South End
The Lewis Estates’ house at 44 Pleasant Ave. is in the process of being demolished today. DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI/STAFF

By Jaimie Julia Winters

The former home of African-American sports hero and business leader Aubrey Lewis was razed last Wednesday, making way for eight single-family homes in the South End of Montclair.

The home, built in 1907 by renowned Montclair Arts and Crafts architect Dudley Van Antwerp, became famous for another reason last year. The mansion itself was for sale with a $10 price tag, but with the caveat that the new owner would have to move it within a quarter mile of its original 2.7-acre site at 44 Pleasant Ave. The buyer also had to be an individual, not a corporate entity. No one took the developer up on his offer.

“No one expected a taker,” said Majda Kallab, neighbor, Montclair architectural and design historian and Van Antwerp expert.

Not historic?

Although the Lewis Estate is on the NJ Register of Historic Places, in January 2016, the planning board voted down the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission’s designation of the home as a local landmark. At the meeting, the realtor for the site testified that the Lewis family was against the designation. At an earlier historical commission meeting the realtor told those members that a developer was interested in the property, according to meeting minutes.

South End
The estate was featured in a local paper as the gem of Montclair. COURTESY HPC

Martin Schwartz, Jason DeSalvo, Keith Brodock and Carmel Loughman voted for the home’s designation, while Craig Brandon, Carole Willis, Anthony Ianuale and Time Barr voted against it. Rich McMahon abstained and John Wynn and Stephen Rooney were not at the meeting, according to meeting minutes.

Whether it could have been saved if it had received the local historic designation, no one knows for certain.

In the meeting, assistant secretary Graham Petto said only a designation would provide safeguards against demolition. But according to township code if the commission denies the demolition of a historic landmark, the owner can appeal with the zoning board and if he or she fails after a nine-month period to find a buyer who will retain the building, it can be razed. 

Schwartz said the board and the council who originally voted not to preserve the Lewis home and designate the property as a historic site made a mistake on two fronts.

“Not just by allowing the destruction of this clearly turn-of-the-century classic residence from one of our top architects, but also for town economics,” Schwartz said. “The taxes from this now eight-home subdivision coming are clearly not going to cover the multiple kids who will eventually occupy those houses and will add even more to our school-attendance rolls.”

In June 2017, BNE Real Estate got the planning board’s approval to subdivide the Lewis Estate’s site and build eight houses on it. A condition of that approval was that the real estate company had to offer up the sale of the Lewis house to anyone who could move it. BNE offered $10,000 for relocation costs.

In December 2017, the estate sold for $1.25 million to 44 Pleasant Partners LLC, according to a deed filed in Essex County.

The home was a grand estate in the Craftsman style with surrounding gardens, featured in a 1922 Montclair Times supplement as one of the town’s architectural jewels, said Kallab. 

“Preservationists sought to have it designated a landmark, but the forces of ‘progress’ deemed otherwise. Setting another precedent as Montclair loses its sense of history, this loss hits deep in the community and should be a lesson to all areas in danger of tear downs,” Kallab said. “Frankly, if this home was in Upper Montclair, it wouldn’t have been town down.”

BNE is a real estate company, that along with building single-family homes, has built The Green at Bloomfield, Wateredge and Riverpark in Harrison, Vizcaye in West Orange and The Monarch in East Rutherford.

South End
The Lewis Estates’ home on Pleasant Avenue was built in 1906.

Who was Aubrey Lewis?

Aubrey Lewis (1935-2001) grew up in Montclair and was one of the greatest football players in the illustrious history of Montclair High School, while also standing out in  basketball and track. He chose Notre Dame out of the 200 colleges that offered him scholarships and was the first African-American to be  named captain of the football team there. He went on to be drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1958 NFL Draft. An ankle injury prevented him from playing professionally. Lewis also won the NCAA’s Division I championship in the 400 meter intermediate hurdles in 1956. In 1962, Lewis became a member of the first Federal Bureau of Investigation agent training program to include African Americans. In the 1970s, he and his wife moved to 44 Pleasant Ave. He was appointed to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority and the New Jersey Highway Authority. Governor Christine Todd Whitman appointed Lewis in 1997 to serve as a commissioner of the bi-state Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a position he filled until 1999.

Who was Dudley Van Antwerp?

Dudley Van Antwerp was one of Montclair’s most prominent early 20th century architects. He is credited with designing 500 area homes from small cottages to grand estates in the Craftsman style, an outgrowth of the British Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. It expressed a desire for architecture that evolved from local tradition and was related to the landscape.

Van Antwerp-designed homes are spread throughout Montclair and Upper Montclair, from Bradford Avenue to the South End, and from Lloyd Road, South Mountain and North Mountain Avenues to Grove Street. He also designed educational, institutional, clubhouse, and religious buildings. He moved with his family to Montclair in 1880. Early in the 1900’s Van Antwerp opened an office in Montclair, where he had an independent practice for more than 25 years, according to Kallab.

Jaimie is an award-winning journalist and editor.

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