It was before noon when Merolyn Kelly, a member of the East Orange Historical Society, got a phone call from Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake’s office aprising her that one of East Orange’s most important buildings was being demolished.
“Thank goodness I answered the phone because it was from an unidentified number,” Kelly said.
Brick Church — the oldest church in the city; in fact, it predates the city itself — had a crane-made gash in the rear of the sanctuary, revealing that the owner, David Scharf, never even bothered to salvage the religious relics left inside.
“Did you see it? The pews, the pipes from the organ, the cross,” Anna Mora, the longest-standing member of the society, said. “When I saw the cross, I thought, my god, this is like the crucifixion.”
The group of preservationists found out that morning what many places had known since the 1960s, when New York Penn Station was hauled off in shattered pieces to a swamp in the Meadowlands. Unless a building is designated a state or local landmark, there is nothing they can do to save a building from demolition.
“It’s bigger than the church though — it’s about the general preservation of historic landmarks in the city,” said Marjani Jones, who runs the Beautiful Homes of East Orange Facebook group. “East Orange High is gone. The East Orange Diner has been torn down. The Hollywood Theater is gone, the Ormont is gone. With history wiped away, future generations will never know what was.”
The church’s congregation, Temple of Unified Christians, had well-documented money troubles — as many congregations do these — and reportedly undersold the church to Scharf for the price of the mortgage. The parties had a short-lived joint-venture agreement to redevelop the church into an apartment building, but the terms of the contract expired without final site plan approval from the Planning Board, according to Loretta Onyeani, a board member.
It’s important to note that the owner never intended to preserve the house of worship – he bought it with the intention of tearing it. The last time Scharf appeared before the city’s Zoning Board, his hired architect, Will Weckenmann, told the board that the original plan was to obliterate the 19th-century church and build a new structure in its place. However, Weckenmann said he intervened out of respect for its history.
“I don’t have to tell you the significance of this building to the city and the history of East Orange,” Weckenmann said. “This is a landmark building that anchors this entire neighborhood, and tearing it down wouldn’t be the correct approach for this project.”
The building Weckenmann envisioned preserved the entire front portion of the church and designed a modern-looking seven-story building beside it. What ultimately doomed the project was the city’s zoning laws, which requires buildings located in the downtown redevelopment zone to have ground-floor commercial along Main Street. The building that Weckenmann’s firm drew up was residential on the first floor, so the application was denied by the Zoning Board.
Whether Scharf had a moral right to demolish such an important house of worship will be a subject of debate. But he had every legal right to begin demolition, according to Superior Court Judge Lisa Adubado, noting “the court does not try to come in and reform a clearly written agreement.”
Last week, more than 20 members of the public filled the benches at the Essex County Courthouse to hear Calvin Souder, a lawyer hired by the congregation, argue for an emergency injunction to stay the demolition in time for the church to make an offer to buy their sanctuary back.
“Your Honor, in this instance, we’re looking at a church built in 1878 that the entire section of town is named after,” Souder said. “It is perhaps the single most important property in the city — losing that church from a historical standpoint — in the history of Essex County, you can’t replace it. There is no dollar amount that will give this back.”
Judge Adubato pointed out that none of the contracts ever made clear that the church was meant to be preserved. “Can anyone point to anything in either the joint-venture agreement or the shareholder agreement that specifically talks about preserving the structure?” Adubado said. “If the real purpose here was the preservation of the church, where is that in the record?”
Despite denying the injunction, Adubado closed the case on a hopeful note. “There’s nothing that stops the parties from continuing conversations,” Adubado said. “Perhaps there is something of the building that remains that maybe in the course of discussion can be preserved.”
At the last meeting of the East Orange Historical Society, the members seem torn between giving up on the half-demolished building and keeping the proverbial faith.
“There’s no saving it — the back is torn out,” said James Hughes, who argued that the organization’s time would be better spent trying to save the other landmarks in the city. “We need to identify the other buildings in East Orange and do the fact-finding about the lineage and history and what the criteria is to get something deemed historic.”
East Orange is one of only two municipalities in the county that doesn’t have a historic preservation commission, which has the power to deny demolitions of landmarks. Although the city’s last master plan has an inventory of potential landmarks and historic districts, that document has no teeth in a legal sense.
Other members, like Kelly, still held out hope that something could be saved. The historical society managed to file an emergency application to the State Historic Preservation Office to finally designate the church as a state historic landmark. “God is so good, if this had happened tomorrow we would have never been able to complete this application because of the timeline,” Kelly said. “I ride by that building all the time. But today I just stared at it, thinking it could possibly not be there.”