County: Morris County
The oldest section of the Isaac Corwin house in Chester Borough, originally a modest farmhouse, dates to circa 1800. In 1829, James Topping, a master cabinetmaker and owner of an iron mine, purchased the house and the surrounding 53 acres of land. While under his ownership, the simple farmhouse expanded to become a stately home. In 1873, he also had a Victorian-style home known as “Sunnyside” built for his widowed daughter-in-law nearby on the property. Topping died in 1874, and his descendants inherited the mines and continued to operate and care for the property. In 1945, the house and property were sold to Willis Larison and it became “Larison’s Turkey Farm Inn.” In 1974, it was sold again to successful restaurateur Arthur McGreevy. Through its operation as Larison’s, it became a well-loved roadside landmark known by both residents and visitors to the region.
In the early 2000s, the site was being shopped around for sale to developers, and a public outcry ensued. In response, the Borough extended the local Chester Historic District to include the property. Also around this time, the NJ Historic Preservation Office (HPO) determined the Chester Historic District and the Corwin House were both eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. For the Corwin house, the HPO cited its association with two significant periods of local history and the level of integrity it had retained over the years.
In 2002, the site was purchased by Harold Wachtel and Turkey Farms Acquisition LLC. Unfortunately, several attempts at continuing to run a restaurant on the site failed, with the last one closing in 2009. In 2012, Chester Borough began to prepare a non-condemnation redevelopment plan for the site, with the intent of preserving the historic buildings. In the name of meeting the town’s affordable housing requirements, a developer sued the town to force it to allow them to demolish the buildings. The town settled with the developer, agreeing to the demolition of Sunnyside and the Corwin house. Not only will the town lose two significant historic structures, the character of the Chester Historic District as a whole is also threatened by the overall development plans; which, in addition to the housing units, includes a new restaurant, a CVS, office buildings, and a new sewer plant. These plans run contrary not only to the Borough’s ordinances and Master Plan, but also to the unique character, culture, and history of the town itself.
The plight of the Isaac Corwin House is reflective of a larger issue related to the State’s refusal to actively manage its obligation to ensure the creation of adequate and safe affordable housing. Under former Governor Christie’s administration, the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) repeatedly failed to adopt sufficient rules to govern municipal compliance with affordable housing law. Without a functioning COAH office or rules, developers and municipalities are now beholden to the courts to regulate affordable housing obligations. As in the case of the development on the site of the Isaac Corwin House, this has led to haphazard implementation that is not based in sound planning, and is often not in compliance with the municipality’s Master Plan and ordinances. So long as the State of New Jersey continues to allow the courts to implement affordable housing policy, Preservation New Jersey fears that other historic resources will be at risk of demolition.
Borough website dealing with land use issues relating to Larison’s and the borough Master Plan
Documentation of preservation fight over Larison’s including reference to specific ordinances
Historic Chester NJ web page on the history of Larison’s
“Do You Remember” web page featuring Larison’s menu
Chester Historical Society