This is the Rutherford Historical Preservation Committee
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
By Jennifer Ersalesi
The Rutherford Historical Preservation Committee was formed to “educate the community about what value historic preservation offers to maintain the character of neighborhoods as reflected by architecture and aesthetics.” With fifteen members, the RHPC is actively involved in the community. One of the Committee members, Richard Rovito told TIR,
"I enjoy being a member because we are constantly learning about Rutherford and its rich history of the people who came before us and the contribution they made to make Rutherford what it is today. I am most proud of the marker that was place at the site of the first school house in Rutherford letting the people know about their town. This will remain for many years for all to see." This is Rutherford spoke with the current President, John Trosky and Borough Historian, Rod Leith, about the RHPC.
TIR: When did you become a member of Rutherford’s Historic Preservation Committee?
John Trosky: I have been on the Committee as member for approximately five years. I was vice Chairman in 2017 for half of the year when Brian Ersalesi was elected Chairman. However, he had to bow out mid-year and I became Chair by default. I have been re-appointed and re-elected as chair for the past two years 2018 and 2019. I was originally encouraged to become a part of the RHPC by Rod Leith, Borough Historian, when I met him at a Meadowlands Museum event way back when. I mentioned that I had the original architectural drawings for the construction of our house which was built by a local prominent architect who designed Borough Hall. It was also the residence of a highly decorated WWI veteran.
RL: I first became involved with historic and architectural preservation in Rutherford in the mid-1990's. There was a community outcry in response to a planned demolition of the Dickinson House, one of Rutherford’s most valued historic architecture, which is on the corner of Ridge Road and Pierrepont Avenue. A committee of two, John Daub and myself, were selected to study the proposal and analyze objections to the builder's plan. From this effort, which succeeded in convincing the Planning Board and the builder to compromise and save Dickinson House, came the decision by former Mayor Andy Bertone and the Borough Council to establish a preservation committee. Marjorie Reenstra was the first chairperson when the committee was appointed in 1998. I was later appointed Borough Historian in 2003 and have remained on the Preservation Committee since the beginning.
TIR: What are your some of your goals for the RHPC?
JT: My personal goals are to have this committee take a more active role in the Borough than it has in the past. I believe that we have accomplished some steps toward that goal in the last couple of years, but we still have a ways to go. Our primary objective is to finally reach full Commission status which will give us an actual say in the permitting process where it concerns work on the facades of historic structures in the Borough.
RL: My long term goal is to offer my particular skills and knowledge and hopefully remain useful to the community. Rutherford has managed to maintain itself as a charming "bedroom" community, with a housing stock that includes an abundance of attractive vernacular architecture. There are also some special examples of unusual architecture and there are still some historical treasures. We need to keep reminding ourselves and the Borough's decision makers that Rutherford will gradually lose its charm if we allow the ambition to modernize to overcome our gifts of neighborhood esthetics and the community history our children deserve to learn.
TIR: The RHPC had concerns regarding the placement of an auditorium on Felician University's campus. How was the Committee involved in the discussion regarding this debate?
JT: The Committee fought hard to oppose this project on historic preservation grounds and its adverse impact on the view shed of Iviswold Castle, a national and State registered historic property. We attended many meetings of the Planning Board over the past year and testified at several of those. Our position was that the University was not in compliance with the easement that they had agreed to with the County when accepting public funds for the restoration of this property. We are very pleased with the final outcome that the University has decided to shelve this ill conceived project in favor of a much scaled down Wellness Center that will not affect the view shed of Iviswold.
TIR: The RHPC is working on an updated inventory of historic sites and structures in town. Can you tell us more about this inventory?
JT: The Committee maintains a complete inventory of all individually recognized historic structures in the Borough, as well as listings for each of the designated historic districts. The last full revision of this inventory was done in 2004 and much has changed since then. In going over our inventory we have lost about 12% of our listed properties due to demolition and as we call it "re-muddling" where they no longer have architectural value. We have added properties to the inventory over the years to compensate but this is a zero sum game. We are not building any more historic properties. Once a property is gone, it is gone forever. We have also lost an entire historic district as the bulk of properties in it are so compromised that the district is no longer viable. Some existing properties, still on the inventory, have changed, sometimes for the better and we need to update photographs and property history. This inventory is a living breathing document that needs attention from time to time to keep it current. Our members have photographed each individually listed property and inventoried each home in every historic district to determine if the property is either contributing or non-contributing. We undertook this work to help cut costs for whomever we hire to complete this project. We have almost 200 individually listed properties and another 200 or so that are contributing to various historic districts. We are currently in the process of doing a mailing to every owner of an individually listed property to advise them that they are a listed historic site, what this means for them, who we are as a Committee and what resources we can make available to them. The letter also explains our drive to become a Commission and the benefits that will bring to them and the Borough.
TIR: The Committee will be submitting a request to the Council to extend the Ridge Road Historical district. Can you tell us more about this project and what it will entail?
JT: Since April 2018 the Committee has been fighting to get the Ridge Road Historic District extended to just before Marginal Road from East Pierrepont where it currently ends. Due to the many hearings around the Felician project and other issues, the Planning Board has not addressed this request in a timely manner. The Committee has recently secured funding from the Borough Council to fund an engineering study of the proposed extension. This study, when completed, will be submitted to the Planning Board for an up or down vote to send this request to the full Council for approval. The Committee, after an architectural review by our resident architect members had decided that there is a sufficient concentration of architecturally worthy properties in this extension to warrant an expansion of the original Ridge Road District. All additions to existing historic districts or creation of new historic districts must be approved by the Planning Board and Borough Council. The Committee has the sole right to add individual properties to the historic sites inventory.
TIR: What would you like the community to understand about the Rutherford Historic Preservation Committee?
JT: The most important thing that we want the community to know is that we are here to support the preservation of our historic streetscape, which makes the Borough unique in all of southern Bergen County. We wish to educate our citizens on the value that historic preservation brings to the Borough and to the owners of historic properties. We ask for their support for our drive to become a Commission so that we can better achieve these ends. We can become a part of the process where it affects historic properties where we are currently not required to be included as a Committee even though we are an integral part of the Borough Master Plan. The authority we are requesting as a Commission would not involve every home in Rutherford, just ones listed on the Historic Sites Inventory. We wish to play an educational role and not an adversarial one with our citizens.
TIR: What else does the RHPC have planned throughout the year?
JT: We are working on a number of things to become a more activist Committee. We are looking at starting a voluntary historic marker program for owners of individually listed properties in the Borough. A homeowner can request a marker which we envision would contain a notice that the property is a designated historic site and the date of construction. The design of the plaque would be set by the Committee and would be made of bronze. All costs would be borne by the homeowner.
We will be continuing to do our Historic Preservation Awards each May to honor three homes in the Borough for historic preservation or stewardship of a historic property.
We are investigating possibly reviving the historic house tour in the Borough. This depends on finding willing participants to open their historic homes. We have also thought of a sacred sites tour of historic houses of worship in the Borough. It is all about educating the public on the rich history of the Borough and the wealth of historic properties that they may walk by each day without even noticing them. We will be working with the WWI Centennial Committee to recognize and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the erection and dedication of the Memorial Column next year in 2020.
TIR: Why is the history of Rutherford so important to you?
JT: I have always had an abiding interest in history and I think the best place and easiest place to start looking is right where you live. I grew up in Jersey City and I am aware of the rich and varied history that my hometown holds. When I moved to Rutherford in 1996 I knew that this place held an equally deep history and meeting some locals who were very passionate about it piqued my interest here. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. As an art student in college, interest in historic architecture came naturally. We owned a historic home in Jersey City and one of the things that attracted us to Rutherford was its rich inventory of architecturally significant homes and a well preserved streetscape that was beautifully treed. Our mission with the Committee is to educate our citizens on our history and to ask them if they like the look and feel of the Borough as it is and wish to preserve this for future generations or should we just allow unfettered changes to have us become another nondescript town in suburban New Jersey.
RL: I love the research required to conduct studies of individual historic structures and historic districts. But I especially enjoy engaging the interest and enthusiasm of people in the community. We have had wonderful success with enlisting support from homeowners and others, including students and professionals. Some of their contributions have made for lasting results, such as the art work of Kimberly Balacuit, a former Rutherford High School student who produced an artistic likeness to depict Rutherford's first school house on Meadow Road. I admire the enthusiasm of tradesmen like Tom DiMeola, who has made outstanding contributions to the Historic Preservation Committee's commemorative plaques program, including the 1819 School House, the historic Nereid Boat House, and the plaque that honors the Six Laval Brothers on Wheaton Place.
TIR: Any surprising historical facts you wish to share about Rutherford?
JT: There are many famous individuals who have called Rutherford home. Most residents are probably aware of William Carlos Williams, the dean of American poetry in the 20th century. However, there are many others which the public may not be aware of like the painter John Marin who was born here and Robert Leckie, the author of "Helmet For My Pillow", on which the recent HBO docudrama "The Pacific" was based. The Wall Street Journal columnist, Peggy Noonan, was a graduate of Rutherford High School and Fairleigh Dickinson. Calvin Spann, an original member of the Tuskeegee Airmen and John Latham, a medal of honor winner from World War I also lived in Rutherford. I could go on an on but space is limited. The Rutherford Borough influenced all of these individuals who lived, worked and grew up here.
TIR: What can you tell us about the Committee as a whole?
JT: Our Committee members are all volunteers who are passionate about the Borough and preserving its unique history in Bergen County and the State of NJ. We all hope to ignite that passion for preservation in the citizens of our town in order to keep what makes us such a special place.