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CENTURY HOUSE EYED FOR POCKET PARK

fh-williamshouseWith its million-dollar view of the Navesink, the Charles Williams house would be razed sooner or later, locals appear to agree. Below, a weathered medallion on the doorframe marks the structure as a Century House.
(Click to enlarge)

It’s a homestead that links Fair Haven not only to its roots as a riverfront village, but to the bedrock of its identity as a place where African Americans made their homes even in the days of slavery.

The Charles Williams house, built overlooking the Navesink River in 1855, has remained in the same family without interruption, pre-Emancipation right through the death of its most recent occupant, who lived there for 90 years.

Her name was Winifred Julia Decatur Robards, and she died one year ago this week at the age of 92, adding to the rapid erosion of the borough’s small black community.

But years before her death, she and her two sons saw the end of the line coming, and planned to put the house up for sale. And now, it appears the Williams house will indeed fall to a bulldozer at the behest of its next owner: the borough of Fair Haven itself.

fh-robardshouse2This week, the borough council began the process of financing a possible purchase of the one-acre property at the foot of DeNormandie Avenue with the introduction of a bond in the amount of $1.2 million.

The step was taken even though the town has not yet entered into a contract on the property, Mayor Mike Halfacre told redbankgreen, so that input from residents could be gathered.

The aim of the purchase is to create a small, “passive” park with some benches, and little if anything more, for residents to sit and look at the river. No parking, recreation or other facilities are planned, Halfacre said.

If successful, the plan would result in the town’s first riverside park, the absence of which has long chafed residents. Nearby Fair Haven Road, which also leads to the river, was once a glistening roadbed of crushed oyster shells, and the town’s official seal depicts a steamboat, the Albertina, which plied the rivers from Red Bank to New York City.

“It is a shame that for a town like Fair Haven, which has a very close association with the river, our only public properties on the river are the dock and the boat ramp,” he said.

Buying the Williams property, for which the asking price has fallen to $1.2 million, from $1.6 million, “is something I think we can’t afford not to do,” Halfacre said.

But the house cannot be restored or moved without incurring additional costs that the town can’t absorb, he said. Likewise, a private sector buyer would almost certainly tear down the house and replace it with something large and modern, he said.

That’s a view that seems to be widely, if reluctantly accepted. Pat Drummond, president of the Historical Association of Fair Haven, tells redbankgreen that there are no ordinances protecting old properties in town. And even if there were, she is personally persuaded that the town needs a riverfront park more than it needs to keep the Williams house, an argument she finds “compelling” while remaining torn over the likely loss of a piece of history, she said.

“The house is doomed either way, whether the borough buys it or a developer buys it,” she said. “There’s nothing we can do.”

Indeed, the concerns raised during the council discussion of the topic earlier this week centered more on traffic and parking along the narrow street than they did on history. Other residents expressed worries that bike racks and othere equipment might be installed.

Winifred Robards, too, foresaw the likelihood of her home being razed, though she found it hard to accept.

“It would make me very sad to no longer have this family live here,” she told a reporter for the New York Times in an interview published three years ago. “The lawyer told me someone would come in and tear the house down and build a house more suited to the river.”

Sue Williams, the real estate agent handling transaction, tells redbankgreen that Robards’ sons are hope the town will continue their mother’s custom of allowing the public onto the property to stroll the 140-foot-long beach and store canoes and kayaks there.

“There were other offers on the property, all from people already in town, including builder interest, but the family was committed to this vision and we are thrilled,” McLaughlin said.

That Times article also explored the dynamics of Fair Haven’s shrinking African-American population.

Remember: Nothing makes a Red Bank friend happier than to hear "I saw you on Red Bank Green!"
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