Historian Robert Williams wanted to see the red, cedar-shingled home one last time before it’s gone forever. Yesterday, he roamed the grounds of 410 Main Street — one of the oldest standing homes in West Orange — making peace with the spirits of his ancestors who built the home in 1790. He also looked for artifacts that might be salvaged — the coal shoots, a beehive oven, an upright piano rumored to be a gift from Thomas Edison.
“West Orange is losing a significant part of its history,” he said. “When townships give a demolition permit, do they know what is being destroyed?”
Carolyn McMahon, who lives next door, received a letter in July informing her that the home was going to be demolished. It was a brief letter, only one sentence long.
“I guess it’s inevitable,” McMahon said with resignation. “There’s nothing we can do to stop it.”
McMahon is correct — without an official landmark designation, the local government can’t stand in the owner’s way.
“There’s nothing we can do beyond persuasion,” Williams said.
Williams, who is president of the Verona Historical Society, researched the home five years ago, believing the home was built by one of his ancestors. The Williams family was illustrious in West Orange. Matthew Williams came to New England from Wales in the 1600s and was one of the original Puritan settlers of Newark. The family eventually left the colony on the banks of the Passaic River and ventured inland to the foot of the Watchung Mountains when it was nothing but woods.
The best known of the Williams family — who are buried beneath some of the oldest tombstones at the First Presbyterian Church cemetery on Main Street in Orange — is perhaps Mary Williams, a feminist icon, whose support of the Revolutionary War caused an infamous rift in her marriage.
The news of the home’s imminent demolition has saddened both neighbors and the home’s previous owner. “I’m devastated,” said Suzanne Oneta, who was the home’s final occupant. “I don’t want to know anything else about the house coming down — I won’t even go by it.”
Oneta was dumbfounded how the home fell into such disrepair since she sold it in 2018. “When we bought that house, we had to have a special inspector for antique houses,” Oneta said. “That house was deemed sturdier than any other house in the neighborhood — and the foundation is two feet thick.”
Barbara Roberts Toriello, who has lived in the neighborhood for 74 years, said the now-deceased owner, Linda Pati, who lived there prior to Oneta, was contacted by a historian to landmark the home, but she didn’t want the designation.
“Linda didn’t want to register it, but I know she would regret that now because she would be so sad to see this house gone,” Toriello said. “I keep saying, if I had won the lottery I would have renovated it like they do on the TV shows.”
The Williams House belongs to a collection of homes in West Orange that architectural historians once called “country homes,” built before the Main Street corridor was commercialized in the mid-1850s. Among the few that remain is the J.E. Schlachter House at 242 Main Street, also known as the Community House, built in 1846. These homes tell the story of West Orange’s earliest days. They are older than the Edison factory down the street, which is listed on the National Register. But for some reason the Williams House was never landmarked, despite the recommendation from historians as recent as a decade ago to look into doing so.
The last time a historic district was designated in West Orange was in 1985, when Llewellyn Park was listed on the National Register, according to Brian Feeney, chair of the township’s historic preservation commission. Since then, other districts have been proposed in St. Cloud, Tory Corner, and along Main Street.
Preservationists have said that Rob Parisi, the township’s previous three-term mayor, was unsupportive of landmark designation, but Mayor Susan McCartney said that was untrue. “I don’t see why he would be unsupportive,” McCartney said.
In 2022, at the tail end of Parisi’s tenure in office, five new buildings were granted local landmark status. However, one of those landmarked buildings, the Hecker Carriage House, is in a ruinous state and was named one of the most endangered places in the New Jersey.
Mayor McCartney told the Four Oranges that she wants to make heritage tourism a key initiative of her time in office — and her timing is perfect. In three years, the nation will mark the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Williams is hoping that occasion will spark a “revitalization” in the preservation movement. In the meantime, he is working with the home’s current owner, Moshe Sugar, to save as much of the home as possible, even exploring the possibility of dismantling it and relocating it elsewhere. “To touch, to feel, to smell these historic places, nothing can replace that,” he said.