Preservationists lament future of Lewis Estates house
By LINDA MOSS
The Lewis Estates house is steeped in history. But it may not have much of a future.
"The potential demolition of the Lewis residence at 44 Pleasant Ave. will be a true loss for the community," said Kathleen Bennett, chair of the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission.
Built in 1906 and designed by renowned Montclair architect Dudley Van Antwerp, the wood-shingle colonial residence sits on 2.7 acres in a quiet South End neighborhood. It was once home to another township legend — Aubrey Lewis, a star athlete at Montclair High and the University of Notre Dame, and one of the first black FBI agents.
Now the house, just the house, is for sale for $10 or less to anyone willing to relocate the structure. But the purchase comes with onerous caveats: The buyer must move the house within roughly a quarter mile of its current spot, with the contract for that sale executed by Aug. 31.
In an announcement this week the township outlined the terms of such a purchase, noting that the seller will contribute up to $10,000 toward the moving costs.
In June the Township Planning Board gave final approval for the subdivision of the site by BNE Real Estate Group of Livingston, which will build eight homes on the property. As a condition of approval, the board mandated that an attempt be made to sell the Lewis house. The house’s fire sale now caps a series of events that some historic preservationists are mourning, as they expect that the landmark house will end up being demolished.
HPC member David Greenbaum said that his group fought to save the Lewis home, but the Township Council and planning board opted not to designate it for historic preservation.
“That house, it’s a shame,” he said. “The HPC did everything we could to preserve the house and even tried to make the developer’s plan to be incumbent on him retaining the house as part of the property. … Without those protections put into place, the owner of the home is entitled to do whatever he wishes.”
The sale of the Lewis Estates property to BNE Realty hasn’t closed yet, according to Laurena White, a real estate agent at Sotheby’s International Realty. But the property was listed at $1.35 million.
Planning Board Member Martin Schwartz said that the board and the council who originally voted not to preserve the Lewis home and designate the property as a historic site “made a colossal 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.”
That’s because “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,” according to Schwartz.
“It was not smart on any level,” he said.
Schwartz said that the developer’s offer to sell the house is “a highly expensive proposition” for a prospective buyer, something that an official at Montclair developer Steven Plofker’s firm, Willow Street Partners, can attest to. Plofker is renovating the Georgian Inn, and last month had the Carriage House on the property moved a short distance to face Claremont Avenue.
It cost just under $120,000 for Willow Street to have the Carriage House moved by Wolfe House & Building Movers, said Kevin Costello, the real estate firm’s director of development. He estimated that it would cost slightly less to move the Lewis home, more like $100,000.
This relocation cost will probably stop anyone from taking the developer up on its $10-or-less offer, according to Schwartz.
"Montclair has a number of residential, commercial, municipal, and parks which were designed by national and internationally recognized architects," Bennett said.
"Many of these designers chose to live in Montclair and become part of the local community," she said. "Unfortunately, our architectural heritage is slowly being decimated by current land-use policies. Other towns have successfully instituted adaptive-reuse strategies which enhance the appearance and ambiance within their communities. The Historic Preservation Commission suggested a number of alternate scenarios which would have preserved this Dudley Van Antwerp masterpiece; none were considered."