By Frank Gerard Godlewski
for Montclair Local
Montclair is a triumphal legacy of architecture and design, fittingly called in 1922, “the finest suburban town in the United States… the splendid mountainside, which has inspired the architect and the landscape artist to noble effort and glorious achievement.” This patrimony of historic buildings, peeking out to the New York City skyline, is what gives Montclair its “signature” sense of place. Many of Montclair’s significant landmark structures have been preserved and recycled into today’s everyday life through repurposing.
“Repurposing” is the adaptive reuse of structures that have outlived their original function, while maintaining their historic character. It’s also considered a way to prevent suburban sprawl from harming a town’s desirable character. For a better understanding, and for the fun of it, here is a virtual walking tour of some of the “Greatest Hits” of Montclair’s landmarks and repurposed buildings.
The 1878 Samuel Wilde House, by Crane family relative and architect Alexander Jackson Davis, once stood on the site of the Montclair Public Library and the Mills Foundation/United Way Building. It was a neo-Gothic masterpiece, similar to the National Trust’s Lyndhurst house museum on the Hudson River at Tarrytown, N.Y., also by Davis. When it was razed in 1959, the question was raised…”why?” Many thought that the fine Crane brownstone mansion should have been saved. It was then that the movement of preserving and repurposing Montclair’s historic buildings began.
The Gates Mansion on South Mountain Avenue was left to the town to create a public library. Frederick Gates, the head of Standard Oil of New Jersey, and the Rockefellers’ financial adviser, intentionally built the house in 1902 for several hundred thousand dollars to resemble a Carnegie Library for public use. (It was an attempt for the Rockefellers to keep up with the Carnegies.) Maher, the architect, was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. The interiors were designed by Montclair’s Charles Van Vleck and entirely crafted by Tiffany & Co. The town didn’t want it. It was considered too precious and fancy for public use. The property afterwards was purchased by celebrity minister Sweet Daddy Grace, who owned it from the 1940s to the 1970s. Today, it is a beautifully preserved private house.
Down the hill on Church Street is the Prairie-style Carnegie Library designed by California architect John G. Howard in 1902. It has been repurposed as the annex of the Unitarian Church. The 1905 Unitarian Church at 67 Church St. was designed by Architect W. Leslie Walker, the same architect who designed the Women’s Club of Montclair on Union Street.
Due to dwindling membership a couple of years ago, the Women’s Club building risked demolition until a creative new club president, Janet Oscar, revitalized the membership and restored the interiors into a fine self-sustaining rentable, community space. Another landmark, the 1914 Carnegie public library Bellevue Avenue Branch, designed by Francis Nelson, also risked demolition until a “friends’ foundation” was created that saved the building thanks to a rich cultural program.
The historic church complex next door to the Unitarian Annex is the 1893 Swedish Congregational Church. That, as well as Old Munn’s Tavern, Montclair’s first inn and post office built in 1802 (and moved to its current Valley Road site in 1899) has been recently preserved by the Shanghai Quartet Group. It is now repurposed as a fine atelier of music. The 1796 Federal & Greek Revival Style Israel Crane House was also moved in 1965 from its original location on Glenridge Avenue, to its current site on Orange Road. It had also served as the home of the Black YWCA and is now the headquarters of the Montclair History Center.
The Montclair Art Museum was designed in 1913 by architect Robert Randolph Boss. The structure was preserved and updated for modern use by Montclair resident and master preservation architect Richard Blinder of Blinder, Beyer & Bell. His firm’s preservation achievements include New York’s Grand Central Station, The New York Public Library, Ellis Island, Newark Penn Station and much more. Across the street at 8 South Mountain Ave. is the former house of Mercedes LeBrun who designed the landmark house Evergreens.
LeBrun designed the historic Metropolitan Life Building of New York City on Madison Square. His house has been repurposed as a condo complex circa 2004. Architect Richard Blinder headed the commission to redesign of the Lackawanna Train Station and the re-purposing of the historic train sheds into a shopping mall in 1984. Lackawanna Plaza, a state landmark since 1973, was designed in 1913 by Architect Richard Botsford. It is considered one of the finest historic train station complexes in the United States. The fine Beaux-Arts train terminal building is the site of the fine Pig & Prince Restaurant.
Up on the hill is the Montclair Kimberley Academy Upper School Campus. Although its historic Dudley Van Antwerp-designed building has been demolished, Montclair visionary Howard Van Vleck, son of architect Charles Van Vleck, came up with an original masterpiece scheme for the redesign of the new campus. Howard, a master gardener, preferred a naturalist vision for the new school. Rather than a typical faux colonial school-village he immortalized Montclair’s beautiful natural landscape with a modern stone building complex that represents the cliffs of the First Mountain Range. The buildings are set before meandering green paths that face the New York skyline and the Hudson River.
Across Bloomfield Avenue, on the way to the Van Vleck mansion, is the 1836 James Howe House, known as the Freed Slave House. James Howe, formerly a slave, inherited the house and five acres of Major Nathaniel Crane’s best land on Upper Mountain Avenue.
The Van Vleck family most loved cultivating their gardens and magnificent collections of trees and plants. The interior of their 1916 limestone mansion is intentionally plain for this reason. Paul Sionas, award-winning Montclair architect, created the 1994 adaptive reuse project to re-purpose the mansion for public use as the Montclair Foundation for nonprofit organizations.
Historic house fans are rejoicing at the chic boutique hotel, The George, which opened in 2018 as an adaptive reuse masterpiece that repurposes Charles Van Vleck’s 1902 house. Van Vleck was the architect to the Rockefellers, Bloomingdale’s, B. Altman and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City. The project was achieved by the collaboration of architect Paul Sionas, developer Steve Plofker and his wife Bobbi Brown, the world-famous cosmetics and style genius. Under the supervision of the Plofkers’s Willow Street Partners, The George renovation project recently won Montclair’s Historic Preservation Commission’s “Brick & Mortar Award.” The project also includes the re-purposing and moving of the carriage house, which is a replica of the 1600s Crane Homestead that once was on the site and demolished a century ago. Read more on The George.
Another project that Sionas did with the Plofker group is Fullerton Green, an adaptive reuse renovation of the historic 1875 Livermore House, a single-family dwelling designed by Stanford White. It had been converted into medical offices with multi-family residential above. Currently, the house is repurposed as multi-family residential with attached townhouses.
Sionas designed the preservation project of the Wedgewood Building at 14-22 South Park Street in 2002. The building was designed by Frank Grad Associates in 1926. It was originally a post office and then the renowned Wedgewood Cafeteria. The current use is for retail stores. Another renowned Montclair establishment renovated by the Sionas studio is the Montclair Bread Company. Their other adaptive reuse projects include vintage automotive warehouses and the 16 Label St. Motor Vehicle Station. All have been converted into loft spaces with a great “Soho” feel. Also with this same great vintage atmosphere is a 1920s Tudor building at 622 Valley Road in Upper Montclair. Paul Sionas has recently done some impressive adaptive reuse projects with Bob Silver, historic building developer of the Montclair-based Bravitas Group.
Bravitas had done Brassworks at 105 Grove St., an adaptive reuse of a 1940s Esso Service Station adjacent to the family-owned George Rutledge Etched Brass Works company. The current use is professional offices. Greenworks is distinguished as being the first green commercial building in Montclair and the first Gold Core & Shell LEED certified building in the State of New Jersey. Bravitas focuses on architecturally interesting spaces through the adaptive reuse of existing, outmoded structures. The Bravitas group also preserved the landmark 1930 Keil’s Pharmacy building. The complex, now called “James Square,” is located in Upper Montclair’s business district at 732-736 Valley Road. The Bravitas/Sionas team continue to proactively create adaptive-reuse projects for Montclair’s fine old characteristic buildings. Together they have renovated the 1921 Harris Department store for the Montclair Film office at 505 Bloomfield Ave. Another collaboration is GreenWorks, 100 Grove St., also a first green commercial complex together with Brassworks.
Academy Square at 33 Plymouth St. is an adaptive reuse project for the historic 1906 Kimberley Academy/Katharine Gibbs School. (The former Kimberley School building on Valley Road, now MKA’s middle school complex, was the historic Montclair Athletic Club in the 1800s.)
The current use is professional offices. The design team made certain to retain the beautiful architectural features. The building is also Gold LEED certified from the US Green Building Council.
Hillside Square at 8 Hillside Ave. was adapted in 2012. The original construction was the 1926 Christian Science Church. The project offers unique professional office spaces in a “green” building that is rich in history with modern amenities. Currently, Bravitas is working on “The Vault” at 491 Bloomfield Ave., an innovative adaptive reuse of a historic 92-year-old bank building in Montclair’s central business district.
The “Crane brownstone” Bangz building at 23 South Fullerton Ave. was originally erected in 1889 by Joseph Ireland as a Masonic Temple. The building wasrenovated as a historic reuse project in 2006. Bangz has been converted into a salon and spa. The original pews have been restored and reused to preserve authenticity. The original brick work and stained glass has been carefully detailed and restored.
Consistent with Montclair’s love for culture, the 1921 Wellmont Theatre at 398-408 Bloomfield Ave., was designed in the Georgian Revival Style as a performing arts center. The architects Reilly & Hall originally conceived the theatre for live productions. The Wellmont was outfitted with one of the largest stages in the metropolitan area at the time. During the early years, some of the greatest stars of the age performed at the theater including Tom Mix, Jackie Coogan, Richard Barthelmess and Charlie Chaplin. Now the Wellmont is a successful metropolitan area performing arts center since 2015. It has recently hosted artists like Tom Jones, Lauryn Hill, Joan Baez, Bush, DNCE, Third Eye Blind, Jim Gaffigan and Meat Loaf.
The Hinck building at 31 Church St., one of Montclair’s favorite landmarks, was designed by architect William Lehmann in 1921. It is a significant example of Mission-style architecture and reminiscent of the Hotel Montclair that once stood at the top of the mountain, now the site of Rockcliffe Apartments. The complex fills an important corner site at the town center. The Clairidge Theater was one of three silent movie theaters built in 1921 in downtown Montclair. This was the former site of the First Presbyterian Church, an early Montclair landmark. The owner, Dick Grabowsky, has repurposed the lobby space as a cultural venue with pop-up boutiques and the pop-up “Art Wall Montclair,” curated by the local entrepreneur Lucienne Coppedge. The cultural Hinck Building lobby is now a favorite spot of the cinema-goers and the surrounding restaurant patrons.
Preserving and repurposing the landmark, with their irreplaceable materials and valuable draftsmanship, is what maintains the town’s character and standards of quality. All of this fine history could be considered a sentimental option but its significance in today’s world is reflected in economic return. Preservation maintains real estate values. It attracts newcomers to invest in and maintain the fine old houses and neighborhoods. Repurposing buildings means dollars and “sense” in actual indisputable statistics. The fine landmark buildings were created by innovators and illuminated minds of Montclair’s early development In the words of the great American poet William Carlos Williams, “All that remains of communities and civilizations, all that remains in their worth and dignity exists in the art they leave.” Maintaining the landmarks is important because of the cultural legacy that Montclair has to leave behind.