Developer Destroys Historic Slave House in Paramus
Despite a developer's wishes, descendants of slave owners and slaves bonded in an attempt to preserve house steeped in local history.
PARAMUS - A piece of African-American and Bergen County history was turned to rubble after a Paramus developer chose not to preserve the 18th century structure slated to become a museum.
The rare Dutch sandstone architecture known as the Zabriskie Tenant House at 273 Dunkerhook Road in Paramus was once home to the prominent Zabriskies; one of Bergen County’s founding families; and the Bennett and the Stewart families, slaves that built the structure in 1790.
On Thursday, developer, Quattro 4, LLC, had a backhoe brought onto the property, and by Friday 9am, and without warning, they had most of the classic structure crushed to the ground. Only the staircase that led to the entrance was left standing surrounded by debris.
Darryl Harris, grandson of Samuel Bennett, one of the original slaves who resided at the home, said Bergen Community College had agreed to move the house to their campus as recent as three weeks ago.
“It [grant] was about to go through, and today were finding out they’re [developer] just knocking the house down,” said Harris, a Paterson resident who teaches science at John F. Kennedy High School in his hometown. “Their lawyer claims he didn’t even know they were knocking it down.”
Mark Sokolich, Fort Lee’s mayor and the attorney representing Quattro 4, LLC, could not be reached for comment.
A partner in Quattro 4, Marcello Petruzella, told northjersey.com that they had been "super patient" waiting for demolition, and plan to incorporate original materials in the two-home subdivision. Some items of historical significance will be "made available" to the county, he reportedly said.
It's of little consolation to those who have spent years saving the home.
Tim Harris, the other grandson of Bennett, was distraught by the fact Quattro 4, LLC, who plans to build two large homes on the site, did not allow historians and community leaders attempting to preserve the home and its contents, the opportunity to save some or all of the structure.
“You can touch this. It’s a part of history that’s tangible,” explained Tim Harris. “And that makes it more real than reading a story from a book.”
No one seemed to understand that better than 12-year-old Hassan Izzard, representing the youngest generation of Bennett slave decedents, who looked at the battered staircase, splintered wood, and shattered glass windows in despair.
“I’m sad because eight generations ago, my great, great grandparents lived here, and I’m mad because they [developer] tore it down,” said Izzard.
Despite listings on the National Register of Historic Places, the Bergen County Historic Sites Survey, and Preservation New Jersey’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in New Jersey, the home could not be saved.
“It [listings] only protects it from government intervention,” said Elmwood Park resident Joe Suplicki, a historian for the Village of Ridgewood, who is a descendant of the slave-owning Zabriskie family.
As he stood with the Harris family looking at the destruction that only took an hour, he thought about the two-year effort to save the home that links both families, and the 200 years of American history that bonds them forever.
He also acknowledged the fact that private owners can do as they please when the Borough lacks an active historic preservation commission.
“If there’s a historic preservation commission in the town, they can have rules on what you can do to the outside the house,” Suplicki added.
But the Borough of Paramus does not have an active historic preservation commission, which could have saved the iconic home from destruction, had such a commission voted to spare the home.
“There’s a commission on the books, but there are no members,” Suplicki added. “So there is no one to review the application as required by their law that if someone wants to come and knock this down, the application has to be reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission.”
The same developer has already torn down similar homes in the area which were once part of a thriving African-American Dunkerhook community of freed slaves that existed from the 1820’s to the 1930’s.
The effort to save the Zabriskie home started two years ago says Suplicki’s wife, Peggy Norris. She said Ted Manvell, the homeowner at 263 Dunkerhook Road, which is adjacent to the Zabriskie home, fought Quattro’s petition to subdivide the property and demolish the house since July 2010.
Their fight included testimony at Planning Board hearings, and appeals to the developer and the original owner. In the end, the Planning Board approved the subdivision and demolition.
“Quattro had several options for saving the house, including, creative subdivision of the property,” said Norris.
Norris said Freeholder John Mitchell was presently in negotiations with Quattro and Bergen Community College to move the house to the campus to be used as a learning center and educational site for future generations of students and citizens.
According to Norris, Sal Petruzelli, and the other co-owners of Quattro 4, LLC, were unwilling to wait for the details of this option to unfold and had the Zabriskie House destroyed without warning.
“No arrangements were made with local architects or historians to document the house or salvage any of the 18th and 19th century materials used in its construction," Norris said.
The developer could not be reached prior to publication.