New Irvington Laws Aim to Stave Off Wrecking Ball

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Home at 116 Main St. is nearly 120 years old. (photo: Barrett Seaman)
Home at 116 Main St. is nearly 120 years old.
(photo: Barrett Seaman)

|  by Barrett Seaman  |

When the Irvington Historic District Committee (IHDC) held public information sessions two years ago in an effort to resurrect a 10-year-old plan to designate much of the village’s business district as “historic,” many local owners voiced fears that the plan would lead to yet another layer of regulatory restrictions on what they could do with their properties.

None of that skepticism was evident at the March 16 Irvington Board of Trustees meeting, where a standing- (and floor-sitting-) room only crowd that included many of the village’s civic leaders had come to beg their government to stop the demolition of a gracious and historic home at 116 Main Street. Their fear was that the new owners of the house, developer Joseph DeNardo and his wife Sylvia, would go through with a proposed plan to tear down the nearly 120-year-old yellow clapboard colonial and replace it with a mixed-use structure—all before pending Historic District restrictions went into effect.

As it turns out, the trustees were a step ahead of them. Prompted by recommendations from the IHDC, the Board was already entertaining a series of new laws that would require approval from the village’s Architectural Review Board before any building within a newly created Historic Overlay District could be demolished. Because it was scheduled as an official public hearing on the proposed legislation, the March 16 meeting triggered a 90-day moratorium during which no contravening action could be taken, even though the measures had not yet been enacted.

And as it further turns out, in early March, the DeNardos’ attorneys had asked the village’s Planning Board to “adjourn,” or effectively table the application indefinitely.

Neither of these developments stopped the assembly of Historic District supporters from speaking out against the destruction of 116 Main. Not long after the DeNardo plan was first submitted to the Planning Board in mid-February, e-mail alarms were sounded throughout the village. A Facebook page, “116 Main Street IRV—For Demolition?” drew nearly 500 “likes”  (signaling dislike of the plan).

Rutgers University environmental and political historian Dr. Neil Maher (better known locally as the son of Irvington H.S. girls basketball coach Gina Maher) presented the Board with a petition signed by more than 450 Irvingtonians in protest against the plan. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Massie rhetorically asked the assembled: “What house in our village has more personality?” Irvington Historical Society president Pat Ryan, a former village trustee herself, applauded the proposed laws, drawing applause herself.

Supporters of the Historic District could hardly have asked for a better test case. As architect and Octagon House owner Joseph Pell Lombardi wrote in a letter (read to the hearing by resident Amy Sherwood), the “elegant, unspoiled 19th century Colonial Revival residence” was the home and office of Dr. Evan Jones Smith, the village’s first resident physician, who built the house at the turn of the 19th century. Dr. Smith ceded his practice to his son, Chesley Evan Smith, who also used 116 Main as both home and office. So too did Dr. Mario Dolan, who with his wife Judy raised nine children there as patients came and went during the sixties, seventies and eighties. “The destruction of 116 Main Street would be tragic,” wrote Lombardi, “allowing only our memories and photos to remind us of the loss. We must do everything in our power to retain this venerable and important village landmark.”

The proposed laws were not written specifically to protect 116 Main, Village Attorney Marianne Stecich assured the meeting. They were drafted after IHDC chair Deb Hargraves, along with fellow members, all architects, John Malone, Earl Ferguson and Douglas McClure, warned the Board in January that existing law allowed buildings, even those in the Historic District, to be demolished with a simple permit and no oversight. Under the new laws, which Mayor Brian Smith predicted would come to a vote in April, developers like Mr. DeNardo would have to win approval from the Architectural Review Board (ARB) first for the demolition and then for whatever replacement was proposed.

Comments made by trustees strongly suggested passage, and most villagers expect the ARB would reject any application to demolish 116 Main, leaving the DeNardos to come up with an alternative use for the house, which they bought last summer for $1.35 million. According to their attorney, David Cooper of Zarin & Steinmetz, the DeNardos are “evaluating all options, adding: “Anything they do would be sensitive to the concerns of the community.”

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