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Plans to Renovate Historic Site, With an Eye to NJ's Future

Joe Tyrrell | August 9, 2012

Part of the state's Revolutionary War heritage, Steuben House is a victim of the weather -- and the economic downturn.

Bergen County legislators, local officials, and volunteers are rallying to revive one of the state’s most important historic sites, not just to preserve New Jersey’s heritage but in hopes of stimulating its economy.

Although there are resources already marshaled, and political muscles flexed, the effort to re-open the Steuben House and polish the allure of its home at New Bridge Landing also highlights New Jersey’s difficulty in overcoming its historically low self-esteem.

While the state has a wealth of historic sites, many were operating on a hand-to-mouth basis even before the economic downturn.

Located at a scenic spot on the Hackensack River, New Bridge Landing held “the bridge that saved the nation” during the Revolution. Fleeing from New York and Fort Lee in 1776, George Washington and his dwindling forces narrowly made it to the crossing ahead of pursuing British.

Later, the rebels confiscated the fine house at the bridge from a loyalist family and used it as a headquarters. After the war, a grateful state presented it to the Prussian officer, Friedrich von Steuben, who had drilled the ragtag Continental Army into a credible fighting force.

While the grounds remain open, the Steuben House has been closed since flood damage from the 2007 nor’easter, when state park officials failed to move some artifacts in time.

Since then, things seemed to take a turn for the better. A local commission formed to oversee the New Bridge Landing park. The state paid for needed repairs, including a new boiler. The Bergen County Historical Society, which owns much of the land, raised money and explored development aimed to support more tourism.

Politicians Hope for ‘Mini Williamsburg’

Such efforts prompted state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) to invite state, county, and local officials to a gathering at the house last week, where she proclaimed New Bridge Landing could become a major tourist attraction, “a mini Williamsburg.”

Weinberg organized the session after a developer demolished an African-American historic site, the Zabriskie Tenant House in Paramus, following a long wrangle over who would take charge of preserving it.

“It really spurred me to action” at New Bridge Landing, Weinberg said. “I don’t want this place to die of neglect.”

“This is a site that is extraordinarily important to American history,” agreed state Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen). For decades, it was a regular stop for school field trips, he noted.

Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan agreed that reinvigorating New Bridge Landing could be a step toward “making the county a national tourist destination.” The park is home to two other historic buildings plus the state’s last remaining “swing” drawbridge, which turns horizontally rather than opening upward to allow ships to pass.

“We have so much here” to visit, said state Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), “especially when it comes to our history.”

For all the political determination, though, the Steuben House remains shut except for the occasional meeting, with no schedule to re-open for regular hours.

For the Steuben House’s retired curator Kevin Wright, the explanation is “a bureaucratic turf war” between the state Division of Parks and Forestry and the local groups.

To Deborah Powell, a past president of the historical society, the problem is that the Division of Parks and Forestry continues to give the site a low priority. Its parent agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection, will not turn over budgeted money to the park commission, whose sole job is to maintain the site, she said.

“We really need the funds transferred here,” she said. “It’s just so frustrating.”

Cindy Randazzo, director of DEP’s office of local government assistance, said she deals with a welter of local groups and situations throughout the state, but they have one thing in common.

“Wherever I go, the first thing anybody asks is, ‘Where’s the check?’” Randazzo said.

In this case, the Bergen activists replied, the checks are already supposed to be coming to them, supplementing local fund-raising.

“When [Governor] Christie talks about public-private partnerships, we’re already here working to do that,” said Bill Farrelly, the BCHS treasurer.

Randazzo, on her first visit to the site, said she was unfamiliar with the particulars of arrangements made after the 2007 flood. She promised to give it a more detailed look, but noted all procurement for state parks needs to go through the treasury department.

The Bergen advocates pointed out that the DEP leases Whitesbog Village in Pemberton Township, nominally a part of its Brendan Byrne State Forest, to a preservation society to operate. The group receives state aid the New Jersey Historic Commission.

But the state rejected a local management plan for New Bridge Landing, which included the society selling a small parcel along the road for a Starbucks or similar snack facility for visitors. The revenue would have gone to maintain the park and buildings, according to BCHS officials.

“That plan was not rejected out of hand, it was given very careful consideration,” said DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese. “But if we allowed a Starbucks at a historic site, there would be a press release out in about eight seconds from the Sierra Club about privatizing our parks.”

Other State Parks in NJ Also Closed

He noted the Bergen site is not, as Weinberg and some locals proclaimed it, New Jersey’s only closed state park.

  • Waterloo Village in Byram, once its own “mini-Williamsburg” on the Morris Canal and a concert venue, is open to reservations for guided tours and the occasional event. Otherwise, only the grounds are open to walkers.

  • Ringwood Manor in Ringwood State Park, the state’s designated parent for New Bridge Landing, is closed due to smoke damage from a faulty furnace, which followed thefts from collections, both attributable in part to being unattended at times.

  • Even in normal times, the state’s house museums are open only five hours a day Wednesdays through Saturdays and three hours on Sundays. Visits to some within recent days found five of seven closed during posted operating hours.

“The problem with those places is that there’s one curator, so if he’s not there, it’s not open,” said Thomas D’Amico, a historical preservation planner for Somerset County.

Outside of the state parks, “a lot of historic sites are run by volunteers … and so they’re at the mercy of the schedules of the volunteers,” he said.

D’Amico praised a nearby Revolutionary War location, the Jacobus Vanderveer House in Bedminster, which has been restored through a local effort that includes a computer-generated look at the Continental Army’s vanished “artillery school.” But the house opens only on one Sunday afternoon a month and for special events.

In High Bridge, local officials are effectively evicting the local volunteer group that opened a museum in Solitude House, an important colonial site and birthplace of a Civil War general, by offering unworkable terms for a lease.

The Van Horne House in Bridgewater, a centerpiece of the 1777 Battle of Bound Brook, survived a half century as a corporate office and narrowly dodged a road project and mall construction. Today, it provides a base for the Heritage Trails Association with a suite of exhibit and meeting rooms, but is also rented to businesses.

Those and other sites ostensibly stand to benefit from the creation of the “Crossroads of the Revolution” National Heritage Area. That 2006 federal designation linked Washington’s Crossing, Morristown National Historical Park, the Princeton and Monmouth battlefields, and more than 250 other buildings and places in 14 counties.

It came about because when it came to the Revolutionary War, New Jersey was the place to be. The main armies spent most of the war in the state or adjacent parts of New York and Pennsylvania. For most of the conflict, the British were headquartered in and around New York City, including the New Jersey loyalist base, Refugeetown, at Sandy Hook.

For now, though, the heritage area’s $140,000 federal budget is enough to pay for basics: two employees, a website, and the development of a management plan. New Executive Director Noreen Bodman, a former state tourism director, knows she has work to do.

“It some ways, it’s about like a start-up business,” she said.

The task is to increase the visibility of all the designated sites, which means fund-raising in a tough economy, Bodman said. But they all could benefit from more coordination, an umbrella to promote sites and serve tourists, she said.

While some areas, such as Monmouth County, do a good job of steering visitors to local landmarks, “there really isn’t one-stop shopping for an American Revolution field trip” in New Jersey, Bodman said. “There’s a lot of people who don’t even know about these sites.”

Like Weinberg and the other Bergen officials, Bodman believes that raising the tourism profile of places like New Bridge Landing could boost their local economies, but the sites need to be ready to handle an influx, she said.

“If you’re telling people you’re open, you need to be open,” she said.

The DEP recognizes both the heritage and the potential, which is why it continues to put money into even currently closed facilities like the Steuben House, Ragonese said. About $150,000 is targeted for a wish-list of small repairs and improvements during the 2013 fiscal year, he said.

Given the current economy, “the goal for the parks is not to add 50 percent more personnel, but to use what we have and expand that through partnerships,” he said.

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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