League Restores City Mansion
(Reprinted with permission from the Times – February 19, 2007)
By Eva Loayza, Staff Writer
TRENTON – Bill Dressel looked at the skeleton that was all that was left of the Ferdinand W. Roebling Sr. Mansion on West State Street and became very nervous.
The New Jersey League of Municipalities was considering the building – once home to the second son of industrial giant John Roebling – for its new headquarters, but Dressel, league executive director, did not expect to find it in such a sad, faded state.
“The property was in horrible, horrible condition,” said Dressel. Water damage had wreaked havoc on the front room, he said. The room was all pine and extremely ornate, but because it was open to the elements, he said, “it literally caved in.”
Ginny Hook, president of the 222 Corporation, the committee charged with finding a new location for the league headquarters, said, “When we opened the front door, there was nothing. Just four walls, the dirt and the sky. Nothing in between.
“Looking at what had to have been done to make this property a viable headquarters building made me extremely nervous,” said Dressel.
But Hook and the committee had the vision to see past the worst of the damage.
“It was worth it,” said Hook, seated with Dressel in a meeting room in the newly renovated building. “I always knew that even though it was a huge mess, it could be gorgeous.”
After about 16 months worth of work and spending double what they originally estimated for the project, the league has moved into its new home. The sale of the league’s former home at 407 W. State St. should be finalized later this month.
In its new location, the league occupies the basement, the first level and about one-third of the second floor – about 7,500 square feet of the 15,000 square feet of space. The remaining space is available for rent. An open house is planned for early March.
The league plans an official dedication ceremony in late March. Adding to the h historical allure of the building are paintings of the Roebling family, including one of Ferdinand W. Roebling, Sr., which are on loan from the city museum.
Roebling, who worked as secretary/treasurer of the Roebling Wire Company founded by his father in 1849, purchased his home in 1870 from U.S. Senator John P. Stockton. All three Roebling sons owned homes on West State Street in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Ferdinand Roebling’s is the only one that remains standing.
The league purchased the building from the city for $164,000 in 2005. It expected to spend $3 million on the project, but costs reached $6 million.
The project was funded with nearly $1.4 million in low-interest loans from the state Economic Development Authority and a $3.6 million loan provided by Wachovia Bank under the federal new markets tax credits program. A $750,000 grant from the Garden State Historic Preservation Trust Fund also helped fund the restoration project.
Architect John Hatch of Clarke, Caton, Hintz, the firm retained by the league, said the property was in worse shape then they had feared. The back of the building was completely bare; there was some floor structure and just the walls left, he said. “It kind of looked like a really deteriorated dollhouse,” said Hatch.
Hatch said the house was built in stages. Additional wings were added in the back when it became an office building sometime in the 1930s. He said the former owner tore down the back additions, so that eventually the only original portion left was the part of the building closest to West State Street.
Hatch said they were able to preserve 90 percent of the wood paneling in the front hall and near the stairs, along with the stairs and stained-glass windows. The plaster work in the meeting and reception rooms in the front was re-created, but the mantels are original. The iron gate that greets visitors and ironwork over the windows are also original, he said.
“If the league hadn’t stepped in when they did, it would not have been salvageable,” he said. “They’re real heroes because they preserved a real important part of Trenton, New Jersey and American history.
Dressel said the league began looking at properties to relocate its headquarters about six years ago, when it became evident that its service program had to be expanded.
Dressel said Hook and the committee took inventory of all the properties on West State Street. The league also had its real estate agent survey every property, vacant land and existing buildings to see what was available, what had enough parking and space to meet the league’s immediate and future needs.
Dressel said they considered expanding their former headquarters, but they could not run computer wires through the building’s thick block walls. They thought about buying the property behind the building, but that fell through, said Dressel.
So they went back to the mansion, which by then had been condemned by the city. Developer Sidney Sussman, who owned the property, wanted to demolish what remained and building an office building. The city stepped in after protests from the Landmarks Commission and took it by eminent domain.
It was a major undertaking, and Dressel sometimes wondered if it wouldn’t have been best to acquire an existing building or even move to the suburbs.
But their commitment was to the city, which apparently extends beyond location. Dressel said the league chooses to pay property taxes when it can exercise its non-profit status for a tax exemption. He said the league lobbies for initiatives to reduce property taxes and feels a duty to pay and “show that we, as a statewide association have a responsibility to share in the financial obligations to support the city.”
Mayor Douglas H. Palmer called the restoration of the mansion “truly a Trenton success story” and commended the league for sticking to its renovation plans despite the expense. Palmer said the project also demonstrates the city’s pledge to work with for-profit and non-profit developers to save historical structures and put them back in use. He said the city continues to make progress in restoring abandoned buildings, but it requires will, patience and resources.
With so much negative press given to eminent-domain acquisitions, the renovation of the mansion really is a success story,” said Dressel. The league was able to give something back to the city by restoring one of its most famous mansions and delivering a signature property on West State Street, he added.
That’s important to Dressel, who was always drawn to the mansion, which he passed many times on his way to the Statehouse as a lobbyist in the 1970s and then once with former Mayor Arthur Holland in the early 1980s.
“We believe as a statewide lobbying organization that we belong in the state capital,” said Dressel. “We feel we are part of its history and like to feel we are part of its future.”
Contact Eva Loayza at email@example.com or (609) 989-5717