Constructed between 1913 and 1915 by the Central Railroad of New Jersey, the Cranford roundhouse is one of three known surviving roundhouses in New Jersey. The other two are located in Hawthorne and Newark. Roundhouses were common during the first half of the twentieth century during the era of steam locomotives, and were used to service and store locomotives. Steam locomotives could only run in one direction, so a turntable or other similar feature was necessary when their direction needed to be changed. A roundhouse and turntable were often built together so the locomotives could be turned and directed into one of the stalls within the roundhouse, and then turned around again when departing. By the 1950s, most steam locomotives had been replaced by diesels, which could run in either direction, and consequently roundhouses and turntables became obsolete.
The Cranford roundhouse was part of the Cranford Junction Coach Yard, which originally consisted of the brick roundhouse structure with eight locomotive stalls, a turntable, coal dock, one-story yard office building and other small railroad related structures. The roundhouse was last used by the railroad in 1954. Cranford Township adaptively reused the property around 1960 as the Department of Public Works (DPW) maintenance yard, which included removal of the turntable. Between 1966 and 1970, an addition was constructed on the east side of the building where the turntable was located and where trains previously entered the building. Despite the addition, the roundhouse with its eight stalls is still identifiable through its rounded massing, fenestration, and roof vents (one located over each stall). The Central Railroad of NJ Mainline Historic District received a State Historic Preservation Office Opinion in 1991 and a Determination of Eligibility in 1995; and a survey conducted in 1999 identified the Cranford roundhouse as a key-contributing resource in the potential district.
Today, the roundhouse still houses the Cranford Township’s DPW as a maintenance yard and storage facility; however, there has been some discussion of relocating facilities from the site. In October 2019, the Township Planning Board recommended removing the roundhouse from the list of historic resources to be identified in the proposed Historic Preservation Element of the Master Plan. If the DPW were to move elsewhere, the roundhouse site would be ideal for redevelopment, given the recent significant influx of residential and mixed-used construction taking place in Cranford. Without local historic protections, there is concern the Township may sell the property for private development for an apartment complex or large-scale commercial development, which could lead to the demolition of the roundhouse and the other remaining support structures.
The Cranford Roundhouse is an open building of considerable size that has great potential to be adaptively reused by the Township for a number of new uses. Ideas that have been discussed include artists’ studio space, farmers’ market, distillery/beer garden, small performance/event venue, or similar arts and culture site to respond to a growing population in not only Cranford, but nearby Garwood, Roselle Park and Westfield. The preservation of the Cranford Roundhouse is critical to ensuring this unique and rare railroad building type is not lost forever.
Thomas B. Connolly, AIA
Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects
(973) 746-4911 x 107