By ERIN ROLL
A Montclair resident who has worked for noted museums for 25 years is calling for Buzz Aldrin’s first home on Princeton Place to be turned into a museum.
The home, where Aldrin spent his childhood years, is up for sale for $1.049 million by the relatives and estate of Dolores A. Kelly, the house’s previous owner and occupant.
Now, Ilmar Vanderer has a dream that the house can be acquired and turned into a museum dedicated to Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, and his astronaut career.
“It would be a gift to the community, but most of all it would be a gift to Buzz Aldrin,” he said.
Last year, Vanderer was master of ceremonies for Montclair’s Man on the Moon celebrations, which marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. He got the idea for a museum at the time.
Vanderer was also one of the supporters late last year for declaring the Oakcroft neighborhood, where the Aldrin home is located, a Local Landmark District, one of the reasons being that the astronaut’s home was included.
The Historic Preservation Commission ultimately decided against Local Landmark designation after numerous residents said they were concerned that the status would make it more difficult and more expensive for them to maintain their homes.
Other astronauts such as John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Neil Armstrong have scholarships named for them, have their homes or birthplaces named as historical sites, or have museums dedicated to them, with artifacts from their lives and missions preserved, Vanderer said.
Although Buzz Aldrin Middle School is named in honor of the astronaut, there are no sites dedicated to the former resident’s history, he said. “I was like, well, there’s a missing piece of the puzzle there,” he said.
Aldrin attended Edgemont and what was then Mount Hebron Middle School, before graduating from Montclair High School. Mount Hebron was renamed Buzz Aldrin Middle School in 2016.
Vanderer’s proposal for a museum has been in the works since July 2019. But when he heard that the house was going up for sale, he knew he had to finish it quickly and get it out to prospective donors and partners.
Second Ward Councilor Robin Schlager said she was excited about the idea of a museum. “Buzz Aldrin is not only our local hero, he’s a national hero,” she said. “I give Ilmar enormous credit for his efforts.”
The seven-bedroom, four-bathroom house went on the market on Nov. 2. The house was built in 1907 and has an assessed value of $810,300.
“It is a residential neighborhood, and it would have to be vetted and researched,” Schlager said, to ensure that it met all planning and zoning requirements for a museum.
Planning Director Janice Talley said that a museum property has to meet several criteria:
- Minimum lot size of one acre.
- Minimum off-street parking for assembly areas: with fixed seating, one space per three seats; with no fixed seating, one space per 20 square feet net floor area.
- Parking areas and driveways must be set back at least 10 feet from property lines, with the intervening areas landscaped with evergreens to form a visual screen.
- The property must front on a street having a pavement width of at least 38 feet.
Since the house at 25 Princeton Place does not meet all of these criteria, including that it is only 0.30 acres and has minimal off-street parking, it would need a conditional use variance from the Board of Adjustment, Talley said.
Schlager said another possibility for the museum could be a partnership with Glenfield Middle School, which is home to the district’s planetarium. Schoolchildren from around the state could visit the planetarium and the museum, she said.
So far, Vanderer said, the response he has heard from prospective partners, as well as from people in the community, has been overwhelmingly positive. Aldrin’s representatives are also in favor of the idea, he said.
Vanderer has a 25-year career working in museums, including the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York and Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. He expects to collaborate with Kathleen Bennett, chair of the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission.
Vanderer’s concept is for a house museum with consideration for local zoning and historic preservation guidelines and for the neighbors.
His proposal suggests the museum would need the aid of public and private funding sources. Additionally, the proposal notes that while museums receive some funding through state and local government grants for arts and culture, the largest donation sources are private sources, such as individual donors, philanthropists and endowment funds for the arts.
Vanderer said he has been in touch with donors with large financial means about encouraging them to support the purchase of the house.
He estimates that the museum would have an operating budget of $290,000 annually and could earn revenue from admissions, gift shop sales and special events.
The house would have to be retrofitted to be ADA-compliant, and would need an alarm system, fire extinguishers, a stair lift if an elevator is not feasible, and a new HVAC system. But Vanderer said those expenses would be smaller than the cost of acquiring the house.
Ideas for exhibits include moon landing artifacts obtained from private collectors or loaned from other institutions, as well as biographical exhibits on Aldrin’s life, interactive exhibits like a NASA flight director simulator or models of the Apollo module. Lecture series, held at venues like Montclair State University or Liberty Science Center, could also be held.
Vanderer said the project has to wait to move forward until there are promises of financing, and a 501c3 has to be formed for the museum first. Once the money is available, Vanderer said he and his associates will make a full-market offer for the house.
Vanderer said he was very hopeful that the museum would come to pass, but he admitted that it might not be a sure thing.
“I have to understand and accept that there are certain things outside of my control,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I want to say I put forth my best effort to make it happen.”
Schlager said that the township administration was focused on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic at the moment. “But certainly, the town would certainly support this in any way it can,” she said.