Early Friday morning, the New Jersey Department of Transportation demolished a house in Bellmawr dating back to the Revolutionary War.
The house was razed to make way for the widening of an I-295 interchange reconstruction project. It had been the center of a contentious fight between NJ DOT and preservationists.
The Hugg-Harrison-Glover House was once owned by Capt. William Harrison who founded the Gloucester militia during the Revolutionary War. He fought alongside the Marquis de Lafayette in the Battle of Gloucester, not far from the house, in November 1777.
Through eminent domain, the house was acquired by the NJDOT, which determined that it was not historically significant.
The Camden County Historical Society has claimed the DOT’s analysis was flawed — that the house is, indeed, significant. The society was pushing to have the house relocated and preserved.
Historical society trustee Chris Perks watched as DOT contractors took off the building’s roof shingles, siding, and shut off its gas to prepare for demolition.
“Finally we filed an injunction with state Superior Court, saying we believe they violated federal law by demolishing this building illegally,” said Perks. “We filed that [Thursday] afternoon, had a courier bring a courtesy copy to the [transportation] commissioner’s office in West Trenton. The commissioner’s office gave the order for contractors to go out there [Friday] morning at 7:30 and demolish the building.”
Perks said the Department of Transportation has ignored requests from a coalition of regional historical societies, residents, and elected officials to preserve the building, including U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross who called its demolition “an injustice.”
The DOT said it complied with all federal requirements regarding historic structures.
“There are stringent federal requirements that must be met to deem a structure historic,” according to a DOT statement. “Despite assertions by some, the house failed to meet the criteria for the necessary historic associations.”
The DOT also said it found the house to be structurally unsound, after conducting an asbestos and lead abatement process.
The DOT’s razing of the house in a pre-dawn action, less than 24 hours after a court injunction was filed to block the demolition, raised eyebrows in the preservation world.
Scot Pannepacker of the nonprofit Preservation New Jersey said the DOT actions were akin to those of an unscrupulous developer rather than a state agency.
“If they had gone through the whole due process and we lost, I would be interviewed saying I’m disappointed,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say I felt somebody behaved unethically.”