Monday, April 22, 2013

Lover's Lane

When I first began researching Woodbury's rich history I was always happy to discover the many vintage postcards depicting what must have been a popular destination in its day: Lover's Lane! One can easily picture young Victorian era lovers and families alike out for early evening strolls amongst the naturally occurring walkway framed by towering pines. Although Evergreen Avenue offered a similar romantic walkway, Lover's Lane proper was located along Cooper Street opposite the former Country Club grounds and must have extended to some point down toward the lake, now known as Stewart Lake named after local historian and Gloucester County Historical Society president Frank Stewart. Frank Stewart had his own home, 'Rugby Pines' built in 1914 in the section of Woodbury then commonly known as the East Side. An avid outdoorsman, Stewart was known to care for the many trees around his home and street.

Prior to this in 1910, however many of the pines along the western end of this locally famous and popular walk were cut down, their stumps dynamited out to smooth the grade of the sidewalk (see press clipping below). Later in 1918, during a Cooper Street improvement project 500 feet of Lover's Lane was lovingly preserved through the efforts of concerned citizens; quick growing evergreens replaced any dead trees and irregular stone slabs were placed creating an ornamental pavement. An additional 100 feet were added on to the original walk, perhaps replacing some of the trees lost during the 1910 dynamiting. Sadly today, despite all remarkable efforts of our ancestors, all semblance of Lover's Lane has been lost to the ages. I believe Rowan University upon purchasing and restoring Frank Stewart's former home in 2000 had many of the original pines out front of the house removed.

Today the only stroll we can take is down memory lane. Enjoy the surviving postcard images and reminisce about Woodbury's former romantic and shady Lover's Lane.

this postcard circa 1910
10.18.1910 issue of WDT
10.19.1910 issue of WDT
5.7.1919 issue of WDT

Similar walkway along Evergreen.
Illustration from an 1889 Green's August Flower Almanac.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Preservation Potentials: 47 Curtis Avenue

Attention: Victorian House Lovers, Steampunks, Anglophiles, and fellow appreciators of all things antique! I'm not sure old-house hunters outside the immediate area realize the unique architectural offerings Woodbury, NJ has in store. In some cases these houses will require a little creativity to restore them to their former glory, but most will have retained a large semblance of the magnificent days of English-inspired American architecture, for a fraction of the cost found in other areas.

this picture does not do the place justice, it's a lovely Victorian twin
with lots of original charm
For sale is a lovingly cared for Victorian duplex on Curtis Avenue, a nice historic street, walking distance to downtown shops and restaurants and projected light rail station. 47 Curtis Ave. features 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, newer roof and electric, and original, unpainted hardwood floor, trim, stairs and doors throughout! The home also features a beautiful ornate front porch, carraige house, and back yard, perfect for a small garden. Priced currently at $93,000 $85,000 see the listing HERE. Come join our growing walkable community. Arts, History, Home.

love those original pocket doors!

It is my opinion that reviving a once grand city is a community effort that largely starts at home. Vested homeowners that value the history and heritage of their house and who treat their home as an extension of the family and not just some place to crash, can and do make a difference. Preserve the past, to better the future!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Merritt's Block: Gone But Not Forgotten

The Proud Merritt's Block circa 1928.
Mr. Joseph Wayne Merritt, an 1876 graduate of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, Freeholder, Councilman of Woodbury, and charter member of the Gloucester Historical Society, at one time operated a "model pharmacy headquarters" here in town. It was located in a G.G. Green-constructed building, most likely designed by Paschal Madera on the northeast corner of Broad and Cooper Sts. It was built in 1887. Madera was also the architect for the Green family mansions, factory, and Opera house block. William Sutton took over the pharmacy around 1912, but the building was still commonly referred to as Merritt's Block. After Sutton & Sons tenure, the drugstore was taken over by Ralen's in 1947. The story of the building's demise began in 1954 under Ralen's ownership.

But before we get into its death I want to illustrate the wonderful mixed-use quality this building onced served for the better of the community. Other than housing the popular cornerstore pharmacy, the building itself was a home to many other businesses, organizations, and even folks who lived in quality apartments located within. Here are just a few of its many uses throughout the years it proudly stood:
  • The Woodbury Country Club was organized here in August of 1897.
  • Central Baptist Church started as a Sunday School here.
  • Law offices of Judges Donald and Austin Swackhamer.
  • Woodbury Real Estate and Mutual Loan Association offices.
  • Numerous apartments for people who worked in and around Woodbury.
  • 7 rooms were offered and accepted to the Board of Education to use as classrooms for high school students after the school had burned down after the 1910 fire. Fire escapes were added to the building in 1911 to accommodate this.
  • Hendrickson and Wick Real Estate and Insurance offices.
  • The Board of Trade room was located here and hosted many civic group meetings such as the Country Club Trustees.
  • It was a U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force Recruiting headquarters.
  • Dentist office for Dr. R. K. Morgan in Room No. 1 circa 1910.
  • It featured photo lab department on the second floor.
  • It was a popular soda fountain and luncheonette providing an excellent "third place" for the community.
  • Space for the U.S. Post Office of Woodbury.
  • Thomas Dougherty gave music lessons on the third floor, circa 1937.
  • Office of U.S. Senator Robert Clymer Hendrickson, circa 1937.
Circa 1905, Merritt's on right.

Outside Sutton's 1943: Tom Rutledge and Margaret Weld, photo by NathanH100 on Flickr
Unfortunately under the Ralen's ownership the building was stripped of any future it may have had in town. This building was built to last for many hundreds of years, however at just 67 years old, in the name of "progress" and "modernization" it was reduced to a hovel during the worst time period of American architecture and zoning, roughly 1945 to roughly 2000.

In 1954 Merritt's block was in absolutely fine shape, but something strangely unsettling in the American collective psyche at the time obsessed with "progress" and "modernization" thought that this building had to be "updated." Unfortunately, these ideals, partly fueled by an obsession with the automobile, cheap oil, and the mass flight to single-use "sprawl" developments, were mistakenly understood and we, as a nation, have been in a perpetual state of recovery ever since. The pictures of what happened to this building are shocking and speak for themselves. Below is Merritt's block photographed a few months before the "renovation," or rather the "remuddling," and below this is a photograph of the new, "modernized" building. WTF.

A series of fires in the surrounding buildings in the 70s helped to seal the fate of this once grand structure. It is not surprising then to learn that in 1982, just 28 years after the "modernization," the building was condemned by the City of Woodbury because it was discovered that the walls had become structurally unsound. Go figure.

Architecturally-appealing, mixed-use, a popular destination for the community, this photo was taken in 1954.

During the "modernization" March 1954.

After the modernization decimation of the building from a 1959 aerial.
18 years after the "modernization" fire damaged the buildings on the North side of Ralen's. image: Wenonah Fire Co.

This photo circa 1970s shows what the building was eventually reduced to after the Ralen's modernization. A series of fires in the buildings to the left of the drugstore in the 70s took care of the rest. 
What's there now: A step in the right direction but the end result is sterile, bland, and unwelcoming. I have never seen anyone go in, or out of this place. I met someone recently who seriously believed this was the prison and who could blame her considering the building's lovely architectural accents like the prison-like bars on the Cooper Side "windows." (see below)

Side of current building. This all used to be welcoming storefronts. The message here now: Keep out and go away.

New Urbanist spokesperson James Kunstler writes, "Many failures in human pattern-making ensue from the dismissal of beauty as a legitimate constituent of cultural artifacts. The consequences have been unanticipated and fraught with paradox and irony. Perhaps the most glaring is that during America’s financially richest period, 1950 to 1990, we put up almost nothing but the cheapest possible buildings, particularly civic buildings. Look at any richly embellished 1904 firehouse or post office and look at its dreary concrete box counterpart today. Compare the home of a small-town bank president dating from the 1890s, with its masonry walls and complex roof articulation, to the flimsy house of a 1990s business leader, made of two-by-fours, sheetrock, and fake fanlight windows. When we were a far less wealthy nation, we built things with the expectation that they would endure. To throw away money (painfully acquired) and effort (painfully expended) on something guaranteed to fall apart in thirty years would have seemed immoral, if not insane, in our great-grandfathers’ day."

Let us not forget that it was in the name of progress over the past 50 years that Broad Street in Woodbury began losing its appeal as a community center. As you can see by the above list, Merritt's Block was a multi-use, mixed-zoning building that provided not only quality retail, but also residential living space, civic group meeting spaces and even temporary high school quarters! The building was located exactly next door to the original U.S. Post Office and contained various other shops and living spaces. Merritt's street level corner storefront was open and inviting, encouraging pedestrianism and included built-in customers living overhead. Compare that with the uninviting blackened out permanently-shut-windows and single-use nature of the current building. The building as it stands now is certainly not going to contribute to increasing pedestrianism in our downtown, but this is exactly what current zoning laws all across America dictate we should be building. Single-use zoning whittles away once normally functioning traditional and very social neighborhoods, spreading everything out across many miles, reachable only by a car (a very antisocial method of travel in itself).

The past 50 years or so of architectural practices have predominantly produced remarkably bland and sterile buildings. This, coupled with antisocial zoning practices, has been devastating to our downtown neighborhoods. Thankfully we have the Congress for New Urbanism and firms like Duany, Plater-Zyberk ( (who are rewriting destructive sprawl zoning codes with the introduction of Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) planning, etc) helping America ultimately to rebuild their communities! I hope we see locally their expanding and positive effects in our lifetimes.

circa 1927 aerial showing Merritt's Block


(1911). In New Jersey Pharmaceutical Association (Ed.), Proceedings of the Forty-First Annual Meeting of the New Jersey Pharmaceutical Association.

Announces plans for modern store, office building. (1954, Feb 2). Woodbury Daily Times
Lovejoy, E. (1982, Nov 26). Ralen building is razed: dilapidated old drug store comes down. Gloucester County Times

Woodbury up to date. (1900, Nov 22). Woodbury Daily Times, p. 1

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

New Orleans and Her Message to Woodbury

Architecturally, there is nothing new or modern about Magazine St.
and yet it remains vibrant and alive, teeming with
active shoppers, diners, employees, and residents!
I consider myself lucky. I have very good friends that live in New Orleans, and that means I get to visit... often. I am always astounded at the popularity and walkability of the city. I find the streets, even the infamous Bourbon Street, much cleaner than your average street say in Philadelphia. People say Hi to you on the streets and many folks can live, work, and play without stepping in a car and for those that do, traffic and parking are rarely a problem due to their traditional street grid system that offers numerous routes to get where you need to go. One can easily jump on the Streetcar down St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District and ride it all the way to the Central Business District or French Quarter, all for a whopping $1.25!

Many correctly attribute New Orleans popularity and success to their love of heritage tourism and historic preservation which creates a magical atmosphere almost everywhere you look. From duplex style shotgun houses to the grandest of Queen Anne Victorians, most buildings are beautifully arranged, decorated and cared for. Even historic buildings that suffered significant damage during hurricanes are lovingly restored and brought back to life! On a single short walk one day I came across: 1. a house having tar roofing shingles removed and replaced with slate, 2. a circa 1800's ornate porch being restored and, 3. what appeared to be a dilapidated shotgun house being repaired... Amazing. (See photos below). Even with New Orleans sub-tropical, humid environment, most houses still retain their original wooden clapboard siding... Not a vinyl-sided rancher in sight!

Victorian wraparound porch restoration
Double shotgun restoration. This same house in NJ would probably have been torn down years ago... sadly.
tar shingles to slate!
How do they do it!? My friend explained that even during the dark age of American zoning which led to sprawl development (1940's - 2000's), New Orleans officials, residents, and business owners realized they were surrounded with unique historic architecture and made it their mission to preserve the subsequent charm that brought so many to the area to live and visit. And it still shows! According to the last census, New Orleans had the 24th highest growth rate in the U.S. and was the only urban center in the top 25! Wall Street Journal ranked them #1 Most Improved Metro in the USA; Brookings Inst., the #1 Growing Metro Area for Employment; Forbes: the #1 Metro for IT Job Growth in the USA; Chief Executive magazine, the #1 Most Improved State in the U.S. and Business Facilities, the #1 State for Economic Growth Potential! 9 million visitors spent $6 billion in New Orleans in 2012! The equation outlined in the April 2013 issue of Preservation in Print (their local preservation magazine) is as follows:

Fabulous city + Attractive neighborhoods = More jobs

More jobs = Revenue for better city services + Better quality of life for all

Is there a message for Woodbury here? All I can say is that Broad Street prior to 1940 had buildings to rival the most expensive homes in New Orleans today; I'm talking $6 million dollar homes! Buildings in Woodbury that were torn down for gas stations, parking lots, and strip mall style development in the name of modernization and "progress," buildings that if were still standing today would go far to improve quality of life for current Woodburyians. Even though it's too late for these particular buildings, the message is to embrace the remaining examples of traditional development (the buildings that make us unique) and recognize the difference it could make for our last vestige of downtown life if we kept and restored them. Please let's not make the same mistakes today in the name of false progress for more ratables.

If you ever get a chance to visit New Orleans, you will instantly understand where I'm coming from. I highly recommend it. Until then, sit back and enjoy some photographs. Keep in mind that everything pictured here is just a block or two away from shopping, public transportation, restaurants, and workplaces; streets not unlike Broad Street potentially.


embracing natural imperfections. this is out front of Anne Rice's
former home, adding so much charm
Our very own corner of Broad and Delaware, now Woodbury Crossing,
once looked like this, balcony, doors, windows, brickwork, people and all.
Even large banking conglomerates get the point. Here is
Capital One's branch along St. Charles.. nice adaptive reuse!
I love how green the city is, literally!