Status: Lost Forever
2011: Ted Manvell, a neighbor to the Zabriskie Tenant House property and the advocate who initiated efforts to save the house, has filed suit against the Paramus Planning Board, Quattro IV, LLC, and the owner of 273 Dunkerhook Road, to void the planning board’s April demolition approval. The suit challenges the decision based on the lack of a review by the Paramus Historic Preservation Commission (as the commission has been established by municipal ordinance, but commissioners are currently not seated), and charges insufficiency in the Borough of Paramus’ efforts to come up with alternatives to demolition. The trial is scheduled for New Jersey Superior Court on September 9, 2011. There is an agreement “by consent” that the house will not be demolished pending the court’s decision. Ted has also set up an organization; Dunkerhook Stonehouse Preservation, LLC; to accept donations toward associated legal costs. Anyone wishing to contribute can send a check made out to the organization to 263 Dunkerhook Road, Paramus, NJ 07652.
9/2011: The New Jersey Superior Court has denied neighbor Ted Manvell’s appeal of the Paramus Planning Board’s April decision to approve the demolition of the Zabriskie Tenant House. However, Quattro IV, LLC has yet to proceed with the purchase of the property.
4/2012: Quattro IV, LLC has purchased the property. There is a discussion of relocating the Zabriskie Tenant House to the campus of Bergen County College. Freeholders are in talks with the developer about this alternative, which would save the house, although its historical context as the last remaining element of the Dunkerhook community would be lost.
7/13/2012: A backhoe showed up on the Zabriskie Tenant House property late yesterday. In the span of one hour this morning, the house was demolished. As far as advocates on site could tell, all of the house’s components and materials went into a dumpster.
The Zabriskie Tenant House is one of the last surviving structures of a once-thriving African-American community dating back to the mid-19th century. Located at 273 Dunkerhook Road in Paramus, the building is a two-story sandstone and wood clapboard structure. The original stone portion of the building has been dated to the late 18th century and is representative of 18th century Dutch stone houses prevalent throughout Bergen County. The house was expanded in the 1800s, with two subsequent additions constructed in the 20th century. The house shares a lot of just over an acre with two non-historic buildings. The development potential for this relatively large lot presents a significant threat to the Zabriskie Tenant House.
The building was constructed by well-known early area settler Andrew Zabriskie for his son, Christian. When descendants of the Zabriskie family relocated in 1820, the house was occupied by free African-American tenants descended from former Zabriskie family slaves. A larger free African-American community known as Dunkerhook (possibly a corruption of the Dutch “Donker Hoek,” meaning “dark corner”), developed along this stretch of Dunkerhook Road beginning in the 1830s. By 1860, six households with 43 residents and an AME-Zion Church and a cemetery occupied this area. Largely intact through the 1920s and 1930s, the community was essentially dispersed by the mid-20th century as historic structures were demolished and replaced with new residences.
The Zabriskie Tenant House is one of only two remaining structures from this community and is the more intact of the two buildings. 273 Dunkerhook, although enlarged, retains historic integrity. The original stone facades are in good condition, most of the masonry openings are original and unaltered. The interior retains historic beams, plasterwork, and trim. The building is maintained and structurally sound.
The history of slavery and subsequent freedom for African-Americans in New Jersey is a subject ripe for further study. The house at 273 Dunkerhook is a window into 19th century rural African-American life in Bergen County. The original stone structure is a fairly intact representative of one of Bergen County’s most important and earliest house types, and the 19th century addition reflects the progression of this type over subsequent years; in this case, the arguably more significant period of African-American tenancy. The house’s significance has been recognized by listings on the National Register of Historic Places and the Borough of Paramus Historic Sites Survey, and is included in a list of Paramus properties as part of a borough “Historic Preservation Zone.”
The Zabriskie Tenant House is under imminent threat of demolition. A developer has a contract to purchase and subdivide the property to construct two new houses. The sale is contingent upon the approval of the demolition of 273 Dunkerhook and the approval of a proposed subdivision site plan by the Paramus Planning Board. Paramus has a historic preservation ordinance that provides for a historic preservation commission, but the commission is currently not seated. Concurrently, the planning board has, by statute, some responsibility for the maintenance of the historic character and value of the properties within the designated Paramus “Historic Preservation Zone,” which includes the Zabriskie Tenant House. However, in April, the Paramus Planning Board voted unanimously to accept the developer’s proposal for subdivision and demolition.
Preservation New Jersey encourages the potential developer of 273 Dunkerhook Road and Paramus leadership to further consider the historic significance of this landmark property. There are development approaches, such as an alternate subdivision plan retaining the historic house and allowing for new construction on a rear lot, which would avoid the loss of the Zabriskie Tenant House. The historic house could be sold to a preservation-conscious buyer and further protected with a preservation easement.
The proposed demolition of 273 Dunkerhook Road is emblematic of the threat to many older and historic houses in the state of New Jersey. The tearing down of sound housing stock for newer, larger residences is bad environmental policy and destroys the character and sense of place of communities. Additionally, this case reinforces the need for residents of each community to keep aware of their local ordinances. Paramus’ local preservation ordinance is of no consequence without a seated commission.
The Zabriskie Tenant House is a landmark of early Paramus and Bergen County settlement and one of a dwindling number of its age with documented African-American significance. Its loss would all but erase the evidence of the Dunkerhook community, an incomparable element of Paramus’ development. Preservation New Jersey urges all involved parties to thoroughly investigate options for saving the Zabriskie Tenant House. Further, the borough of Paramus should, in turn, use this situation as an opportunity to implement their historic preservation ordinance, helping to ensure a future for all of Paramus’ remaining historic landmarks.