Considering its dire implications, the news earlier this month that a Red Bank house had been had been designated one of New Jersey’s 10 most endangered historic sites was oddly encouraging to a near-octagenarian with a weatherbeaten voice and fu manchu straight out of the ’60s.
Oddly, that is, because inclusion on the list put together by Preservation New Jersey provides no guarantees that the house will be saved. It offers no legal leverage against a present or future owner who might decide to knock the house down. There’s no money in it, either.
In sum, the appellation is as toothless as a newborn.
Yet George Bowden was ecstatic. He’d known that the house, once the home of pioneering African-American newspaperman T. (Timothy) Thomas Fortune, might land on the list, but asked that that not be publicized until it was official, after which “we can blow it sky high,” he told redbankgreen with characteristic enthusiasm.
Once it was announced, Bowden started making plans to leverage the endorsement of historians across the state. He began planning outreach to community groups, leaders of African-American congregations he’s even reached out to Oprah. Whatever it takes to get the word out.
“You can try to prevent it through the press, or local support,” he says, “but there’s no legal groundwork for preventing demolition.”
“He’s like the Energizer bunny,” says Ed Zipprich, a candidate for council this year who serves on the borough’s Historical Preservation Commission that Bowden heads.
There is worry and a sense of urgency behind that mustache, of course. Despite one key victory the relocation and restoration of the Century House in July, 2003 and several minor ones, Red Bank’s househugger community has been thwarted repeatedly on the big stuff in recent years.
In 1999, the Rullman House, built in 1805, was torn down by the borough to create Riverside Gardens Park.
Two years later, the owner of the Thomas Morford House on West Front Street, one of the oldest taverns in the United States, quietly obtained a demolition permit on a Friday in July, “and the next morning… dust,” says Bowden. The house was replaced by the Commerce Bank on West Front Street.
Preservationists fought to save the Olde Union House, a tavern and hotel built in the late 1700s that long served farmers and boatmen who converged at the banks of the Navesink River. But they lost the battle when the planning board approved plans in early 2005 to knock down the Wharf Avenue structure and replace it with condos and stores, a project now well underway.
The most recent setback came last December, when the United Methodist Church on Broad Street tore down a handsome, if deteriorating, brick wall that dated back to the time the property was the home of the Eisners, one of the borough’s leading families of the early 20th century. When he couldn’t get any answers as to what, if any efforts had been made to save the wall, Bowden rushed over to the church where, he says, he was “treated like Typhoid Mary.”
All these defeats point to a need for an ordinance giving the commission, of which he is chairman, a greater say in what happens to old structures here, Bowden says. The commission reviews every application to the planning and zoning boards for potential impacts on historic structures, but has only an advisory role.
“The stronger the measures are for preserving historic buildings that I call the historic fabric of Red Bank, the better for the good and welfare of the community,” Bowden says.
People who’ve worked with him say Bowden brings a kind of gusto to his efforts that fuels their own passions.
“That’s the toughest thing to maintain the day-to-day enthusiasm amid the drudgery,” says Mary Gilligan, a member of the historical commission. “George is the tidal wave of enthusiasm who brings everyone along.”
Again and again in his life, he has been a late bloomer. Bowden, who will turn 80 in September, was born in Queens to a family whose American roots go back to the early 1800s in Southampton, Long Island. His father was a New York City school teacher, but as a young man, George was, he admits, “a very, very poor student. High school had no interest for me, basically.”
One month after World War II ended, Bowden dropped out and joined the Navy. He went back to school after three years overseas, but this time, seated among the kids with acne, a zest for learning overtook him. Enouraged by a math teacher, Bowden went on to Adelphi College (now University), and after that, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Still, what followed was a desultory start to adult life. Bowden estimates he’s held some 30 jobs, including serving as the “deck officer” (essentially, a tour guide) in Navy dress blues on the boardwalk at Jones Beach; putting tags on Robert Hall suits; ensuring that the syrup sold by Coca-Cola was kosher; painting faux-antique signs; and promoting Vespa motorscooters.
“Anything to make a buck,” he says with a raspy laugh.
Married when he was in college, Bowden says he was about to become a father for the fifth time in 1963 when he told himself, “Man, you’ve got to get your act together.” Always interested in packaging, he decided to go into the business, and spent the next 37 years there, selling boxes and bottles to the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. He retired 10 years ago, but the letters “pkg” remain on his license plate and in his email address.
He and his second wife, Gladys, met at a consignment shop for fishermen in Atlantic Highlands, where she worked. They’ve been married for 26 years and live in a Hubbard Park house, one built in 1895 and rumored to have been relocated from nearby to its present site on Throckmorton Ravine. Between them, George and Gladys have nine children and and easy rapport with one another. When he forgets a name during an interview in their kitchen, she knows it. “Are you my partner, or are you my partner?” he calls out after one such save.
When he’s not trying to save buildings or making preparations for next year’s borough centennial, Bowden indulges two other passions: fishing and pottery. A perennial student, he’s been taking pottery classes for the past decade at Brookdale Community College.
It was through Gladys, Bowden says, that he his latent interest in local history was awakened. He accompanied her to a borough council meeting where a citizen group called Preservation Red Bank was clamoring for the Rullman House house to be saved. Bowden was swept up in the passions he witnessed at the meeting, where policemen had been posted to keep things under control.
Though he initially regarded Preservation Red Bank as a bit radical, he thought the council’s decision to raze the house was more so, and signed on, hoping to help prevent another Rullman.
“I said, ‘This is one down, but there are a lot of other places in town that will be at risk,'” he recalls. “A lot of buildings are on borrowed time, plain and simple.”
The demise of the Morford house added to the outrage, and prompted then-councilmembers Jennifer Beck, a Republican, and Pasquale Menna, a Democrat, to establish the historical commission, a move that Preservation Red Bank had been calling for. In addition to its advisory role, the commission creates an annual inventory of historic sites, with emphasis on architectural significance and who’s lived there. There are 80 sites on the roster today, including five on the National Historical Register.
Now, Bowden is taking aim at the Fortune house, at 94 Drs. James Parker Boulevard. The Vaccarelli family, which long operated an Italian bakery and raised two branches there, has put the house on the market.
“There are very few people, even in the African-American community, who know about Thomas Fortune and how important he was to the African-American people,” Bowden says. “He’s a man of history. He was a pioneer in the civil rights movement, before civil rights even had a name to it.” Fortune is also said to have coined the term “African-American.”
Menna, who’s now mayor, is sold on the home’s importance. “We as a community must come out strongly, affirmatively, that that site must be and will be preserved for posterity,” he said at the council’s May 16 session. “If we lost this one, we lose the heart of the community.”
Bowden emphasizes that not every glancing connection to history makes a house historical. “Classic example,” he says: A house on Harrison Avenue, said to have been owned by a relative of President Henry Harrison, for whom the street is purportedly named. When the modern-day owner wanted to tear it down, local history buffs swung into action to research the backstory of the property, but could not substantiate any direct ties to the president. They stood aside for the bulldozers, Bowden says.
Nor is preservation about “turning everything out there into a museum,” he says. “If you can make something useful out of an historic site, I think that’s a very positive step.”
Just as the Century House has found a new use as a school building, he envisions office space in the restored rooms where Thomas Fortune once wrote his editorials calling for equal rights for the “Negroes” of the day.
“I look at George as, hopefully, not the last Renaissance man,” says Mary Gilligan. “He’s not afraid to be passionate about his causes. We’re very lucky to have a George Bowden who can carry the weight for those of us who have day jobs.”