ELIZABETH, NJ — It is a race against the clock to save a historic landmark that has been at the center of a long and ongoing battle.
The Whyman Parish House, located on Newark Avenue in the city of Elizabeth, and which is listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places, was donated to Elizabeth’s Central Baptist Church by Joseph Whyman in 1965, who stipulated in his will that the church was not allowed to sell the house, but to maintain and preserve it. Whyman also left monies to the church to help with cost of upkeep.
But now, the fate of the house is in question, as the church who owns the property is seeking to remove the stipulation in the will stating that the house cannot be sold.
The Italianate-style house, which was built sometime between 1860 and 1871 and which sits on a 1.28 acre piece of property, has been the focus of a local grassroots group, the “Save the Whyman House” group, who has been trying to save the Victorian gem from being sold off and destroyed.
The house, which is listed on Preservation New Jersey’s 2016 list of most endangered historic sites in the state, has fallen into extreme disrepair in recent years, according to advocates, and the unkempt property has been broken into and vandalized on numerous occasions. The house has since been boarded up and a chain-link fence erected around the deteriorating property.
According to advocates to save the house, the church had been trying to sell the house, with the house being listed on real estate sites as recently as November, 2016. The house has since been taken off the market.
A legal notice, dated Feb. 17, was discovered last week, placed in the Star Ledger by David Coates, attorney for the Central Baptist Church.
The church, who is named as plaintiff in a civil action, names a host of individuals and organizations, such as the Salvation Army, Red Cross and the YMCA as defendants, calling upon them to appear at Union County Superior Court on April 13, with the intent of legally removing the stipulation that the house cannot be sold, thereby clearing the way for the church to sell off the church and the property.
The summary action complaint asks that the court declare “the plaintiff to be the owner, in fee simple absolute, of the land and premises,” and that no heirs or beneficiaries listed in Whyman’s will “have any right, title or interest in the land and premises,” according to the notice.
The complaint asks that the will’s restriction that the church “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,” be extinguished, and that upon the sale of the property, the proceeds would be “payable to the plaintiff, Central Baptist Church of Elizabeth, New Jersey, which is alone entitled to the net proceeds of any sale of said lands and premises.”
Anyone listed as defendants who want to be heard on the matter of the church must file a motion by April 5, according to the notice.
Leo Osorio, a member of the Save the Whyman House group, told LocalSource that it was the president of the Union County Historical Society who found the legal notice in the newspaper and alerted the group.
“The church wants to sell the house,” Osorio said in a phone call last week. “They found themselves in a situation regarding the will — everyone listed is somehow an heir.”
The group has been in contact with Coates, said Osorio, but he said the church’s attorney does not seem to care what happens to the house.
“This guy really wants to clean house,’ Osorio said. “We’ve been in contact with this lawyer for a long time. He knows the situation, and he doesn’t really care. The church refuses to talk to us.”
Coates did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
Osorio said that those advocating for preserving the house understand that time is running out.
“This is basically like a race,” he said.
According to Osorio, the group had been in communication with Elizabeth’s city planner and other officials, who told the group that the church owed back property taxes, and that eventually the city could take control of the house and put it up for auction.
“The city planner told us that they’d make sure that if the house is sold at auction, the city would make sure the new owner would not destroy it,” Osorio said. “Now we have to get the word out there and hope that anyone will come forward and object.”
LocalSource reached out to Eduardo Rodriguez, Elizabeth’s city planner, but received no response as of press time.
Paula Borenstein, community activist, founder of the Elizabeth Arts Council and advocate for preserving the historic home, said that she will be trying to locate those listed as heirs in the legal notice.
“I am going to seek the advice of others on how we can try and intervene in this,” Borenstein told LocalSource in a phone call last week. “We knew they were going to try to do this,” she said of the church. “They’ve been trying to locate these people for quite a while.”
According to Borenstein, advocates for saving the house have attended city council meetings several times, pleading their case to council members.
“We’re trying to bide our time,” Borenstein said. “We’re hoping that one of the defendants listed will file an objection. We’re really concerned that the church might be able to sell the house.”
Kathy Cevallos, also involved in efforts to save the home, said that the Save the Whyman Group has posted the legal notice on the group’s Facebook page.
“We want to make sure people are aware of it,” Cevallos told LocalSource in a phone call last week. “We want to see if we get any response.”
Cevallos said that she has also put the word out to some charitable organizations.
“We’re just trying to get the word out,” Cevallos said, who believes that the church is counting on no one showing up to object to the legal action. “Mr. Rodriguez said that the city would try to help, but that the church owns the house at the end of the day.”
According to Cevallos, the group faces an uphill battle in their quest to save the house.
“I feel like, as a group, we’re facing a hard deadline and we have to move.”