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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Preservation Commission: Pretty much a pavane

Casual passersby may not grasp just how large the
Van Wyck Brooks property is.
The frustration of both Plainfield's Historic Preservation Commission and residents of the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District was palpable at Tuesday's commission meeting, where replacement windows for a sunroom of the iconic Van Wyck Brooks mansion was on the agenda.

Yet for all the tension, the meeting proceeded at a pavane-like pace, tempers mostly -- but not entirely -- under control, as the commissioners and the daughter of the owner wrestled with how to proceed.

Teena Glaser, daughter of the long-time owners the Novello family of Scotch Plains, says she has taken over management of the 10-unit rental property since the passing of her father. Glaser was at the meeting, yet again, in an attempt to mollify the HPC after the sunroom windows were removed and replaced with unlike windows and without prior review by the Commission.

Feelings run high not only because of the iconic nature of the property as the namesake for the historic district, but because of a history of evasion and disregard of the HPC by the Novello family over the years.

I remember driving by on a Sunday afternoon in 2003 to discover workmen replacing the original wood sash windows with vinyl ones. A neighbor complained to City Hall the next day, but the damage was done.

I also know from friends and acquaintances who have lived in various of the apartments over the years that there have been persistent issues with deferred maintenance leading to water penetration with serious internal consequences (including falling ceilings).

Ms. Glaser's own expert witnesses, a Plainfield architect and another from Summit, testified to the serious conditions that needed addressing.

However, her case was not made easier by the revelation that the allegedly unrepairable leaded glass window panels had not been saved, but in fact had been disposed of by the workmen.

It came out in the back-and-forth between Glaser and the commissioners that she had not delved deeply into what kind of window options were available before the installation of the non-compliant panels.

Commissioners offered several suggestions of manufacturers whose products might either remedy the issue altogether or mitigate it to an extent that would satisfy the Commission.

Eventually it was agreed to continue the matter to the December meeting, at which Ms. Glaser promised to submit alternative plans that would be -- hopefully -- more acceptable, including full estimates, good color photographs of the subject windows, and actual physical samples of proposed window solution(s).

Perhaps more alarming than the issue of the sunroom windows was to hear Ms. Glaser describe the poor condition of the soffits and gutters and cracks in the facade of yellow brick owing to water penetration of a longstanding nature.

It seems clear to me that there has been no strategic assessment and plan of action prepared by the owners and that issues are simply addressed on a piecemeal basis, there being no guarantee that problems are being tackled in an order which will remediate them at their source.

Ms. Glaser expressed grave concern that the conditions were now threatening the interior of the mansion. Though interiors are not within the purview of the HPC's mandate, it is no stretch to assert that the interior of the VWB house -- lifted from a castle in Scotland, I have been told -- adds considerably to any real estate value the property has.

It would be an absolute shame if this magnificent landmark were to be lost to posterity owing to poor management and care by its owners.

HPC consultant Gail Hunton was correct when she remarked the Commission and the residents have a concern to 'defend' the preservation of significant properties such as the Van Wyck Brooks mansion.

But there is little that the HPC can do about neglect, as the Commission only comes into the equation when an owner decides to take some action regarding the exterior of the property.

For now, the pavane continues, and Ms. Glaser will return in December.

-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Bill Michelson said...

I wish the citizens would realize how hard it is sometimes to balance the equities, which we try very hard to do. The fact is that the precious ambience of historic properties is interdependent with that of other nearby historic properties. The Novellos bought the Van Wyck Brooks House in 1978, 4 years before the VWB Historic District was formed. I don't know what they thought or expected at that time. It's a pending case, so I cannot comment further. Still, the complaints of people who find out that they cannot always do what they want to, have existed everywhere, ever since the dawn of zoning in the 1920s.
Like any Planning or Zoning Board, and that is what we are, we do our best to give people a fair hearing and a wise decision. We often go way beyond what the other boards can do, in offering detailed advice and access to numerous resources. These are the only things I can promise to people. Anyone who so desires can come to our meetings, and speak on any case or issue before us.

William H. Michelson, Vice-Chair
Plainfield Historic Preservation Commission

Dan said...

Thank you, Bill. Well put!