Cranford enhances town legacy through historic plaques

CRANFORD, NJ — Cranford residents now have a way to show off their historic housing and take pride in Cranford’s long-standing history. Cranford’s Historic Preservation Advisory Board has designed a brass plaque for buildings within the North Cranford Historic District that have been identified and documented as a historic or cultural resource.

The North Cranford Historic District represents a significant period in Cranford’s history when the town was the “Venice of New Jersey,” during which the area was transformed from a rural farming village to a suburban railroad community. Encompassing neighborhoods around the Rahway River, the district contains houses in a variety of architectural styles, built from circa 1850 to 1920, that symbolize the historical feel of Cranford. Those are the houses that the HPAB wants to help recognize.

HPAB Chairwoman Maureen Strazdon emphasized the significance of the North Cranford Historic District.

“The history of the North Cranford Historic District is largely the same as the early history of Cranford itself,” Strazdon said on April 24. “The community grew around the railroad as it transitioned from a farming village to the suburban commuter enclave. The firm of Dayton, Eastman and Bigelow was the first to develop the area around Springfield, Union, Alden and Holly streets, which formed the center of the expanding area we refer to as the North Cranford Historic District. Summer residences of wealthy New Yorkers gave way to year-round residences as railroad service improved.

“By 1871, the township was incorporated, but growth was slowed by the recession of the 1870s,” Strazdon continued. “In spite of the slowdown, developers were actively creating subdivisions in anticipation of continued growth. Central Avenue was developed by Dr. Phineas P. Lounsbury, followed in 1870 by Sylvester Cahill, who developed the area of Forest Avenue and Cranford Avenue. During the 1880s, real estate developers began emphasizing the town’s convenient transportation and commuting facilities, as well as the advantages of the winding scenic river.”
And the township continued to grow from there.

“J. Walter Thompson’s Roosevelt Manor in 1894 was the next major subdivision created with the NCHD, including the area between Riverside Drive, North Union, Manor and Orange avenues,” Strazdon said. “Development of the areas beyond the river along Springfield and Orchid continued well into the 20th century. Single-family residences were the predominant form, but the early decades of the 1990s saw the introduction of higher density apartments on lands formerly occupied by large estates. The Rahway River was a central and unifying feature of the NCHD for both its scenic and recreational qualities. Boating clubs, the Cranford Casino, tennis courts, and a linear system of parks and open space were located along its bank throughout the district.”

According to the criteria set out by the National Register of Historic Places, of the 948 properties in the NCHD, about 80 percent are contributing to the historic character or significance of Cranford. The owners of those contributing buildings qualify to purchase a plaque.

“A plaque can be purchased by the owner of any building within the North Cranford Historic District as defined in the ‘Phase I Cranford Historic Resources Survey: Review of Existing Documentation, Baseline Inventory and Survey Updates,’” Strazdon said. “The 32 reports covered in the survey were conducted between 1947 and 2015 and were done in support of state or federal historic preservation regulations when a project, such as flood management, was proposed. The reports list 158 privately and publicly owned buildings or sites and 11 districts. The NCHD is one of those districts and was originally identified in a 2001 New Jersey Historic Preservation Office Opinion and the borders were later updated.

“To be considered significant, houses within the NCHD must meet one of the following criteria from the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places, and therefore would be eligible for a plaque,” she continued. “Of the 948 buildings in the NCHD, 778 are significant.”

According to Strazdon, Criterion A is an association with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of Cranford’s history and with the transformation of Cranford from rural farming community to railroad suburb.

Criterion B is an association with the lives of persons significant in the town’s past and with prominent local developer Sylvester Cahill, who initiated a large-scale subdivision of the NCHD with Roosevelt Manor in 1894.

Criterion C embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction that represents the work of a master, possesses high artistic values, or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction as a representative and intact collection of popular architectural styles of the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries. Criterion C also includes examples of residential designs by local architect Franklin T. Lent, who practiced in Cranford in the late 19th century, authored several promotional works promoting suburban and “cottage” architecture, and designed six homes in NCHD; and examples of landscape design by the Olmsted Brothers, the successor to the firm founded by Frederick Law Olmsted, in development of the Rahway River Parkway as part of the larger Union County Park System.

The 8-by-10-inch oval brass plaques are available now for purchase; the price will increase for purchases made after Aug. 30. To order a plaque, visit www.preservecranford.com.

“HPAB initially offered a plaque to the owners of the 158 privately and publicly owned buildings or sites specifically listed in the Resources Survey,” Strazdon said. “That plaque is the one that is currently being offered to NCHD owners and is dark green and states, ‘This Historically Significant Building Contributes to the Character of Cranford.’ Last year, we created a special red plaque for the owners of homes in the Sunny Acres Historic District, which states, ‘Sunny Acres District: A Neighborhood Celebrating the Character of Cranford.’ HPAB is currently working on Phase II of the Resources Survey, identifying other buildings in Cranford that were not examined in prior surveys but are part of the historic fabric of Cranford. We will be looking at houses throughout town, on both the north and south sides, and evaluating them according to the criteria set out by the National Register of Historic Places. We will be offering the green plaques to owners of those buildings that fit the National Register rules.”

Strazdon stressed the importance of owners acknowledging their homes’ contributions to Cranford’s history.

“It is important that the properties that make Cranford what it is be preserved and recognized for their contribution to the town,” Strazdon said. “Owners’ understanding and appreciation of their properties will lead to a greater investment in that property and greater effort in its upkeep. Part of HPAB’s overall mission is to help identify and preserve the architectural heritage and character of Cranford. Many of our projects, such as the rescue of the fireplace from the Roosevelt School and its installation in the community center, exemplify our commitment to retaining the character of Cranford for the enjoyment of our citizens and for future generations.”

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