outside.
Matthew Litt, an attorney for the Historical Society, said the DOT’s incorrect conclusion that the house was not subject to certain federal historic-preservation regulations, allowed the agency to keep preservationists in the dark.
That’s why the demolition came as a surprise, and their lawsuit was too late.
“There was hope there would be cooperation. There was this incredulity by the community that this was going to require litigation,” Litt said. “What the Historical Society was asking for … they were not asking for an end to this project. They were just saying, please work with us so we can move the house.”
Litt, of the Maple Shade firm McDowell Posternock Apell & Detrick, said there could be consequences for the DOT demolishing the house before a judge could decide on their lawsuit.
“Once they were on notice that this property was the subject of litigation, there is certainly an obligation to not destroy the subject of that litigation.”
The nonprofit filed an amended complaint Friday afternoon asking a judge to allow preservationists to comb the rubble for material of historic significance.
The DOT said Friday that workers “removed elements of the house, such as railings, doors, and structural components, and have made them available to the historical society if they wish to preserve them.”
Perks called that assertion a lie.
David Larsson, a member of the Camden County Historical Society, said it would be wise for preservationists elsewhere in the state to consider challenging the DOT "early and often."
"Otherwise, you could wake up early some morning and find that a precious cultural or historical resource in your community 'was removed' by NJDOT even earlier that same morning."
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Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.