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Historic Places Tell YOUR Story

July 8, 2010

Last week, PNJ received a moving email in response to one of this year’s “10 Most Endangered”

Image courtesy of

listings. It’s a personal story that we hope will inspire you to tell us your story:

In a convoluted web search…I came upon the web site, Preservation New Jersey, where the picture of the “derelict” green and chrome diner is displayed. I am 100 percent certain that that is a picture of The Calhoun Diner, which was located on the east side of Calhoun Street just before it meets Princeton Avenue [in Trenton]. That Diner was owned jointly by Russell Toleno and my father Tony Bruno. I remember when it was delivered to that site on a flatbed trailer in the late forties.

If you have any questions about Diner life in the thirties, forties and fifties, I’d be happy to share what I remember about that very special culture.The variety of people who ate in diners, in those days, was remarkable: doctors, lawyers, politicians, truckers, cabbies, plumbers, teachers and so on. Diners crossed socio-economic barriers then, perhaps they still do.

When I was in my teens, I was called in sometimes very late at night…to fill in for a waitress who was a “no show.” Often it was the midnight to morning shift. There were three distinct rush hours: first the after movie crowd, then the after 2:00 AM bar closing, and finally the early breakfast crowd. When things quieted down, I would sit with my dad at the counter, he with a mug of coffee [he was never without one] and I would have a glass of milk and a piece of pie. We¹d talk in the quiet wee hours of the morning as the sun came up over the top of the diner casting its orange glow on the sign of the used car dealership across the street. My father was not educated beyond the 9th grade, but he had a good sense of life and what he wanted for me…He said, “With a good education you can do anything. Don¹t let anybody tell you that you can¹t do what you want to do. If you get a good education, work hard, and keep your nose clean, you¹ll do alright in life.”

Well, it has been a joy to think back on those years.

Our thanks to Marie Bruno Matson for the opportunity to glimpse mid-century NJ Diner culture and how important these places were to New Jerseyans of that time, and to her family.

We preservationists spend a lot of time evaluating the built environment. By necessity, we have  quantitative and qualitative means of determining how important a historic resource is. We ask questions like, “What is the place’s significance? Does it retain integrity? What is the building’s historic context?,” and thereby, figure out how and where that resource fits into the spectrum of historic properties worth preserving.

We also spend a lot of time justifying preservation by “the bottom line.” And rightly so- after all, this is the real world. The number of jobs a rehabilitation project creates, or the amount of money a preservation tax credit project saves, can easily be the deciding factor as to whether a historic place is preserved or demolished.

Although all of this down-to-earth analysis is an imperative part of preservation, we also don’t want to lose sight of one of the most basic, and certainly, most “warm and fuzzy” reasons to preserve: to tell a story. The historic built environment tells the story of the past, and the stories of us as people. Where did we come from? Who came before us? What led to the world we live in today? Historic places help us answer these questions, and often, touch us personally, if we pay attention to them.

We encourage you to pay attention, and tell us your stories here on our blog, in an email, or on Facebook. Why do you want historic places preserved? What experience, person, or lesson does a historic building remind you of? These are the stories that move others to join the preservation movement. Memories will live on if shared- and help the historic places that embody them to live on, too.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Stephanie Cherry Farmer permalink
    July 9, 2010 3:55 pm

    Janet Foster, Associate Director of Urban Planing and Historic Preservation at Columbia University and faculty and advisory board member to Dew University’s Historic Preservation Certificate program, recently gave a poignant graduation speech at Drew relating to the “telling stories” concept. Read the speech from Drew’s website:

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