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Learning from Losses: The Zabriskie Tenant House

July 25, 2012

The Zabriskie Tenant House, Paramus, 2011

As we preservationists are well-aware, there are a perilous few laws and regulations that have the oversight and teeth necessary to really save historic places. We exist in a world of private property rights and “highest and best use,” wherein the general public is increasingly disillusioned with government regulation, including that of the land use variety. For those of us who deal with these challenges daily, it is always a little surprising when, after preservation tragedies like July 13th’s loss of the 18th century Zabriskie Tenant House in Paramus, so many people repeatedly ask, “How could something like this happen?” But we preservationists must constantly remind ourselves how many people don’t really understand how historic places are “saved-” or how easily they can be lost. We make strides daily, but there is much education yet to be accomplished.

The demolition of the Zabriskie Tenant House, a National Register of Historic Places-listed 18th century stone house that was the oldest surviving link with the thriving 19th century African-American community of Dunkerhook, came as heartbreak to area advocates, who had been working almost two years to save the building. When an application for demolition was filed in 2010, a group of concerned citizens quickly mobilized. The advocates pointed out that the house was included on a list of local landmarks regulated by an ordinance that claims to establish a historic preservation commission in Paramus.

Lesson #1: ANYONE can speak out and make a difference for a historic place. If citizens had not been alert in this case, and taken it upon themselves to do research and generate interest, the Zabriskie Tenant House could easily have been demolished without so much as a question.

In most instances, historic preservation ordinances offer a measure of protection for historic resources. However, it would soon be revealed that the Paramus Historic Preservation Commission hadn’t actually had a member appointed in at least a decade, and the Planning Board that such a commission was supposed to advise was woefully inexperienced with historic preservation concerns.

Lesson #2: Each and every building, community, and situation is different. In preservation, everything is case by case.

The advocates did their homework, and volunteered their time to attend meetings and hearings, send emails, and craft a campaign. They reached out to the property owner and the proposed developer, and worked to educate the municipality. They succeeded in getting the application delayed at least temporarily.

Lesson #3: Preservation is a process. It can involve a lot of effort and time, most of which inevitably falls to volunteers. Even small victories are important steps in the process.

Numerous meetings and hearings, articles, and a 2011 PNJ 10 Most Endangered Historic Places  listing later, in April 2011, the Paramus Planning Board approved a developer’s application to demolish the house, subdivide the property on which it sits and construct two new houses. The Planning Board claimed no legal authority to deny the application, which required no variances. But the questions as to whether the Planning Board could act on a application that involved a site that was supposed to benefit from the oversight of an historic preservation commission, and whether the city could proceed without appointing such a commission (basically, without enforcing their own ordinance), remained.

Lesson #4: Understanding your local land use regulations, or making friends with someone who does, is important.  Ask questions.

Pulling out all of the stops, the local advocates filed a lawsuit challenging the Planning Board’s approval. But the courts upheld the municipality’s approval in September 2011, seemingly unconcerned that Paramus has a law aimed at protecting historic

July 13th, 2012: the Zabriskie Tenant House during demolition

properties that they are not enforcing. Despite this serious blow, advocates continued to work toward alternate solutions. They asked the developer to put the house on the market (which unfortunately never happened), and even devised a plan for the house to be relocated to the campus of Bergen County Community College.

Lesson #5: Never give up. It’s not over, until it’s over.

Throughout the conflict, advocates also continued to generate interest in their case, and publicity. There was even an article on the house in the New York Times. They secured a great deal of support, much of it from surrounding municipalities and the larger preservation community.  However, they did not receive as much vocal support from Paramus residents as they could have used.

Lesson #6: Especially when a municipal law or decision is involved, support from within that municipality is vital. Decision-makers are best influenced by their own constituents.

In the end, even as Bergen County Community College and a County Freeholder continued to work on a potential plan to relocate the house to the college campus, on July 12th, a backhoe appeared at the property, and by noon on July 13th, the Zabriskie Tenant House was largely a pile of rubble.

In losing the Zabriskie Tenant House, we’ve lost an irreplaceable landmark. A piece of rare 18th century heritage, and all but one final remnant of the story of African-Americans in the 19th century Dunkerhook Community of Bergen County, is gone forever. But while lamenting this loss, we have to also take the lessons above, and others, from it, and apply them to the broader picture. Could this happen in your town? What laws and/or processes regulate property in your community, and how invovled are your citizens? Is your municipal leadership educated about historic preservation, and are they being pressed by their constituents to protect historic resources?

For ideas and more information on how you can be proactive about historic preservation where you live, explore PNJ’s Preservation Toolkit. But remember that awareness is the first step. The Zabriskie Tenant House will be missed, but its lessons will survive. Let’s make sure they make a difference.

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