By JOHN T. WARD
A day that Red Bank historic preservationists have dreaded for years appears nearer as the owners of the so-called T. Thomas Fortune house have filed a formal request to demolish the historic structure.
Eighty-six-year-old James Vaccarrelli of Shrewsbury, who owned the house with his brother Anthony, filed for a demolition permit from the borough last Friday afternoon, borough planning director Donna Smith-Barr tells redbankgreen.
Anthony Vaccarelli, 93, died at his Red Bank home last month, according to an obituary published by the Asbury Park Press. James tells redbankgreen that the move was anticipated prior to his brother’s death, as efforts to sell the property in recent years have failed because of the deteriorated condition of the house.
“There’s nothing to save,” said Vaccarelli, who was born and raised in the house, at 94 Drs. James Parker Boulevard. “It’s a shame, but vandals got into it many, many times, even though it was boarded up, and they just wrecked it.”
Fortune, a pioneering advocate of equal rights for African-Americans, owned the home from 1901 to 1911, when it was sold at a sheriff’s sale, and died in Philadelphia in 1928.
Born a slave in Florida, Fortune owned several newspapers in New York City, is widely credited with coining the term ‘African-American,’ and was instrumental in forming two organizations seen as the precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. During his time in Red Bank, Fortune entertained W.E.B DuBois and other thought leaders on issues of race and equality there.
The three-story, Second Empire-style house is on the National Register of Historic Places as well as New Jersey’s historic list. It sits on about an acre of land zoned for single-family and multi-family housing, as well as business and retail uses.
Smith-Barr said she has not signed off on the demolition permit, which first has to be reviewed by the borough’s Historic Preservation Commission. That body solely serves an advisory role, however, and Smith-Barr said the administration was reviewing whether she is obligated to issue the permit over the commission’s expected objections.
Councilman Ed Zipprich, who serves as the governing body’s liaison to the commission, told redbankgreen he was “kind of devastated” to learn of the permit request.
“I find it disheartening that a family that would allow the house to be placed on the National Historic Register in the bicentennial year of 1976 would, 40 years later, have no regard” both for the historic significance of Fortune’s time there, but of their own history, he said.
Three generations of Vacarellis lived in the house and for much of that time operated a bakery there. James Vaccarelli said Anthony’s widow had inherited his share of the house.
In 2004, the National Association of Black Journalists inducted Fortune as one of 10 “legendary” journalists into the association’s hall of fame.