Alarm spurs action as South Jersey's historic buildings vanish one by one

The early 19th century Hunter Barn, in Cinnaminson, NJ, is about to make way for a Wawa. The ironstone barn's fate has spurred local historians and preservationists to plot ways to better protect local historic buildings.

A Revolutionary War-era house in Bellmawr is gone forever, and an early 19th-century ironstone barn in Cinnaminson soon will be a memory as well.

But the March 3 demolition of the Hugg-Harrison-Glover house on West Browning Road and the impending destruction of the Hunter Barn on Route 130 at Taylors Lane have highlighted the surprising vulnerability of many vintage buildings in South Jersey.

Count me among the people who once assumed -- wrongly, as it turns out -- that structures of generally agreed-upon historic or other significance are somehow being protected in some way by someone.

“Preservation really has to happen at the local level, with local ordinances,” historic architect Margaret Westfield notes, adding that demolition of a distinctive White Horse Pike house more than 20 years ago in Haddon Heights “started historic preservation” in the borough.

“Sometimes,”  Westfield adds, “you need to have a loss to know what you’re losing.”

The demolition of the barn is part of a redevelopment project approved by Cinnaminson Township. Neither the barn nor the Bellmawr house -- owned by the New Jersey Department of Transportation -- were listed on state or federal registries of historic structures.

And even if they had been, “there’s a misconception that a listing will automatically protect a property from development,” notes Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP oversees the state’s Historic Preservation Office.

Following the Transportation Department’s surprise demolition-at-dawn of the Hugg-Harrison-Glover house as part of the I-76, I-295, and Route 42 interchange reconstruction project,  “people are starting to understand how at risk” such structures are, says Vineland architect Bruce D. Turner.

“We have to do a better job,” adds Turner, who represents the state on the national strategic council of the American Institute of Architects. “We can’t allow this kind of thing to continue to happen.”

In Burlington County, a group of history professionals, including Lisa Fox-Pfeiffer, Peter Fritz, Marisa Bozarth, and Jeff Macechak, are organizing their peers to prevent more losses.

Among the goals: Creating better connections among the dozens of local historical organizations, educating the public, and updating the county’s 1977 survey of historical and architectural  sites of interest.   

“We’re not wringing our hands and crying,” notes Fox-Pfeiffer, executive director of the Burlington County Historical Society.

Adds Fritz, who heads the Delanco Historic Preservation Advisory Board: “We need to be ready to act. Shaking our fists and saying we’re going to write a letter to the editor aren’t enough.”

The Burlington County effort arose after Jim May, who heads the Palmyra Historical Society, organized an eleventh-hour grassroots effort to save the Hunter Barn.

It was too late to do so. But the effort spurred a plan to salvage and perhaps eventually repurpose the ironstone at Pennsauken’s Burrough-Dover House. Also built of the same type of local stone, Burrough-Dover dates from 1710 and is owned by the Pennsauken Historical Society.

“There’s no farming left in Cinnaminson, and the Hunter Barn is a part of the [agricultural history], part of the narrative of what the community used to be like and look like,” Fox-Pfeiffer says. “And it’s going to be missing.”

Similarly, the loss of Hugg-Harrison-Glover deprives Bellmawr not only of its oldest structure, but its only tangible connection to the Revolutionary War.

“It was a really valuable artifact, because it was so intact, and there was so much history to it,” says Chris Perks, president of the Camden County Historical Society. The society helped organize a campaign to save the house that attracted substantial political support.

“We had worked out a plan,” Perks adds. “People I talk to are sickened by this.”

(Gov. Christie isn’t pleased either; on the March 27 Ask the Governor show on NJ 101.5 FM, he said he was “looking into” the demolition, and also said, “I don’t like the way it sounds.”)

Meanwhile, the Pennsauken Historical Society “is preparing a place” on its property to store ironstone salvaged from the Hunter Barn, president Robert Fisher-Hughes says.

“We anticipate that there would be sufficient material for a number of uses," he says, "but we would not be looking to construct anything on the scale of the original.”

Burrough-Dover, now a solitary structure, was once among many buildings on a farm of more than 1,000 acres. Using historical records, the society could use the Hunter Barn stone  “to construct an outbuilding, such as a springhouse, a food storage house, or similar kinds of farm buildings” like those that once existed on the Pennsauken farm.

On Monday, I made a farewell visit to Hunter Barn.

A 2½ story structure -- distinctive, russet-tinged stonework intact -- it stands vandalized, grimy, and  obscured from drivers along Route 130 by a shuttered garden center.

Littered parking lots semi-circle it. The barn door is wide open.

Soon this forlorn scene will be wiped clean to make way for a new development.

A Wawa superstore, with gas.

“We respect the dignity and traditions of local structures,” Wawa public relations manager Lori Bruce  tells me by email.

But, she adds, the company defers to local governments and the developers “to make decisions for the communities we serve.”