By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Montclair’s Historic Preservation Commission has allowed for the demolition of the American Legion Crawford Crews Post No. 251 building on Bloomfield Avenue, as the post plans to rebuild and carry on the history of the property with its mission of serving veterans and the community.

Board members voted unanimously on Thursday, Jan. 13 to allow demolition, with the conditions that reconstruction funding is in place before the razing, that some of the historical features such as the stone accouterments are repurposed into the new facility, that the history of the property is documented and handed over to the Montclair Public Library and History Center, and that a historical plaque be placed on the new building. 

The American Legion Crawford Crews Post No. 251 has owned the property since 1944. The building was originally constructed in 1887 as a fire station for the Washington Hose Company No. 3. The building was constructed in the Italian Renaissance style and has been modified since its original construction for its conversion to the American Legion’s use.

The post was named after Pvt. Crawford Crews, who along with three other African American soldiers from Montclair — Pvt. Alonzo Mills, Corp. Benjamin E. Smith and Corp. Austin Barnes  — served in the 369th infantry regiment known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” during World War I, and died during the war. They were among the thousands of Black Americans who fought with the French Army due to segregation laws in the U.S military, and who were recognized for their bravery and service by the French government. The Hellfighters served on the frontlines longer than any other American unit.

In World War II, a number of post members were also part of the original Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces. 

A rendering of what the post would like to replace the building with.
COURTESY PLANNING DEPARTMENT
A rendering of what the post would like to replace the building with.
COURTESY PLANNING DEPARTMENT
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The post was designated as a Local Historic Landmark by the Historic Preservation Commission in September 2002 for its association with those significant historical events, and due to patterns in the development of the township itself. Under a 2019 law, the commission reviews applications to demolish buildings in designated historic districts or deemed historic or potentially historic in the township’s master plan.

Last year, however, the township’s building department tagged the building an “unsafe structure” due to the poor condition and structural unsoundness of the front face, according to a memo from the planning department.

The front face has come away from the building, the applicant's architectural engineer, Martha Brazoban, said.

The building is in such poor condition that parts of the façade could potentially dislodge from the wall and hurt a pedestrian, a memo from the planning department states. And when built, the brick and masonry façades were not tied to the floor joists resulting in “structural deficiency,” according to the planning report.

The post is increasing in members, Post Commander Terrence Scantlebury said. The building is now used by Scouts for meetings, by veterans as a social gathering place and, on occasion, as an overnight respite for individuals experiencing homelessness, he said.

The post also aims to expand to offer accommodations for homeless veterans, Scantlebury said.

With a “deferred maintenance issue by the town,” and an option for housing veterans through federal funding, the post saw an opportunity for an up-to-date facility and to expand its programs, James Evers, the architect for the project, said.

“Based on an analyst of census information and the New Jersey Point-In-Time Count [Monarch Housing Associates’ annual count of homeless individuals and families], there is a significant need for permanent affordable supportive housing units for veterans who are homeless and may also be disabled,” Scantlebury said, adding that supportive housing for veterans is low in the Montclair area.  

In addition, the building currently does not have a sprinkler system, air conditioning or an elevator (the stairwell is an enclosed structure attached to the outside of the building). 

Evers said the post has been in touch with Monarch Housing Associates about funding opportunities to house homeless individuals. Although they are confident in securing funding, Evers said, fully securing funds will depend on first getting a certificate of appropriateness for the demolition from the commission, and the Montclair Planning Board’s approval for new construction. 

The new building will incorporate some of the original stonework.
COURTESY PLANNING DEPARTMENT
The new building will incorporate some of the original stonework.
COURTESY PLANNING DEPARTMENT
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Although it wasn’t required for a demolition application, the post’s representatives did present a rendering of their vision for the new building. It shows that the new building would reinstitute the brick archway entrance that was once part of the old façade from when it was a firehouse, and illustrates the reuse of about 30 pieces of the stonework on the corners of the building and above and below the windows. 

Commission members have recently discussed suggested updates to the demolition ordinance, and asked their professionals to research whether they could require applicants to discuss their plans for new construction to replace razed buildings, and whether they could hold applicants to those plans. 

The board also waived a normal condition for a demolition application, that the applicant make a good-faith effort to sell the property or have it moved from the property by an interested party.

Evers said that the post doesn’t want to relocate, as the location of property itself, what the post has offered to the community in that location and how it plans to continue to do, are all key to its history.

New board member Gerald Sweeney asked if the post was committed to continuing the mission of the American Legion and of owning the property, to which Evers answered: “Yes.” 

Board member Jason Hyndman said that while it is a historic site, “the history is from its use,” not the architecture of the building itself.  

Thomas Connelly, the commission’s historic preservation consultant, in his report, said: “In our professional opinion, and based on the application and in‐field site visits, the application adequately substantiates the need to remove the building based on the Review Criteria for Total Demolition ... with the conditions of documentation and designation of salvaged material to be incorporated into the design for the new mixed‐use building.”

The board considered the structural soundness and integrity of the building, the economic feasibility of its restoration so as to allow for its reasonable use, the threat to the public health and safety as a result of deterioration or disrepair of the building, the technological feasibility of structural rehabilitation and the interference with the charitable purposes of the nonprofit if total demolition were not permitted.