Forney House falls, and 150 years of history is replaced by a bank

The Forney House, prior to demolition, Milltown, NJ

The Forney House, prior to demolition, Milltown, NJ

MILLTOWN, NEW JERSEY: Last Friday marked the end of the fight to save The Forney House (circa 1860’s) in Milltown, NJ. And why was this old beauty torn down? To build a Valley National Bank.

Just what we need. A bank.

Even scarier is that the exact same thing happened to the Victorian across the street ~ which was demolished to build ~ you guessed it ~ a bank. In a town of 7,500 residents, it would seem that 4 banks are enough.

HISTORY: In 1907 Dr. Norman Forney Sr. came to Milltown with his horse and carriage and began practicing medicine. The home where he lived and practiced was built in the 1860s by John Evans, father of Milltown’s first Mayor, John C. Evans.

Dr. Forney Sr. was later joined by his sons, Norman Jr. and Charles. They owned and operated the clinic in this building until 1980. The house was then sold to Dr. Sharma, who continued to practice there and rented the house to tenants as recently as 2007.

The building was found “Eligible” for listing on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office, which also deemed it eminently “rehabbable” in 2008.

[From the Milltown Voice] “Resident Michael Shakarjian, president of the citizens’ group, said the demolition of the house could have been prevented if there had been greater scrutiny of the process on the part of elected officials.

Shakarjian particularly called out [Mayor Gloria] Bradford, saying she did not do anything to help matters during the process when he sent her a letter outlining what he, and 400 others who signed the letter, perceived as a failure to follow protocols on the part of the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), whose approval was necessary before the bank could move forward.”

“She does not think it’s a serious situation,” Shakarjian said of Bradford. “That’s what the problem is — none of these people think it’s serious.”

A work crew begins the demolition of the Forney House last Friday

A work crew begins the demolition of the Forney House last Friday

“It was definitely sad to see it come down,” said Harto, a member of the town’s Historic Preservation Committee. “If we stepped in on that, we would just be opening ourselves to a lawsuit,” Harto said. “It wouldn’t have helped at this point, but it would have helped 20 years ago when Dr. [Bhudev] Sharma started neglecting the property.”

“Since Valley National Bank (VNB) is a nationally chartered bank, it required approval from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and also was required to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This review approval process was required since the Forney House was eligible for the National Register. Unfortunately, the bank and the property owner did not approach this consultation in a manner befitting a public process and sought to force its demands on those involved.” [Preservation NJ website]

What can we do about this?

Email the whitehouse to ask that we strengthen the Section 106 Laws, so that this doesn’t happen again. Better yet, ask that Historic Preservation Ordinances be mandatory.

The Wellesley Inn ~ The Original

The Wellesley Inn, in all its former glory (Wellesley, MA)

The Wellesley Inn, in all its former glory (photo credit: Jennifer Emmer)

WELLESLEY, MASSACHUSETTS:  Little did I know when I snapped this picture in 2005, it would be the last one I ever took of the Wellesley Inn.

This is a little like reminiscing about the horses, after the barn door has been opened…..but I feel I must, for my own peace of mind, blog about this. Maybe it’s because I’m 3,000 miles away, so I didn’t get to hear any grass-roots rumblings, but it seems like The Wellesley Inn was torn down with nary a whimper from any of her gentle townsfolk. In researching this debacle, however, I now discover that the Wellesley Country Clubhouse/Original Town Hall/Poor Farm building has gone the way of the buffalo too?

Good Lord, people! Wake up!

Wellesley Inn History: Built by Boston lawyer Henry Fowle Durant, the stately white Colonial inn has overlooked downtown Wellesley since 1860. Durant used it as a summer home for his wife and 5 year old son.  After his son died of diptheria a few years later, a devastated Durant left his law practice to become an evangelist. He ultimately founded Wellesley Female Seminary in 1870, which later become Wellesley College.

Durant also founded the literary society of Phi Sigma, designed to promote social and academic development. Tea parties were a favorite social event of the society, and students rented part of the inn for their gatherings.

The Wellesley Inn, in an old postcard (Wellesley, MA)

The Wellesley Inn, in an old postcard

Activities in the Tea Toom eventually become an “informal club” of sorts. Tea Room manager, Mary Esther Chase said the “college girls flocked for ‘afternoon tea’, ‘ice cream and spreads’ of various kinds. When out-of-town friends came to visit, they were taken to ‘The Tea Room’ for their meals.”

Chase and her business partner, Clara Hathorne Shaw, put together a design plan for “The Wellesley Tea Room Corporation” and by selling shares of stock for $5,  they had enough money to purchase the house itself in 1901. That same year they began taking in lodgers.

The public side included a “cozy reception room, hall, toilet room, and dining room” where they served “luscious griddle cakes and fudge ice cream”.

By the way, many stories claim that fudge was invented at either Vassar, Smith or Wellesley. Here is an original 1886 Fudge Recipe from Emelyn B. Hartridge of Vassar College.

The student half of the inn, on the right, included a reception hall, living room and dining room with Flemish oak paneling, arts and crafts tables, and ”big palms”. In 1914, the inn was sold to Jeremiah Bransfield, whose family managed it for 50 years. They also added the distinctive pillars along the front porch, according to the Wellesley Historical Society.

My friend Danielle, inside the Wellesley Inn, 2005

My friend Danielle, inside the Wellesley Inn, 2005

In 1960, the Bransfields sold the inn to William W. White, who refurbished the building, added a motel wing, and opened a tavern near the back. On a personal note, I spent many a happy evening with my high school chums in that old tavern. It was dark as a tomb, and the wooden paneling and low ceilings made it feel like you had just stepped into a pub in England.

The Treadway Corp. managed the property for years, before White sold it in 2005. Unbeknownst to me (until it was too late), 146 years of history went up in the puff of smoke in 2006.

I could rant on about this, but the damage is done. It seems some other folks are just as bent out of shape as I am about this:

Buffum: How and why we need to preserve for the generations to come

Letter: Where’s the outcry? Where’s the protection?

Oh, and next on the chopping block? My old alma mater, Wellesley High School. Art Deco. Built in 1938. “Perfectly good” as my dad would say.

Have at it:

Save Wellesley High School

If you know of any historic buildings in imminent danger, please let me know by email at or on Twitter at:

Even the Grand Dames have fallen on hard times

The Redman House, in happier times

The Redman House, in happier times

[From “The Redman House“]

WATSONVILLE, CALIFORNIA: The Redman-Hirahara House is a prime example of a West Coast Victorian farm estate home situated on almost 14 acres of farmland clearly visible from Scenic Highway 1 in the Pajaro Valley on California’s Central Coast.

She greets passersby like a grand lady who has fallen on hard times, just a faint relic of the noble and gracious beauty that commanded the views of the river and valley from her perch on West Beach Road.

Driving through the Pajaro Valley, travelers cannot miss the stately Queen Anne Victorian which stands in the middle of a farm field as a symbol of history.

The house was built for James Redman in 1897; designed by renowned architect William H. Weeks. The building contract was let to the local firm of Lamborn and Uren, at a negotiated cost of $3,368. The interior of the home was finished in eastern oak, birds eye maple and natural hardwoods. It was outfitted with all the conveniences for modern housekeeping.

The Redman House waits patiently to be restored

The Redman House waits patiently to be restored

When the James Redman family died out in the 1930s, the house and property were sold to the Hirahara family, one of the first Japanese-American families to own farmland in the nation. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Hirahara family, along with the other Japanese families across the state, were removed and delivered to internment camps. The Hirahara family managed to maintain ownership of the house and land, with the often-anonymous assistance from the Watsonville community. After the war they returned home and made the house and converted barn into an interim home for several other Japanese families while they reestablished themselves in the community.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the house and land was sold to Green Farm, a partnership of investors. The land was leased for commercial strawberry farming and the house left to deteriorate. There were “profitable development plans” at that time, much to the dismay of locals.

In 1998, a group of Pajaro Valley residents formed The Redman House Committee to determine what could be done to save the neglected and vacant 100-year old Victorian house. The Committee added the house to the National Registry of Historic Places to prohibit demolition, leased the now pallid land and abandoned farmstead, and designed a conceptual master plan to transform the site into a landmark Visitor and Cultural Education center.

In February of 2005, the property was purchased by The Redman-Hirahara Foundation with borrowed funds for $1.9 million. The surrounding 10 acres of farmland now produces colorful organic crops year-round.

To help restore this beloved jewel, go to: Save the Redman House.

Comstock Ferre Seed Co up for sale

Comstock Ferre Seed Co, Wethersfield, CT

Comstock Ferre Seed Co, Wethersfield, CT ~ Photo by Jennifer Emmer

Old Wethersfield is a charming, historic Connecticut River town founded in 1634. Along Main Street the homes are more than 200 years old, as well as the white-steepled Congregational Church that George Washington occasionally attended. This area is richly endowed with deep, fertile soil, a legacy from the glaciers and the annual flooding of the Connecticut River.  As a result of these agricultural benefits, the Wethersfield area has always produced an abundance of seeds.

As you come off I-91, into Wethersfield town center, Comstock Ferre Seed Company is front and center in the middle of the downtown fabric.  Located in a cluster of antique buildings in the Historic District, Comstock Ferre is the oldest continuously operating seed company in the country. Established in 1820 by James Lockwood Belden as the Wethersfield Seed Company, the original tin signs still adorn the buildings to this day. The company has seen several transitions during its century and a half operation. For the full story, see the history page at the Comstock Ferre Seed Company website.

“Here is the finest ride in America.  A gentleman told me that there is not such another street in America as this one in Wethersfield… We went up the steeple of Wethersfield Meeting House from whence is the most grand and beautiful prospect in the world.”

From John Adam’s Diary, August 15, 1774 .

Historic Route 66 Motels make the “11 Most Endangered Places 2007”

Route 66 Motel

Route 66 Motel

Affectionately called “The Mother Road,” Route 66 is known for quirky roadside attractions and unique mom-and-pop motels, constructed between the late 1920 and late 1950s and often clad in neon. In recent years, Route 66 motels in hot real-estate markets have been torn down at record rates, while in cold real-estate markets, motels languish and are being reclaimed by the forces of nature.


Stretching more than 2,000 miles from Lake Michigan to the Santa Monica Pier and passing through the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, Route 66 reflects the 20th century evolution of transportation and tourism in the United States. In its early years, the highway facilitated large-scale settlement of the west, saw the desperate migration of Dust Bowl refugees and World War II troop movements, and played a major role in the advent of car culture and automobile tourism. In the postwar era, Route 66 symbolized unprecedented freedom and mobility for every citizen who could afford to own and operate a car. The development of the interstate highway system brought the glory days of Route 66 to an end, and one by one, communities were bypassed and lost their economic lifeline. The final decommissioning of Route 66 in 1985, coincided with a renewed appreciation for this American icon, and recognition that the remaining significant structures, features, and artifacts associated with the road should be preserved.

Over the past decade, private property owners, nonprofit organizations, and local state, federal and tribal governments have worked together to identify, prioritize, and address Route 66 preservation needs. Included in these efforts through an Act of Congress in 1999, the National Park Service was directed to administer the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program that works with partners in preserving and continuing the use of the most representative and significant historic properties along the route.


Many historic Route 66 motels are threatened by the compound forces of long-term deferred maintenance and obsolescence while others fall to the lure of cash to demolish and convert valuable real estate into upscale developments. Motels in expanding urban areas are subject to development pressures associated with sprawl.


Local governments need to develop policies and financial incentives to support motel properties and businesses. Some historic motels have been successfully rehabilitated and maintained in their original use. The Munger Moss in Lebanon, Missouri, and the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, New Mexico are examples of motels that cater to a growing base of heritage tourists looking for an authentic Route 66 experience. These motels offer models of “best practices” that others can emulate. Most importantly, the traveling public from the United States and abroad can directly support the heritage of Route 66 by patronizing its historic motels and related roadside attractions.

What you can do

[Reprinted from the National Trust Website, August, 2007]

Grassroots Effort Needed to save the Belleview Biltmore on Florida’s Gulf Coast

[Reprinted from National Trust for Historic Preservation website, July 21, 2006]

The Owners Want to Tear it Down for Condos

BELLEAIR, FLORIDA: High-rise condos overlooking Clearwater Harbor on Florida’s Gulf coast are the type of development you would expect to see in the state. However, when a multi-million-dollar project called for destroying one of the state’s most elegant century-old hotels in Belleair, Fla., locals spoke out against another 600 condos and a new hotel.

The Stunningly Beautiful Belleview Biltmore, in Florida

The Stunningly Beautiful Belleview Biltmore, in Florida

Built in 1896 by railroad and steamboat baron Henry B. Plant, the Belleview Biltmore Hotel originally had 500 rooms and was built in three sections, each 400 feet long, with broad verandas. During World War II, the U.S. Army moved in 3,000 soldiers for two years and painted over its Tiffany stained-glass windows and brass fixtures. It has hosted Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and to Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush.

Longtime residents were appalled that the grand hotel that once played host to presidents would be demolished. Last month, their voices were heard when the Belleair town council voted unanimously in early May to delay the demolition as leaders of a citizens group continue to negotiate the purchase of the 21-acre site with owner Belleview Biltmore Resorts, Ltd.

“We now have four commissioners all rowing the boat in the same direction,” says Rae Claire Johnson, president of Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, which is the leading the fight to save the Victorian structure.

Even with the demolition postponed for now, others warn that the fight is not yet over. “Delaying the decision on that application is not a flat-out denial,” says Belleair Town Manager Steve Cottrell. “It is deferment of a major development.”

The Exquisite Lobby at the Biltmore

The Exquisite Lobby at the Biltmore

With that in mind, the National Trust announced yesterday that the Belleview Biltmore is one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

“Everyone needs to stay involved until we have ensured that the hotel is protected by the full weight of intelligent public policies, strong local ordinances, and other legal tools such as conservation easements,” says Sam Casella, a professional planner who joined the fight to save the property. “The hotel may be given a reprieve, and the next months and years will determine whether we can make the most of it.”

Johnson would like to see the creation of a for-profit company that can take advantage of historic-tax credits for the renovation, which would include taking down two dilapidated four-story buildings with small rooms. They would be rebuilt and sold as condo hotel units so the revenue could be used to purchase and rehabilitate of the property, she says. After five years, it would be turned over to the nonprofit Friends of the Belleview Biltmore.

“We have offered the owners $40 million, and they want $50 million, so we are negotiating right now,” Johnson says. “I think they know now that I’m not just a little housewife with a cause.”

Reaching that point in this tiny town of 4,500 took some doing. Preservationists started fighting to save the thriving hotel that was once known as the “White Queen of the Gulf” last fall. After last summer’s hurricanes, more than 320,000 square feet of the roof of the four-and-a-half story hotel was covered with tarps, and the owners, Belleview Biltmore Resorts Ltd., made no effort to repair it. As Johnson sees it, the owner wanted to let the hotel deteriorate to support their claim that it had to be demolished. “I think it was their intention to run it into the ground,” she says.

A relaxing view from the porch at the Belleview Biltmore

A relaxing view from the porch at the Belleview Biltmore

Coupled with that were reports that the DeBartolo Development of Tampa had a contract to buy the property to tear down the historic property and build a smaller hotel and condominiums on 22 acres.

So this spring, Johnson and two other candidates ran against the commissioners who were up for re-election. According to Johnson, the Belleair Citizens for Truth spent $50,000 “to defeat us,” and she believes most of money came from the developer.

Even though Johnson lost the election, she didn’t back down when owners filed for a demolition permit on April 21. That’s when the National Trust for Historic Preservation was called into the fracas. National Trust President Richard Moe called the owner in an effort to negotiate a deal to save the resort, which includes a pool and golf course.

“There has been an incredible grassroots mobilization,” says Mary Ruffin Hanbury, who oversees Florida’s historic-preservation efforts from the National Trust’s Southern Office. “There’s a lot of people we have not usually heard from in Florida that were just aghast that this could happen. Our regional office has been bombarded about this issue.”

Belleview water view

Belleview water view

A hotel in excellent condition is rarely a candidate for demolition. The Belleview Biltmore’s last rehabilitation was in the 1990s, when Japan-based Mido Development spent $10 million on renovations and added a Chinese restaurant. Residents were shocked when the company installed a Pagoda-like entrance, which they nicknamed “Godzilla.” Upset by the Oriental décor, Johnson and others refuse to use that entrance. “A lot of us only go in the original front porch, which is now the rear of the hotel,” she says.

Many locals still visit the ice cream parlor or have a drink at St. Andrews Pub, and the hotel is still used for social gatherings like weddings and afternoon teas. “This is the largest wood-frame building in the state, and it still maintains a great deal of integrity,” Hanbury says. “It would be a tragedy to lose it. It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”