Sunny Acres recognized by committee as historic district

Photo by Chuck O’Donnell
Carole Esposito lives in one of the 172 Cape Cod and Colonial Revival-style houses in Cranford that make up the Sunny Acres development, which residents recently asked the Cranford Township Committee to designate as a historical district.

CRANFORD, NJ — Wedged into the corner of one bookshelf inside Carole Esposito’s home are four binders stuffed with yellowed newspaper clippings, black and white photos and faded maps.

Together, they tell the history of the Sunny Acres development going back to when 172 Cape Cod and Colonial Revival-style houses were constructed by Sears, Roebuck & Co. between 1940 and 1943 in the southern part of the township.
It’s a history that deserves to be recognized and remembered.

At least, that’s what residents told the Cranford Township Committee at the June 25 meeting as they presented a proposal to have Sunny Acres designated a historic district by the town.

While raising four children in her Sunny Acres home, Esposito has become the collector of the development’s history and one of the stewards of its tradition. She has binders filled with images of children playing and neighbors laughing, and memories too.

“It has been wonderful living here,” said Esposito, who lives on Raritan Road. “Everybody in the neighborhood watched out for everybody else. The kids knew they would get caught if they were doing something bad. Someone in the neighborhood was always watching out for them.”
A historic district differs from a historic register, which requires homeowners to receive permission before making any changes to their houses. Sunny Acres homeowners would not be held to any standards other than those imposed by the township. Historic district status would not require owners to repair or restore their homes.

So, even if it’s an honorary title, having Sunny Acres designated as a historic district would mean a lot to residents like Loretta Smith, a member of the Sunny Acres Civic Improvement Association and the Cranford Historic Preservation Advisory Board.

“Don and I have lived there for 51 years in the same house, same street,” said Smith, referring to her husband. “We love it because there’s a sense of community, not that Cranford as a whole isn’t that way.”

Smith then looked at Esposito and resident Cindy Nudelman and said, “That little section of 172 homes, Carole and Cindy, we all love it and that’s why we’re still there.”

Maureen Strazdon, chairwoman of the Cranford Historic Preservation Advisory Board, also urged the committee to draft and approve an ordinance to grant Sunny Acres historic district status.

Strazdon said there are several reasons why Sunny Acres is significant. She said it is the largest planned development of single-family homes in Cranford from the first half of the 20th century. It was also the first development in Cranford to make 30-year mortgages available to potential home owners, making home-ownership an option for working- and middle-class families.

The process to designate Cranford buildings, landmarks or districts as historic was created by a township ordinance in 2013, Strazdon said. In an attempt to have Sunny Acres designated a historic district, she said the board has followed that ordinance.
It has sent letters and lists of frequently asked questions to homeowners, made sure a copy of the proposal was available at the municipal building, held a public meeting to get comments and sent a recommendation to the committee.

Strazdon also said Sunny Acres meets U.S. Department of the Interior’s requirements for the National Register of Historic Places as a historically significant example of planned residential suburban development. She pointed out that it’s the first such housing development entirely planned and executed by Sears.

“Using the Department of Interior’s language,” Strazdon said, “it retains ‘integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship and association necessary to express its historical significance.’”

The exterior of Esposito’s home has remained almost unchanged for more than 75 years. Some of the earliest photos in her binders show men hard at work on the development, with most of the surrounding area just grass plots. In some photos, there are patches of wildflowers but otherwise the land appears flat and vacant.

“They ran a contest to name the development,” Esposito said. “So, a woman came up with the winning name, Sunny Acres. When they asked her how she came up with the name, she said, ‘Well, because there were no trees and it was very sunny.’”

Mayor Tom Hannen indicated the ordinance would be written in time for the July 17 committee meeting.