ELIZABETH, NJ — It’s a gem that sits in the middle of a once-lovely neighborhood in Elizabeth, a house of grace and splendor — neglected, but certainly not forgotten.
The Whyman Parish House, located at 705 Newark Ave., is at the center of an ongoing struggle to preserve one of New Jersey’s most beautiful and historic examples of Victorian architecture.
The home, which stands on a 1.28-acre piece of property and which was listed in the New Jersey Register of Historic Places in 1986, was built sometime between 1860 and 1871, one of the last examples of an Italianate villa home in Elizabeth. Listed on Preservation New Jersey’s 2016 list of most endangered historic sites in the state, a local grassroots group is trying to save the home from further deterioration, neglect, or, possibly, destruction.
The Save the Whyman House group, which is dedicated to saving the house and restoring it to its original splendor, pleaded its case to the Elizabeth City Council at their Dec. 20 meeting, hoping to stir the council to action on a house that seems to have been forgotten by the city.
Thomas Whyman purchased the house in 1902, and after his death in 1949, Whyman left the house to his brother, Joseph, and two sisters, who lived there. It was donated in 1965 to the Central Baptist Church, located on East Jersey Street in Elizabeth and is still owned by the church.
But according to several members of the Save the Whyman House group, the church has allowed the house to fall into a state of severe disrepair. Left open and unattended, the home has been looted, its carpets and chandeliers ripped out, and much of both the interior and exterior vandalized.
The home’s windows and doors have recently been boarded up and a chain-link fence erected on the overgrown and unkempt property.
In his will, dated 1964, Whyman left the home, including its furniture and much of its contents, to the church, stating that the property “shall be used only as a church, parish, or rectory, and not for any other purpose, and never to be sold, and always kept in the Baptist denomination.”
Whyman also left $20,000 for the property’s upkeep and maintenance.
Leo Osorio, an Elizabeth resident and member of the Save the Whyman House, told LocalSource that the group’s goal is to save the house and to convince both the city and church to see the value in the home and property. He also expressed concern that the home would be sold and the home razed.
According to Osorio, he first became interested in the property in 2013 when he drove by one day.
“I noticed the grand home behind the picket fence and trees,” Osorio said in an email. “It was a grand home that gave you a glimpse of what homes in Elizabeth looked like back in the late 1800s.”
Osorio said that he realized the home was abandoned and in a state of neglect, and he eventually approached the Central Baptist Church and spoke to a member of the congregation, as well as to the pastor.
According to Osorio, he was told by representatives of the church that the church was in need of money for repairs and that they were considering selling the home. Once Osorio found out that Whyman had asked that the home never be destroyed or demolished — and as he watched the property go into further decline — he decided to get involved.
“After seeing the property go into further decline, I soon took it upon myself to try and save the home and met some other people who also shared the same interest in saving the home,” Osorio said. “Since then, I have a strong connection to the home.”
Osorio said that the group went to their first council meeting in November in order to express their concern for the historic home, its importance to the city and the reasons the home should be saved.
According to Osorio, the church has been uncommunicative with the group.
“We are trying to get in contact with the church’s board of trustees and we have been unable to speak with them,” Osorio said. “Therefore, we are hoping the city can facilitate dialogue with the church and express the importance in saving the home. Perhaps they will respond to the city.”
David Coates, attorney for the Central Baptist Church, did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
Osorio said that the group had considered approaching the Elizabeth Historical Society.
“There was not much luck with them, as the Elizabeth Historical Society is not as approachable as other societies,” he said.
Osorio said that a panel held at the Elizabeth Public Library provided a venue for the group to express its concern for the house.
“It was well attended and Mayor Bollwage was present as well,” Osorio said. “However, we got very little help at all, as if it was forgotten.”
A spokesperson for Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
LocalSource reached out to Elizabeth’s director of Planning and Community Development but had not received a response as of press time.
Kathy Cevallos, also involved in efforts to save the home, said that she first learned about the Whyman House’s ongoing neglect while attending Preservation New Jersey’s press conference in Trenton, where the 2016 most endangered historic sites were announced.
Like other members of the group trying to save the historic site, Cevallos is concerned that the house will be sold by the church, possibly to a land developer, and ultimately destroyed.
“Based on a couple of listings posted on various online resources, the house was for sale at one point,” Cevallos told LocalSource in an email. “We haven’t spoken to them in order to know what their intention is, but all indicates they want to sell the home.”
Although several members of the group told LocalSource that the house was once up for sale, the listing on the home still seems to be active. First listed on April 1, 2015, the listing was updated in November, 2016, and appears to be selling for $1,900,000.
Cevallos said that she has been familiar with that house since her childhood.
“I remember the house since I grew up in Elizabeth and immediately was saddened by its vulnerable state,” Cevallos said. “I agreed to help with the group’s efforts to save the house and worked specifically on the group’s Facebook page. My goal is to raise awareness of the Whyman House’s condition and threatened existence.”
Cevallos said that she is unsure of whether city council members are interested in the home’s future.
“I don’t know of any city officials taking an interest in restoring or preserving the home,” Cevallos said. “I do know council members are aware of the Whyman House’s present condition and have attempted to communicate with the Central Baptist Church and its board. There is some interest but not too sure to what extent.”
Elizabeth council members did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
DEALING WITH AN UNRESPONSIVE COMMUNITY
The biggest challenge is communicating with Central Baptist Church, according to Cevallos. And, she said, the current condition of the home seems to show that the church is not invested in caring for the home.
“We have not been able to have a conversation with the church and its board,” Cevallos said. “We’d like to offer our assistance with the Whyman House. We’ve asked the city of Elizabeth to intervene at some capacity to facilitate a dialogue between both groups. We’ve attended a couple of pre-council meetings and contacted the council members requesting assistance.”
Paula Borenstein, Elizabeth resident, community activist and founder of the Elizabeth Arts council, said that she has a deep interest in seeing the Whyman House restored. Borenstein, who is also a member of Newark’s Historic Preservation Committee, said that Elizabeth does not have a historic preservation committee. According to Borenstein, included in Elizabeth’s master plan is a paragraph stating that there should be a historic preservation committee. Yet, she said, Bollwage does not seem interested in developing a commission, and that lack of a commission is putting the home in harm’s way.
Borenstein said that despite the home’s designation as a historic site, the home can be razed.
“If we had municipal legislation, the house could not be torn down,” Borenstein told LocalSource in a phone interview. “Right now, it can be torn down. The historic register doesn’t protect the Whyman House. It’s absolutely shocking.”
Borenstein said that the home’s current owners are culpable in its deteriorating condition.
“The church has let this house fall into neglect,” Borenstein said. “Vandals were getting in and nobody’s keeping an eye on what’s going on with the house. These are absentee landlords. It’s shocking.”
Borenstein also questions the city council’s lack of action or efforts to save the house.
“You have to say to yourself, Where’s the councilperson for this area?” Borenstein said. “Where’s anybody? The city of Elizabeth just never kept an eye on the house. They don’t have anything in place to protect any historic property. We’ve reached out to the mayor and city council to try and make them understand.”
Osorio said that it is disturbing to be watching the progressive deterioration of the house. In addition, a recent fire completely destroyed the large carriage house on the property.
“This was truly a sad day for the future of this grand property,” Osorio said. “The home fortunately was not affected by the fire.”
Osorio said that he hopes that the Whyman House can be saved.
“There is much potential for this grand home, one of the very few in all of Elizabeth of this style left over with very little renovations or alterations done to the home and property,” Osorio said. “The home can be saved and used by the city as a museum or part museum, and other sections for functions for city use, for the community, events and programs.”
Osorio said that both the city and the church should be held accountable.
“The Whyman House is something that the city of Elizabeth should be proud of and protect,” Osorio said. “The Central Baptist Church as well has let us down, because of their lack of communication. We simply want to help in order to save the house and guide them in ways they can possible take advantage of grants in order to help them with the Central Baptist Church, that is also a historic church dating to the late 1800s, along with the Whyman House.”