“A City of Beautiful Homes” is the title of a 1914 Summit Herald newspaper supplement extolling the city’s architecture “designed with regard to their surroundings, so as to form a harmonious whole.” Summit boasts a variety of architectural styles, from stately Victorian mansions with Queen Anne detailing to Mission style residences feature Spanish tile roofs and large stucco piers. However, in addition to the enviable architecture and proximity to New York City, Summit has another desirable feature for a suburban community – a downtown that’s listed on both the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.
Summit’s downtown historic district covers approximately 16 city blocks and is centered around the railroad station. The rail line separates the areas north and south of the district. The northern section consists primarily of 2-4 story buildings with apartments on the upper floors and commercial storefronts at the street level. The southern area consists of public spaces and civic buildings with ecclesiastical structures at the far southern, eastern and western corners.
The majority of the buildings and resources were constructed between the late 1800s through the 1930s. On the eastern side of the district is Old Town Hall, built in 1892 and designed by John Newton Cady. A High Victorian design with Richardson Romanesque motifs, materials such as rusticated limestone provide added texture and interest to the wall’s surface while accentuating the windows and entrances. The Old Town Hall continued to be used as the Town Meeting Hall until 1909 and once contained a jail and a fire engine garage.
To the west of the district stands the Van Cise Building. An Italian-Renaissance revival building built circa 1893, it originally housed the Summit Chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The building later became the Summit Opera House, a movie theater and Masonic Hall before housing commercial tenants as it does today.
Although the original rail line was laid in 1837, the current Summit Train Station was built in 1905 replacing the 1871 station. The Interlocking Tower, located on the northern side of the tracks at the Southern Avenue Bridge, functioned to move rail traffic into a rail yard that was once on the south side of the tracks. The embanked Tudor-revival Tower is unusual as an example of a high-style functional structure that had been built by the railroad as well as for its integration into the retaining wall.
One of the more modern treasures found in Summit’s downtown is the 1938 Summit Diner. In a state known for its diner culture, this streamlined example built by the Jerry O’Mahoney Company is an excellent example retaining a high level of architectural integrity. In fact, a recent study identified the Summit Diner as one of approximately 10 Jerry O’Mahoney dining cars built during the period 1935-1941 that are still standing in the United States.
Summit’s Historic Preservation Commission Chair, Tom Conway, grew up in town and points to preservation as an “economic generator” for the town. “This is why people move to Summit,” says Conway. “When you’re around historic places and buildings, it gives you a ‘sense of place.’ There’s a lot of people that choose to be in historic places but don’t know why – it’s a feeling of belonging.”
A historic architect, Conway was a young teen during the country’s bicentennial and credits his parents for his profession by taking him to various historic places in Boston and Philadelphia to appreciate the past. “They were interested in what history means as a civic duty,” he says. “And I’ve instilled that in my children.” Conway describes himself as a “contextualist” and a “regionalist” meaning that architecture should take into account the environment and its surroundings. He notes that realtors in Summit are also finally understanding this message and appreciate the value of a historic neighborhood.
Councilman Steve Bowman serves as liaison to the Historic Preservation Commission and supports historic designation wholeheartedly. He says, “the historic character of a community is a big draw and the investments reap financial rewards.” When Bowman purchased his own 1902 historic home several years ago, he and his wife worked in stages to have it properly renovated. “We could have had it razed but they don’t make houses like this anymore. This has long term financial gain.”
When it comes to the historic character of Summit, Bowman feels the same way. He points to the community input solicited for the recent Master Plan as underscoring the importance of maintaining Summit’s “historic feel.” Bowman also credits sections of the Development Regulations Ordinance (DRO) as “putting more teeth” into historic preservation and the future development of Summit.
The “Design Guidelines” section of the DRO are considered integral and “shall be used to review new construction, and renovations and additions to existing buildings in the City of Summit.” These considerations include: Siting, Scale, Height, Windows and Doors, Materials, Roof, Directional Expression, Design Features, Storefronts and Entry Ways, Downtown Streetscapes, Alleys, and Landscapes and Vegetation.
Jennifer Balson Alvarez, the HPC liaison to the Planning Board, is also an Historic Preservation Specialist having significant experience with rehabilitation tax credit projects and compliance. She worked with the Chair and the Planning Board to incorporate the historic preservation guidelines within the DRO. “There was a ton of public outreach during the Master Plan process and it became abundantly clear that we must maintain our historic character,” she says. “This enables the City Council to act.”
Asked as to the benefits of a historically designated downtown, Alvarez mentions several. The first, is the 20% federal historic tax credit for income producing properties. The second, also a monetary incentive, are the yearly state grants from the New Jersey Historic Trust. Alvarez adds, “This is real money! These are two great carrots that a lot of people don’t really know about.” Finally, she explains that the financial incentives tie into the aesthetics of a community and touts the attraction of having a walkable downtown, especially while so many people are shopping online.
Tom Conway couldn’t agree more and credits the collaborative effort to preserve Summit, from the elected officials, to the volunteers on the various boards and commission, as well as the central business district organization. “When you have a Master Plan and ordinance that supports preservation, it really starts to mitigate developers—we have stemmed the McMansion mentality.” He says if it doesn’t meet the spirit of the Master Plan, then it should not get approved. As for the HPC, he states “Although we are purely advisory, we have a responsibility as a stewardship for the Town and a voice for the people.”
Maria Boyes is a journalist who has written for newspapers across the country and penned a column in the NJ Courier News for several years. As a member of Preservation New Jersey’s Marketing Committee and Chair of the Westfield Historic Preservation Commission, Maria values historic architecture.
She and her husband, Jim, live in a Victorian where they spend their free time, when not working on their home, volunteering for various organizations and within their community.