Still reeling from the stealthy, state-sponsored demolition of a Revolutionary War-era house in Bellmawr, the Camden County Historical Society met Wednesday to consider its next move.
“We can't let this happen again,” president Chris Perks said, before the board held a closed session to discuss legal and other strategies.
The Historical Society had led a spirited grassroots effort to save the Hugg-Harrison-Glover house, which the New Jersey Department of Transportation had long been intent on tearing down.
Perks himself was among the defenders of history who donned colonial costumes and marched in Bellmawr's Fourth of July parade last year to galvanize public support for the oldest building in the borough.
The mid-18th-century farmhouse had most recently been used for offices and was once owned by a colonial militia commander. It was beloved by many historians but viewed by some Trenton bureaucrats as an inconsequential impediment to the eventual completion of the $900 million I-295, I-76, and Route 42 reconstruction project.
An NJDOT evaluation, begun in 2003, found the house lacked historical significance, an inexplicable conclusion given readily available documentation of the role that the building's onetime owner, Capt. William Harrison, played in the war to set the American colonies free from the oppressive rule of a remote and arbitrary government.
Last Friday, by the dawn's early light and amid a state police presence, a state contractor quickly reduced the noble old structure on the grounds of New St. Mary's Cemetery to rubble. The pulverized debris was fenced off and state police remained on the scene for hours.
The demolition crew did the job without a permit to tear down the house. A legal challenge also was pending; a DOT spokesman later told NJ.com that a notice about the filing of a motion to block the move turned up in a department mailroom Friday after the house had been razed.
The seemingly all-powerful Transportation Department also issued a statement/decree Friday declaring that the house, until recently occupied by cemetery employees, was far too structurally fragile to be moved — and had failed to meet federal standards for historical significance anyway.
But this airy declaration seemed at best feeble amid media coverage of a priceless piece of New Jersey history tragically lost to make way for a prosaic traffic noise barrier.
And the resulting statewide firestorm seems to have taken some in Trenton by surprise.
Bellmawr Mayor Frank Filipek said he got a call this week from someone in Gov. Christie's office who “wanted to know the whole story.”
The borough issued a demolition permit March 2 for a garage adjacent to Hugg-Harrison, Filipek said.
“But my building inspector told them they couldn't touch the house,” added the mayor, whose administration had earmarked a nearby municipally owned site as a future home for the structure.
Perks noted Wednesday that a 2015 report by Dewberry, a New York engineering firm, said few signs of structural damage or deterioration had been observed by its inspectors, although there was evidence of past water damage due to a since-repaired dormer.
The report also concluded that “relocation of the house in its current condition is structurally feasible.”
Citing other documents obtained by the Historical Society, Perks said NJDOT “never evaluated the possibility of moving the house” and had in fact “deceived” state and federal agencies into believing it had done so.
NJDOT also had suggested that the loss of the structure be mitigated by a $75,000 study of similar vintage structures in South Jersey built with the region's distinctive “patterned brick” style.
But the Hugg-Harrison bricks are now history.
All that's left of a house that survived the Revolutionary War are 11 inside doors, with hinges, and a piece of chair rail salvaged by the demolition crew.
They're being stored in an unknown location.