Monday, March 17, 2014

Progress or Regress?

The subtitle of this post could very well be: How to Start Your City's Downward Spiral with One Fell Swoop. I have blogged about the loss of the Lewis M. Green mansion before but some recent historic artifacts were turned over to me that once again sparked my dismay over the whole matter. The outcome of the senseless demolition still affects us today and we should really take note.

 In 1869, Lewis M. Green, a five-term Mayor of Woodbury, NJ, had built for the pride of the city a magnificent four story residence of handmade pressed brick, featuring 10 bedrooms, walnut floors, French glass windows, gas lit crystal chandeliers, white marble steps, wrought iron trim, and formal gardens across from the Town Hall at the corner of German (now Barber) and Broad, the most public street in town. After many happy years in the community, the mansion was sold to Gulf Oil Corporation in 1944 and promptly torn down for a gas station. Don't believe me? Let's have Gulf Oil tell the story for you. Here is the postcard they sent out to Woodbury residents (this particular one to G.G. Green, Jr.) announcing the "great" news!

In case you don't believe your eyes, let me transcribe what the back of that postcard actually says. For added effect, try reading the following in your best 1940's narrator-voice... you know, the same voice that told you to "Duck and Cover" in case of a nuclear bomb blast in your area.

"Do you recognize this picture? 

Yes, it's the corner of Broad Street and Barber Avenue as it looked not so long ago. Now this familiar landmark has given way to the construction of a modern "One Stop" Service Station and Merchandising Center. When completed, we know you'll be proud of this modern addition to Broad Street. Watch for the opening date announcement. 

Gulf Oil Corporation"

There's a word for this sort of candy-coated corporate public relations nonsense... it's called "bullshit."

The lesson? Let's take away that not all "progress" is very progressive when you consider the future health of your community, especially when it calls for eliminating proud historic structures from the urban fabric, negatively impacting the quality of life for everyone. I would LOVE to sit down today with the very folks at Gulf Oil, city leaders and citizens in 1944 who sat back and let the Green Mansion "give way" for "modernity." Mostly I would want to know how that worked out for them. Did they make that killer profit!? I have said that an ounce of forethought is worth a pound of future investment, and apparently no one in 1944 had even close to an ounce.

I heard a great story recently of an 85 year old lifelong Woodbury resident standing up to City Council in the late 1970s when they proposed to return the brick sidewalk and decorative streetlamps along Broad Street. His statement was simple, "You might call this progress, but we had all of this and more when I was a kid. Why did the city rip it all out in the first place?" I think it's wonderful to recognize that certain actions were bad in the long run, such as originally removing the brick pavement and decorative streetlamps the first time around, but by then the damage is done and I'm certain that what has replaced the originals is a second rate knockoff, an insincere fake.

So the next time you hear someone argue the senseless destruction of quality urban fabric in the name of "progress," question that it will not ultimately be in the name of regress. I've said it before, the art of a good preservationist is concerned more so with the future and for the quality of life for residents in the "here and now" and for generations to come. It should alarm every one of us that America is starting to look like a substandard, plastic-wrapped, third-world country. This affects us all, whether you want to see the bigger picture or not.

Top: circa 1900 Mayor Lewis M. Green's mansion on Broad, a place worth caring about
Bottom: Same location now, the curb cut between the Bottom Dollar and the Rite Aid
(both currently vacant buildings, humorously enough)

Do we really wonder why we can't attract new residents, customers, and businesses to the area when these are our aesthetics... fake windows, unwelcoming storefronts, and MORE setback parking lots? The bottom photo does nothing to inspire the soul.

Many folks are quick to blame the current climate of politics, etc. for the ills of the world today, but the truth is that things were set in motion after WWII in America that has lead us to today. Since roughly the 1940's, all across America, seemingly nothing better has replaced what was torn down for "progress." The Lewis M. Green mansion stood for 75 years, the cheap plastic gas station that replaced it only lasted about 30 and then a vacant lot stood there for nearly the same amount of time. The Rite Aid business that eventually replaced the gas station lasted about 20 years... are we getting the picture, yet!? We are constructing increasingly worthless buildings, housing increasingly worthless enterprises.

Today, many studies show that the auto-centric "modernizing" of America through horizontal development (sprawl) has had devastating effects to our once proud towns and cities. The effects reveal themselves through crime, anti-socialism, depression, segregation, isolation, and more. "Anybody who travels back and forth across the Atlantic has to be impressed with the differences between European cities and ours, which makes it appear as if World War Two actually took place in Detroit and Washington rather than Berlin and Rotterdam." - JHK. Do not Americans deserve better?

Progress should be measured over time, and the demolition of the Lewis M. Green mansion certainly did not progress the city, but rather I would argue the opposite holds. By tearing down that mansion and other proud buildings during the same time period, Woodbury entered an age of blight. Holes or "missing teeth" from senseless demolition and an over-catering to the automobile were beginning to form downtown which eroded its walkable functionality and aesthetic appeal. Coupled with the growing trend of suburban flight, it was a one-two-punch that has left Woodbury reeling.

Lewis Morris Green Mansion in a wintry photo from 1898
Moving forward we must realize that our actions today WILL affect future generations. It's not all about the immediate rewards... how about some forward-thinking? A single action in the past, by a single-minded person (or corporation) can deprive all future generations from enjoying a better quality of life and experiencing our American Heritage in the form of our proud local landmarks.

"Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set." - Proverbs 22:28

The dreaded For Sale ad!

Thanks for nothing, GULF Oil!
Below: some rare photos of the mantels that once adorned and warmed the interior of the Lewis M. Green mansion.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Woodbury and the Iran-Contra Affair

What does this 1880 Woodbury, New Jersey landmark:

and the Iran-Contra affair have in common?

... well, it appears that long after G.G. Green went the way of the wind, and with him the remnants of his one-time multi-million dollar producing patent medicine company, August Flower's third and final factory located on Green Avenue hosted some nefarious business enterprise. Forway Industries purchased the old Victorian factory in 1968 and proceeded to produce some very interesting items, which they sold to very interesting customers! I'll let this archived Philadelphia Inquirer article tell the story. Special thanks to Woodbury's own historic preservationist woodworker extraordinaire and custom mandolin builder, Nevin Fahs for tipping me off to this great story.

Factory Is Closed, But Ties To A Scandal Remain The Former Woodbury Business Was Linked To The Iran-contra Affair. Some Remnants Have Been Found.


Posted: August 16, 1997

WOODBURY — When the city foreclosed on the old Forway Industries building in December, local officials figured the deal only brought them a crumbling structure filled with holes in the ceiling, smashed-out windows and roosting pigeons.

But when environmental investigators were called in this spring, they found more than rubble.
Scattered throughout the factory were blueprints and metal molds that were used to make materials that tied the company to the arms-for-hostages Iran-contra scandal.

The environmental consultants called in an investigator from the Department of Defense who recommended that the city contact local military bases to dispose of the material properly. Steps are being taken to start that process. In the meantime, the blueprints and molds remain in the boarded-up factory.

City clerk and administrator Thomas Bowe summed up the foreclosure and cleanup of the Forway plant this way:
``It was a mess legally. It was a mess practically. It remains so.''

* Forway Industries bought the property at 122 Green Ave. near East Barber Avenue in 1968, according to Gloucester County records. The four-story building was by then somewhat of a city landmark - built in 1879 by George G. Green, Woodbury's first millionaire and a Civil War veteran who made his fortune in patent medicines.

The factory sits along the railroad tracks next to St. Patrick's School. Today, the windows on the red-brick building are boarded shut. Waist-high weeds grow in the driveway, and ivy partially covers the black letters bearing the Forway name.

In 1988, Jacobo Farber, the former president of Forway Industries, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in prison and fined $25,000 for sending weapons, including blast deflectors for NikeHercules missiles, to Japan and England without the required U.S. State Department permits.
That same year, Forway and several of its top executives were indicted in San Diego on charges of conspiring to illegally export arms, including Doppler Velocity Sensors for military helicopters, to Iran. A plea bargain brought $50,000 fines and probation periods of six months.

Bowe said the company's principal shareholder during the scandal, Willard I. Zucker, attempted to hold onto the property before the city foreclosed on it. Zucker, a lawyer and accountant who was a prominent figure in Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's federal trial, lives in Switzerland.

Zucker's Woodbury-based attorney, Russell E. Paul, said earlier this week that he had no comment on Zucker's interest in the building, citing attorney-client privilege.

Forway Industries filed for bankruptcy in 1994. The building was vacated in 1992, city officials said.
Because the company owed the city more than $600,000 in unpaid property taxes, the city foreclosed on the property last December, Bowe said. The city plans to sell the four-story building and the 4.39 acres it sits on. The site is valued at $1.34 million.

The city contracted with Stuart Environmental Associates in Medford earlier this year to do a state-mandated environmental assessment of the building.

That's when the investigators found the documents and materials.

Doug Stuart of Stuart Environmental said he informed Woodbury officials and called the Pentagon because he did not know whether the material was sensitive.

``You really don't know how unique or classified a document is until you have the Department of Defense come in,'' he said.

Larry Molnar, a Department of Defense investigator, inspected the site last month and told city officials to dispose of the blueprints and molds for weapons at a nearby military base. There, the materials could be distributed to other federal agencies or turned in to scrap.

The city, which has increased security around the plant, plans to do just that. Stuart said he has drafted letters to Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force base, asking if he can drop the materials off there.
Sharon Gavin, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department's Defense Logistics Agency, said the Forway inspection was something new for the agency, and for Molnar.

``It was the first time he'd ever run into a situation like this.''

The factory as is appeared under Forway Industries stewardship.
Note the Forway name over the doorway. Photo: Dave Homer Collection.
Thankfully this particular chapter in the building's history is now past. G.G. Green's former million-dollar-producing factory, despite its shady past, was lovingly restored in 2001 by International Senior Development LLC, and is now home to the Woodbury Mews Senior Living center, yet another successful case for adaptive reuse in the City of Woodbury.

Read more about the involvement of Forway Industries and the Iran Contra Affair in the full text transcription in the Report of the congressional committees investigating the Iran- Contra Affair : with supplemental, minority, and additional views.