Historical society sues N.J. for demolishing Revolutionary War-era home

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 Chris Perks, president of the Camden County Historical Society, stood in front if an image of the Hugg-Harrison house. He filed a lawsuit against the NJDOT. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Chris Perks, president of the Camden County Historical Society, stood in front if an image of the Hugg-Harrison house. He filed a lawsuit against the NJDOT. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

0image-justiceThe Camden County Historical Society is suing the New Jersey Department of Transportation, claiming it committed fraud when it demolished the Hugg-Harrison house in Bellmawr.

The Hugg-Harrison house was built in the mid-18th century and, in 1777, was in the middle of the Battle of Gloucester during the Revolutionary War. It was owned by William Harrison, a captain in the war who fought alongside Marquis de Lafayette in South Jersey.

More recently, the house was in the middle of a highway interchange reconfiguration where I-76 and I-295 meet. As part of the $900 million construction project that has been in the works for about 15 years, NJDOT tore down the house in March.

But the Camden County Historical Society said the NJDOT did so illegally. In a lawsuit filed in Federal District Court, the society claims the house should have been protected under the National Historic Preservation Act. Society president Chris Perks held up a copy of a 2003 report showing the house was eligible for historic designation.

“The fact of the matter is, when [NJDOT] went there in 2003 and got the first copy of this report that said it was eligible, that should have settled it and they could have designed the project in such a way this was not effected,” said Perks. “They covered it up.”

Perks was able to obtain redacted emails between Department of Transportation officials in which they appear to be fast-tracking the demolition in order to avoid a pending court injunction that would have forced them to save the house.

“One of our reasons to sue is because now we will be able to do discovery, where they are going to have to show us those emails in their entirety,” said Perks. “We will see the whole conversation they had that afternoon, and how they made their decision to go there at dawn and tear the thing down.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawyer for the Historical Society, Matt Lit, said the NJDOT is required under the National Historic Preservation Act to consult with preservation groups.

“The act only works when agencies act in good faith,” said Lit. “Good faith is not a wish of the Historical Society — it’s explicit in the legislation. They must act in good faith.”

Right now the house is destroyed and cannot be rebuilt. In its federal lawsuit, the Historical Society will be asking the Department of Transportation to either to build a replica of the house or a create a Revolutionary War museum nearby.

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