Status: Lost Forever
4/2010: To protect the Forney House, the John C. Evans Project, the community coalition formed to advocate for the Forney House and Clinic prior to its demolition, filed suit in state court in May 2007, seeking to overturn approvals issued by the local zoning board that had authorized the construction of the drive-through bank. Vally National Bankcorp, the bank responsible for the demolition of the Forney House, countersued, seeking monetary damages for alleged economic harm. Even after the demolition of the Forney House, the bank continued to pursue its countersuit for more than a year, until the court dismissed the counterclaims in April 2010. The preservationists then filed a motion under New Jersey’s frivolous litigation laws (R. 1:4-8 and N.J.S.A. 2A:15-59.1) alleging that the bank had pursued a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) suit and requesting an award of sanctions and attorneys’ fees. The motion for sanctions and fees was denied, and an appeal by the John C. Evans Project followed. At the same time, the bank appealed the court’s earlier dismissal of its countersuit. A hearing has been scheduled for April 30, 2010.
5/2011: The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation New Jersey have partnered to write and submit an amicus brief on behalf of the John C. Evans Project in the appeal of its motion for sanctions and fees.
The Forney House and Clinic, originally known as the John Evans House, was built in the third quarter of the 19th century. Evans was the superintendent of the Ford Meyer Rubber Company of Milltown, which later became the first American site of the Michelin Rubber Company. The son of Evans, John C. Evans, was the first Mayor of Milltown. In 1907, Dr. Norman Forney came to Milltown and began a practice of medicine in this house. He was later joined by his sons Norman Jr. and Charles who practiced with him. They owned and operated the clinic in this building and its one story, gable end addition until 1980. The house was then sold to Dr. Sharma, who continued to practice there and rented the house to tenants as recently as 2007.
The house was a grand, Victorian structure, 2 and ½ stories tall, five bays wide, and two rooms deep. Of wood frame construction, sheathed with wood clapboard, one of its finest exterior features was the front porch, which extends the entire width of the house, supported by six wood columns articulated by a decorative balustrade and turned wood ornament at the top. The style of the house was eclectic with large, Italianate paired consoles supporting its main cornice and with projecting lintels over the windows supported by brackets. The house presented an attractive, historic façade to the main street of Milltown, and was a key building contributing to the aesthetics of the town. The building was found “Eligible” for listing on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office, which also deemed it eminently “rehabbable” in 2008.
The house had been threatened by a development proposal from the Valley National Bank to demolish the structure and replace it with a new, drive through bank in this location. The bank’s proposal required a use and other variances. The Zoning Board approved the variances, in spite of opposition in the town to another drive through bank and in spite of community support for preservation of the house. The John C. Evans Project, Inc., a local citizens group, appealed the Zoning Board decision; but the decision was upheld by Judge Jessica Mayer on March 26, 2008. Part of the reason for her decision was the finding by the Zoning Board that they declined to consider the house “historic” because the property is not currently on the National Register of Historic Places. This finding is in opposition to the fact that: 1) qualified members of the State Historic Preservation Office have found the house to be historic and eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, 2) the Zoning Board members do not have the credentials to determine what is eligible for the State and National Registers nor specific evidence on which to base their finding that the house is not historic, and 3) the local advisory committee to advise Town Council on historic structures has proposed a historic district that includes the Forney House as a key contributing building.
Since Valley National Bank (VNB) is a nationally chartered bank, it required approval from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and also was required to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This review approval process was required since the Forney House was eligible for the National Register. Unfortunately, the bank and the property owner did not approach this consultation in a manner befitting a public process and sought to force its demands on those involved.
OCC issued a Memorandum of Agreement in December 2008 approving demolition of the Forney House and it was destroyed over the weekend of January 24-25, 2009. The permanent loss of this important component of the history of Milltown for an ephemeral commercial use like a branch bank is short sighted and regrettable. Once a historic building is demolished, it’s gone forever.
For more current information: http://preservationnj.wordpress.com/
Debora Acierno, John C. Evans Project