By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Though the house and acre of land it sits on have been available to buyers on and off for years, vandalism prompted the owners to plant a ‘for sale’ sign on the lawn last week, reigniting worries of preservationists. They fear the the three-story, Second Empire-style home to post-Civil War black newspaperman and activist T. Thomas Fortune might be razed.
At that price, economics don’t favor the house being preserved, said the property’s agent, Kip Walker. The dilapidated, boarded-up structure is uninhabitable, and even agents have been advised not to enter the building, Walker said.
It’s fallen into more disrepair in recent years, said James Vaccarelli, who owns the property along with other family members.
“Vandalism’s gotten so bad,” the Shrewsbury resident said. “It’s just a mess, because it was such a beautiful home.”
Vaccarelli declined to elaborate, saying the story reported when the property first went on the market in 2007 is the same today.
“I think all the questions have been answered,” said Vaccarelli, whose family operated a bakery on the property until a few years ago. “Nothing has changed at all.”
The property, zoned for single-family and multi-family housing, as well as business and retail uses, would undoubtedly offer a better investment return as one of those uses than being preserved as a national and state historic landmark a designation the home earned in 2007 Walker said.
Unless a philanthropist like Oprah Winfrey came forward to pour money into the rehab of the building, a buyer would likely take a wrecking ball to it, Walker said.
“The best use would probably be to knock it down and redevelop it, unfortunately,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the fierce stable of preservationists in town won’t fight to keep the Fortune house intact and persuade a buyer to make good use of it, perhaps as a museum.
And the rest of the property? Well, that’s not of as much importance, says George Bowden, Red Bank’s informal keeper of the history books and chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission. The home, although in poor condition, stands for an important piece of Red Bank history, when a former slave-turned-activist laid his head at night, Bowden said.
Born a slave in Florida, Fortune made his way north to New York, where he founded a daily newspaper and would become a fiery mouthpiece for African-American freedoms. Credited with coining the term ‘African-American,’ he owned the home from 1901 to 1911, when it was sold at a sheriff’s sale, and died in Philadelphia in 1928.
“Fortune as an individual, as a personality, that’s what we’re interested in. The design and the condition of the house is secondary,” said Bowden, who pointed out that the home is on the National Register of Historic Places as well as New Jersey’s historic list. “They don’t give national historic designations away like cookies, you know.”
But the designation is little more than that; a buyer is free to do whatever they want with the building soon as the ink dries on a contract.
“That’s the catch-22,” Bowden said. “It’s great history. But great history can go up in smoke.”