The restored T. Thomas Fortune House on Drs. James Parker Boulevard plans to formally open as a cultural center in May. Below, restoration supervisor Spencer Foxworth and foundation member Robin Blair examine a chandelier to be installed. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
An against-the-odds, decade-long effort to save a Red Bank house that was once the home of a pioneering civil rights journalist has reached its improbable conclusion, people involved in the effort say.
This weekend, local history lovers will get their first-ever chance to tour the T. Thomas Fortune House, a National Historic Register structure that not long ago was about to be razed.
Restoration committee members Gilda Rogers, left, and Robin Blair in the new second-floor Drs. James Parker Community Room. Below, an interior view of the front door. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
“It is a miracle,” said Gilda Rogers, a borough resident and journalist who was part of a team that put a spotlight on the imperiled house and spearheaded its preservation.
“To find out about T. Thomas Fortune in our backyard, and to bring this to life this is amazing,” said Shrewsbury resident Robin Blair, an officer of the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation. “How often do you come up with an opportunity like that?”
The foundation plans to turn the house into a cultural center celebrating “all cultures,” Rogers said, with a formal opening planned for May. And though none of the furnishings, book collections and other planned features have yet been installed, visitors will be able to tour the house on Saturday, from 3 to 6 p.m., and Sunday, from noon to 4 p.m.
“It’s really just an open house preview,” occasioned by both the completion of construction and the celebration of Black History Month, Rogers said. Other than a few pop-up displays and a commissioned portrait of Fortune in collage by artist Lavett Ballard, visitors will see bare rooms of wide-plank wood flooring and trim that includes both original and reproduced corbels.
“We just want people to be able to come and see what’s inside, because they’ve been driving by watching all the work being done,” Rogers said.
The building is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Rogers. While the second floor may not be physically accessible to all visitors, programming will be shown via high-def televisions on the first floor.
Fortune, a firebrand civil rights journalist and essayist who had been born into slavery in Florida in 1856, bought the house, then known as Maple Hall, in 1901 and lived there for the next decade, before losing it to lenders. While there, he was visited by the leading lights of the post-Civil War drive for equal rights for African-Americans, including W.E.B DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey.
Several generations of the Vaccarelli family later lived in the house and ran a commercial bakery on the site. It was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
But the Vaccarellis eventually moved out, and by the time local preservationists George Bowden and now-Councilman Ed Zipprich became aware of the home’s history about 14 years ago, it was vacant and decrepit.
Nearing demolition by the Vaccarellis, the house was saved as part of a plan by developer Roger Mumford that enabled him to build 31 new rental apartments on the rear portion of the property. A “density bonus” granted by the zoning board in 2016 made the restoration project economically feasible, he has said. Those apartments are also now completed and ready for rental.
Mumford, whose office is just yards away on Bridge Avenue, oversaw and absorbed the cost of the Fortune House restoration, and plans to deed the house over to the foundation in coming weeks, said Rogers.
“Our angel,” Blair calls Mumford. She calls Rogers “our Joan of Arc, for her valiant effort.”
Rogers credits Mumford for “making it happen” and Bowden, a former chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission, and Zipprich with “opening everyone’s eyes” to the peril the house was in. Bowden, whose wife, Gladys, died last month from injuries suffered in a December fire, is scheduled to be onsite Sunday, Rogers said.
A dendrochronological, or tree ring, analysis of timber samples used in the structure suggested that part of the house may date from as early as 1774, according to a report by Monmouth University historian Richard Veit. He wrote that it wasn’t clear if the oldest portion of the home was built on site or moved there from elsewhere. But he structure was enlarged and improved in the late 19th century, and its façade appeared as it does now by the time Fortune acquired the house, Veit wrote.
But Spencer Foxworth, project manager for Mumford’s Yellow Brook Property Company, isn’t so sure it was built in stages. He told redbankgreen the appearance and joinery of the timbers suggested it may have been built all at once. Still, a large percentage the original structure, including posts, tenons and pegs, has been preserved, Foxworth said.
Part of the miracle of the home’s preservation, said Blair, is that Fortune was “a hidden figure, really.” While known internationally in his day, his name and reputation had largely faded into history.
Rogers, who was among a team of journalists at Newark’s City Paper who won an award given in honor of Fortune in 2000, had never before heard of him. Embarking on research at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, she was shocked to learn that he’d lived for years in Red Bank, just blocks from her home.
“Meantime, I was riding by every day, thinking, ‘wow, what a nice house. It must have been something grand its day,'” she said.
The house remains one of only two National Register sites in New Jersey associated with African-American history.