Built prior to 1725, The Plume House is Newark’s second oldest extant building. Originally constructed by the Plume family, prominent early Newark settlers, the Dutch Colonial House exhibits local sandstone and hand-hewn timber framing and flooring. A 1874 rear addition brought the house to its current configuration.
The Plume House served as a private residence until 1849, when it was sold to the House of Prayer church. The house was converted into a rectory for the church, which was constructed in 1850 immediately north of the Plume House on Broad Street. The Plume House attained further significance in 1887 when Reverend Hannibal Goodwin invented celluloid photographic film there (his application for a patent just two years before that of George Eastman would eventually result in a 1914 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that confirmed Reverend Goodwin the inventor of celluloid photographic film).
The Plume House has survived the mass development of Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, over the last 280+ years. Most significantly, the house narrowly escaped obliteration during the mid 20th century, when an overpass for I-280 was constructed just four feet away. Unfortunately, it is the presence of this same overpass that threatens the Plume House today, almost 60 years later.
!280_plumeIts location four feet from one of New Jersey’s busiest roads has taken a toll on the Plume House. Most concerning, traffic, particularly heavy trucks, crossing the overpass produces a vibration that visibly shakes the house. The long-term effects of this constant, sustained vibration are also visible: cracked walls and plaster damage, which has worsened considerably over recent years, are evident. This condition also makes the house difficult to occupy, and severely restricts opportunities for use and interpretation.
In 2009, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJ DOT) publicly announced plans to widen the I-280 overpass beside the house, as part of a host of improvements for the 1-280/Route 21 interchange. The project is subject to review by the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office (NJ HPO).
Current plans call for widening the overpass on the side farthest from the Plume House, thereby avoiding physical changes to the Plume House property. However, many elements of the project remain in question. NJ DOT is considering the construction of 18-foot tall noise barriers on top of the I-280 overpass. These barriers would cast a permanent shadow over the Plume House and obstruct the visibility of the house and church. Although the community has thus far expressed opposition to these barriers, the possibility of their construction remains.
Even more, pressing is the need to finalize mitigation plans for the project. As the project is funded by the Federal Highway Administration, it must undergo a specific type of Federally-mandated review known as Section 106. This review results in an agreement between the NJ HPO and NJ DOT, spelling out what NJ DOT must do to mitigate the impact their project is going to have on the Plume House. The two parties have been working closely, and NJ DOT has agreed to complete a detailed report on the Plume House, documenting its current conditions and needs and possibly funding some stabilization work. However, it is PNJs belief that further, more permanent action may be necessary to ensure this property’s long-term survival.
PNJ urges NJ DOT to investigate options for relocating the Plume House. For instance, there is a vacant lot immediately north of the House Of Prayer that may be available for this use. The organization holds that this is one of a rare number of cases in which relocation, normally only an option of last resort for historic resources, may be appropriate. The Plume House has suffered almost 60 years of degradation as a result of vibration from I-280, and while NJ DOT’s plans do include stabilization of the overpass to reduce vibration, only relocation of the house can truly arrest the damage this vibration would continue to cause. Relocation would also help to address the air and noise pollution the house suffers as a result of the overpass, reducing the scope of these additional concerns.
PNJ feels that leaving the Plume House in it original location will ultimately shorten the building’s life. Relocation will result in loss of context, however, it appears that there may be space available that would keep the house within its original block, and would maintain its relationship to the House of Prayer. PNJ believes the Plume House to be representative of a small number of cases in which the benefits to be gained by relocation appear to outweigh the detrimental effects.
The Plume House is a complicated resource. The house is a remarkable survivor, yet, it continues to suffer adverse effects of that survival. PNJ commends the NJ DOT for its demonstrated commitment to mitigating the effects of this project on the Plume House. However, it is apparent that this remnant of colonial-era Newark deserves long-term solutions. The House of Prayer congregation needs a solution that enables the Plume House to be more permanently stabilized and opens up options for stewardship and use that the current location renders infeasible. PNJ encourages the House of Prayer, local Newark advocates and the NJ HPO to continue to work toward an approach that best ensures the ultimate survival and viability of this unique resource.
Executive Director, The Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee