A Landmark Loss In Newark: Polhemus House to be Razed
What was touted as one of the greatest preservation victories in Newark’s history just four years ago became this week what promises to be one of the city’s most significant recent losses.
The Newark Museum has received reluctant approval from both the Newark Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission (NLHPC) and the New Jersey Historic Sites Council (NJHSC) to demolish the Polhemus House, an 1859 row house located at 69
Washington Street. The building is owned by the city, but leased by the museum, under terms that render the museum alone responsible for the building’s care and maintenance. The museum vacated the building in 2004, and after local advocates expressed concern about the building’s future, it was listed as one of the 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in New Jersey in 2005. In 2007, the museum announced an expansion plan that included rehabilitation of the Polhemus House.
Now, in 2011, the need for immediate action is clear: the Polhemus House is extremely deteriorated. Conditions are serious enough that Robert Silman Associates, an experienced, preservation-conscious engineering firm, earlier this year declared the building an imminent danger and recommended close to $2 million dollars worth of emergency stabilization work. The bottom line is economics: the estimated price for full restoration of the Polhemus House comes to $7 million- $5 million even after initial stabilization. This amounts to a cost of approximately $1000 per square foot, more than triple the cost of a typical rehabilitation project.
The extremely unusual numbers result from work required due in part to what experts (Robert Silman Associates and Building Conservation Associates) deem to be flaws in the house’s original construction. The building’s mortar has turned to sand in many places- bricks can be removed by hand. Testing indicates that the original mortar mix was likely of low quality, and that additionally, the bricks of the exterior walls were laid in reverse of most construction of that time, trapping moisture to a greater degree than it would have had it been constructed in the typical fashion. Mortar deterioration has literally resulted in facades that are disconnected from interior bricks and from one another. Of course, it cannot be denied that long-term inadequate maintenance and periods of vacancy have worsened these conditions.
The sad truth is that at the exact moment when conditions at the Polhemus House have reached a point that thorough, complete stabilization can wait no longer, museum funding has also reached an all-time low. Although the museum has expended over $1 million on maintenance and planning for the Polhemus House since 2005 alone, during the past 30 years, museum funding has overwhelmingly been committed to other activities. These activities do include historic preservation: the museum’s campus is comprised completely of six additional historic buildings.
The NLHPC and the HSC have required mitigation in the form of documentation, an exhibit, and interpretive signage, and have refused to allow demolition prior to review and approval of a landscape plan for the vacant lot and a salvage plan for significant architectural elements. Hence, we can hope that the building will not be forgotten. But nothing can replace a historic building. The demolition of the Polhemus House will constitute a tragic loss to the James Street Commons Historic District and the city of Newark.