CRANFORD, NJ — A historic building in Cranford, along with its legacy, is in jeopardy. The Cranford Roundhouse was recently featured on a list of the top 10 most endangered historical sites in New Jersey.
The annual list is compiled by the group Preservation New Jersey, a statewide, member-supported nonprofit historical organization. Preservation New Jersey promotes the economic vitality, sustainability and heritage of New Jersey’s diverse communities through advocacy and education, according to its website.
The Cranford Roundhouse has been standing for more than 100 years and is one of only three surviving roundhouses in the state; the other two are in Hawthorne and Newark.
With today’s housing climate, there is great concern for the historical building.
“Considering the township’s own record of demolishing its historic buildings, namely the Roosevelt School, which was demolished in 2010, and the Cranford Trolley Power House Building, demolished in 2016, the position taken by the Planning Board, as well as the affordable housing climate that we are all living in here in Cranford, I would say my concern and Preservation New Jersey’s concern for the roundhouse is more than justified,” Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects principal architect Thomas Connolly told LocalSource on May 22.
According to Connolly, the roundhouse was constructed between 1913 and 1915. Roundhouses were common during the first half of the 20th century and the era of steam locomotives and were used to service and store locomotives. Steam locomotives could run in only one direction, so a turntable or other similar feature was necessary when they needed to change direction. A roundhouse and turntable were often built together, so the locomotives could be turned and directed into one of the stalls in the roundhouse and turned around again when departing. By the 1950s, when most steam locomotives had been replaced by diesels, which could run in either direction, roundhouses and turntables became obsolete.
The Cranford Roundhouse was part of the Cranford Junction Coach Yard, which originally consisted of the brick roundhouse structure, a turntable, a coal dock, a one-story yard office building and other small railroad-related structures. The property was adaptively reused by the township in 1960 as the Department of Public Works maintenance yard. The roundhouse had eight locomotive stalls, still identifiable through the building’s massing, fenestration and roof vents. The roundhouse property is listed as a key contributing resource in the Central Railroad of New Jersey Mainline Historic District survey prepared in 1999.
Even though the roundhouse is currently being used by Cranford’s DPW as a maintenance yard and storage facility, there are rumors that the DPW may be looking to relocate.
If the DPW moves on and relocates to a new location, the township may see the historic building as an empty space with no use. Connolly worries that, if that were to happen, the building could be torn down as the township may have other plans for that space.
“The roundhouse site would be ideal for redevelopment, given the recent influx of residential and mixed-used construction taking place in Cranford,” Connolly said. “There is concern the township may sell the property in order for it to be redeveloped for housing or similar development. The roundhouse has enormous potential for adaptive reuse that would be attractive to the town’s growing population, such as artists’ studio space, a small performance/event venue, market or a brewery.”
Last year, the Township Planning Board recommended removing the roundhouse from the list of historic properties in the township’s Historic Preservation Element. Without local historic protections, the township would be free to make changes to the building and even to sell the property, which could eventually lead to its demolition.
Connolly sees demolition as a worst-case scenario.
“It is time for Cranford to be more aware of its developmental history and make decisions that respect and protect rather than destroy its architectural and cultural resources,” Connolly said. “Adaptive reuse would once again reinforce the value of its preservation for the next generation. The purpose of the 10 Most Endangered list is to bring public attention to underutilized historic structures and to recognize the value of the resource.”
But, according to the township of Cranford, there should be no concern for the Cranford Roundhouse.
“The roundhouse is very actively used by the Department of Public Works and is not for sale,” Township Administrator Jamie Cryan told LocalSource on May 26. “The township bought the roundhouse in 1979 to serve as the maintenance yard, garage and operations center for the Department of Public Works. It continues to serve in that role. The township of Cranford has no plans to change the use of the roundhouse.”
Cryan assured that the public would be notified should the township wish to make any changes to the roundhouse’s status.
“Any future change of use would be done publicly with full residential input, but the roundhouse is not for sale. No change of use is being considered.”
Photos Courtesy of Donna Pace