ELIZABETH, NJ — The fate of what was once one of Elizabeth’s most beautiful homes continues to hang in the balance, as a bid to void restrictions on its sale has landed in state Superior Court.
The Whyman House, which dates to about 1860, has been at the center of a battle between the Whyman Group, a local grassroots organization formed solely for the purpose of saving the house, and Central Baptist Church, its current owner.
The house, which sits on 1.28 acres on Newark Avenue and is listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places, is under contract to be sold, yet no information is known about who the buyer is or whether the house will be preserved or destroyed.
Listed on Preservation New Jersey’s 2016 list of most endangered historic sites in the state, the Italianate-style house has fallen into extreme disrepair in recent years. Advocates have stated that the church has neglected the building and allowed it to deteriorate, and the unkempt property has been broken into and vandalized on numerous occasions. The house has been boarded up and a chain-link fence installed to deter trespassers.
Joseph Whyman left the house to the church in 1965, stipulating in his will that it was not allowed to sell the house, but must maintain and preserve it. Whyman also left funds to the church to help with cost of the upkeep.
David Coates, attorney for the church, placed a legal notice in the Star Ledger in February calling on a host of individuals and organizations named in Whyman’s will, such as the YMCA, American Red Cross and Trinitas Hospital, to appear in Union County Superior Court in April, with the intent of legally removing the stipulation that the house cannot be sold. The intent of the hearing was to clear the way for the church to sell off the church and property.
The organizations called to appear were all beneficiaries of Whyman’s estate.
Coates did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
According to Whyman Group members, anyone listed in Whyman’s will are considered heirs and were therefore named as defendants in the church’s legal action. The church is named as plaintiff in the civil action.
The summary action complaint asked the court to declare the church sole owner of the land and premises, and state 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 also asked for the elimination of the will’s restriction that the mansion be used only as a church, parish or rectory and never be sold. In addition, the complaint asked that upon the sale of the property, the entire proceeds would be payable to the church.
A spokesperson for the Whyman Group, who asked not to be named, said that since the legal notice named anyone mentioned in Whyman’s will, those named could oppose the sale of the home or ask for proceeds if the house is sold.
“That court hearing was to take all these organizations out of the will so they can make the sale,” he said of the April 13 hearing. “The church wanted to sever all connections.”
Several members of the Whyman Group attended the April hearing, although most of the proceedings took place behind closed doors. The meeting was allegedly also attended by attorney Bruce Bergen, who is also chairman of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders, was at the hearing to represent the Gateway Family YMCA, YWCA Union County and Trinitas Hospital.
LocalSource reached out to Bergen, who said that he was unable to comment on the pending litigation. He did confirm, however, that the property is currently under contract.
Paula Borenstein, a member of the Whyman Group, confirmed that the clause in the will was the one stumbling block for the church, and that it needed to find any living heirs or beneficiaries before the house could be sold.
“The church wants to be given free and clear title,” Borenstein told LocalSource in a recent phone interview.
Borenstein said she believes that Trinitas, the YMCA and YWCA have all agreed to allow the clause to be removed and the sale to go forward in exchange for receiving proceeds from the sale.
Kathy Cevallos, another member of the Whyman Group, said the group is desperately trying to find out who the prospective buyer is.
“My whole concern is the house and where it’s going to land,” Cevallos told LocalSource in a recent phone interview.
Cevallos called out the YMCA, YWCA and Trinitas, accusing them of “double-dipping.”
“They were at one point in the will and got an inheritance from Whyman,” Cevallos said. “Now, 20 years later, these organizations are again trying to get a piece of the pie.”
Cevallos said the Whyman Group would like to assist the buyer in preserving the property.
“We’re hoping to talk to the buyer about his or her intentions about whether they’d be willing to preserve the house,” she said. “We’d like to facilitate and help. There are grants available to historic homes.”