By JOHN T. WARD
A decade-long effort to save an endangered artifact of African-American history cleared a major milestone Thursday night when the Red Bank zoning board approved a developer’s plan to rebuild the T. Thomas Fortune house and create 31 apartments on its one-acre property.
Borough-based homebuilder Roger Mumford, who vowed to restore and donate the house for use as a cultural center before he would seek certificates of occupancy for the apartments, was hailed as the last-chance savior of a vital relic of the civil rights movement that its current owners want to raze. Residents told the board before its vote that Mumford deserved the tradeoff of more than a dozen variances, most of them arising from the apartment plan.
“If a development project has ever given back to the community, it’s this one,” said Kalman Pipo, a member of the borough’s Historic Preservation Commission. “If this project doesn’t go through, we are going to lose this house” to the wrecking ball, he said.
Mumford, right, meets 88-year-old George Bowden, who launched the Fortune house preservation effort with now-Councilman Ed Zipprich in 2006. Below, Gilda Rogers, who co-leads a foundation to save the house, with fellow Historic Preservation Commission member Michaela Ferrigine after the hearing. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
Over nearly three hours of testimony, much of it with the lights dimmed for slideshows, architects and planners for Mumford’s company, Yellow Brook Property Company LLC, laid out a plan for the one-acre property on Drs. James Parker Boulevard.
Describing himself as a reader of history who hadn’t heard of Fortune until recently, Mumford told the board he’d execute a full and historically accurate restoration of the badly deteriorated Second Empire-style Fortune house.
He estimated the acquisition, rehabilitation and infrastructure costs associated with house would total around $2.5 million.
He said he plans to sell the house for $1, in all likelihood to the T. Thomas Fortune Project, a nonprofit organization co-chaired by Gilda Rogers and architect Mark Fitzsimmons, for use as a museum and cultural center. [The original version of this article contained incorrect information in the preceding sentence.]
The other aspect of the plan calls for 31 apartments in a single, four-story structure to be erected behind the Fortune residence at more than twice the density allowed by zoning law. The plan, dubbed Fortune Square, also needed height, setback and parking variances, among other waivers.
Here’s Mumford’s detailed description, filed with the borough in May: Fortune House Project Narrative
Most, though not all, of the commentary from the audience was in support of the tradeoff of variances for preservation. But Ed O’Neill, an architect who lives nearby on Herbert Street, questioned the extent of the density variance, calling the apartment building “just too large.” And Historic Preservation Commission member Charles Nickerson, who dissented from that advisory body’s approval of the plan, told the board it should reject the proposal.
“I’m not sure we’ve really thought this out” or put enough effort into raising funds to preserve the site without additional development, he said. “We’re treating this as a second-class historical property.”
But others urged approval. “There is no money falling from the sky for historical preservation,” said HPC member Mary Gilligan, of South Street.
Birgit Mondesir of William Street said the Mumford plan was “an opportunity to right the wrongs” in which vital markers of history had been lost, much of it deliberately.
“We have precious little African-American history in this country,” she said. “We suffer from a lack of knowledge.”
Sighle Singh, who lives next door to the Fortune site in the Bergen Square condos, told the board that she’d come to the hearing expecting to oppose the plan, partly on concerns about parking, but had been swayed by the presentation.
“It would be a vast improvement over what I see every day,” she said.
Ray Mass was the only board member to comment on the plan, and said he would vote to approve it “in light of recent events” in spite of it needing “a lot of variances.” The approval vote, on his motion, was unanimous, and the audience burst into applause.
Timothy Thomas Fortune, born into slavery in Florida in 1856, became an ardent advocate of civil rights and racial integration through his pioneering journalism. He bought the three-story house in 1901, and over the next decade entertained W.E.B DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and other leading lights of the post-Civil War drive for equal rights for African-Americans.
For generations, the property has been owned by members of the Vaccarelli family, who for many years ran a commercial bakery there. It’s now owned by Assunta Vaccarelli of Red Bank and James Vacarelli of Shrewsbury, according to documents filed with the application.
Mumford told the board a family member had approached him with an offer to sell the property last November, after the owners had rejected a purchase offer from the New Jersey Green Acres program. The family was preparing to demolish the house, he said
The Fortune house won placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and remains one of only two sites in New Jersey associated with African-American history, according to Rogers — the other being Hinchcliffe Stadium in Paterson, past home to several Negro League baseball teams.