Dead bodies, dirty needles, and prostitution. It’s difficult to hear the stories people tell about the abandoned grounds of Orange Memorial Hospital.
Despite the condition of this neglected landmark, which is listed on the National Register, preservationists held out hope that it could be restored. But a city official announced at last month’s council meeting a plan to demolish it.
“One of the biggest obstacles in moving any project along has been the current ownership,” said Chris Hartwyk, business administrator. “The goal of that multistep process is to get the property environmentally cleaned up, buildings demolished, and new structures placed there after a series of hearings about what should go there.”
The city council later approved a memorandum that handed over ownership to a joint venture. The city’s part ownership in that agreement is significant because it gives the local government power to supersede its own ordinances, according to Paul Muir, president of Preservation New Jersey. “New Jersey is a home-rule state,” Muir said. “Municipalities have certain authorities and one of them is to defy their own ordinances.”
The local historic preservation commission was blindsided by the demolition announcement, according to one of its members, Jody Leight. Leight, who lives near the site, agrees that something has to change — her husband was solicited by a sex worker while sitting on the front porch having his morning coffee. But she believes that parts of the hospital, given the quality of its construction, could be rehabbed.
“The buildings at the hospital are solidly constructed. It takes longer for a brick building to fall apart than a wooden building,” Leight said. “I’ve seen old buildings torn down and replaced with shoddily constructed, cookie-cutter buildings.”
The hospital has sat vacant since its controversial closing in 2005, Jersey Digs reported. In its heyday, Orange Memorial Hospital was a prestigious institution with its own affiliated nursing school housed in Mary Austin Hall. It was the first four-year nursing school in the nation and it is remember fondly by the students that graduated from it.
“It is very sad that a beautiful building was left to decay and be vandalized until it is beyond repair,” Carol Rogers Alleborn, who graduated from the school in 1967, said.
One of Alleborn’s classmates remembered the camaraderie of her classmates helping her through a difficult time in American history. “We went there when Vietnam was escalating, so many of our thoughts were with boyfriends, brothers, cousins who went off to serve our country,” Carol Lee said. “Such an incredibly difficult time, but we all felt good about serving the community and would hate to see one of the hallmarks of the era be destroyed.”
Kelly Ruffel, executive director of Preservation New Jersey, believes there is still hope to save the building. The public-private partnership that owns the hospital could require a review by the State Preservation Office. “This does not guarantee the building would be saved, but the owner would need to argue why demolition is necessary,” Ruffel said.
Although Hartwyk’s announcement was applauded by residents who have criticized the inaction of previous owners, to others who have seen the loss of a number of historic buildings in the last few years alone, it was painful.
Last year, the Masonic Temple was torn down after a fire tore through the three-story building causing the floors to collapse. While many suspected arson, the fire department “couldn’t have an internal investigation for arson,” due to the collapse, Fire Chief Derrick Brown, said.
The Masonic Temple, completed in 1886, was one of the most recognizable buildings along Main Street, mainly for its rust-colored facade and six-story tower. The building was particularly meaningful as the nation’s first Masonic Lodge to break the color barrier, Karen Jeffries-Wells, historic preservation commissioner, said.
Some residents wondered why — given the history and the quality of its construction — some of the facade couldn’t have been spared.
“This was a building that was created by the masons, for the masons. I’m pretty sure that was a fairly substantial three- to four-course brick structure with steel reinforcing,” said James Ward, a Haxtun Avenue resident. “We need to have a better account of why no part of that historic structure could have been salvaged.”
The fire at the Masonic Lodge follows a rash of fires happening across the township. Another blaze claimed a 19th-century industrial building in the Valley Arts District last August. It caused one resident to declare that the “town is on fire.”