The owner of Montclair Supply Corp., a plumbing and heating parts company on Maple Avenue, wants to expand his business and parking area.
To create more parking for his customers and two tenants, who reside in the second-level apartments, owner Jack Gambino sought a demolition permit for an adjacent home he purchased in August 2020.
The Historic Preservation Commission, which heard the application on June 27, had the dilemma of not only deciding if the home was historic enough to warrant saving it, but also if a parking lot should replace housing. In the end, commission members voted to approve the demolition, and Gambino can now proceed.
The house is in the Wheeler Street district, which in 2019 was surveyed as a potential landmark or historic district but never designated due to pushback from area residents. The 1915 home was deemed “nonconforming” to the historic nature and architecture of the area due to its many alterations, but the neighborhood is considered a “potential” district and therefore has oversight by the Historic Preservation Commission.
The neighborhood was home to Italian immigrants who built many of the larger homes in Upper Montclair and put down roots in the Wheeler Street area. In the 1920s, the neighborhood became popular with African Americans who moved to the North in the Great Migration and sought service jobs in Montclair, according to the survey report on the area.
Gambino began his business at 99 Maple Ave. in 1992. He bought a neighboring property, the former Brantley’s Tire Shop, at 91 Maple Ave., in June 2020 with plans to expand. Later that summer, he purchased the two-family home at 95 Maple Ave. with plans to merge the properties and create a parking lot in place of the home and to allow access to the back of 91 Maple Ave., he said.
The original structures on the 40-by-133-foot lot at 95 Maple Ave. were a single-family house of about 580 square feet and an outhouse, Gambino said. At one point it was converted to a two-family building of 1,717 square feet. But the conversion was poorly done, he said.
Fourth Ward Councilman David Cummings expressed to commission members his concern about the potential loss of housing overall and the loss of a home in an area that holds history of the African American population.
The first owner of 95 Maple Ave. was Pasquale Ucci, who lived there with his wife and their four daughters. He came to the United States in 1896 and rented 30 Cherry St. with his wife, one daughter, a sister, a brother, his father in-law and a boarder, according to the 1900 U.S. Census.
“Similar to many immigrants, multiple generations often lived under one roof until the resources could be saved to purchase their own place as seen for the Ucci family in the purchase of 95 Maple Avenue” in 1915, according to the survey.
But Gregory Dietrich, a preservation consultant testifying on behalf of the applicant, said that through his research he found that Ucci and his family moved to Verona in 1918.
“An Italian family did not put down roots in this location,” he said.
A neighbor of Ucci, Clinton Summers, originally of Virginia, who lived at 111 Maple St., was recorded by the census as the first African American to own a home in Montclair at the time, which is noted in the Wheeler survey.
The home was built about a foot from the plumbing supply building, which was allowed at the time, and the alterations over the years were done in “a shoddy, unprofessional manner and probably without required building permits and inspections. … Much of the building is not structurally sound and costly alterations would have to be considered. The second-floor unit has only one means of egress – an apparent building code violation,” according to the application for demolition.
In 2019, the home was damaged by fire, leaving it uninhabitable. Then-owner Sam Chin died during the pandemic, and his son attempted to gut and renovate the home, but decided to sell instead, Gambino said.
Members of the commission asked what it would take to bring the home back to its original condition. Gambino, who is a contractor by trade, estimated the cost at $467,000. He also reminded the members that the original home was 580 square feet and that current building codes don’t allow for a dwelling under 600 square feet.
Dietrich said that even with historically designated properties, the owners are not required to return them to their original condition or even restore them.
“A desire to preserve is not a mandate to preserve,” he said, adding that such a mandate would create a “revolution” over property rights.
Tom Connelly, the township’s historical consultant, agreed that the home doesn’t contribute culturally or architecturally to the historic nature of the area.
Although commission members voiced concern about replacing a home with parking, they agreed that the cost to restore the home would be significant and that the home itself lacked any historical architectural significance.
Commission member Jason Hyndman said, “I am not a fan of removing housing for parking.” But he added that plans for the business’s future will “benefit the community.”
Plans for renovations to the buildings at 91 and 99 Maple Ave. will be heard by the Historic Preservation Commission and Zoning Board.