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Historical society sues NJDOT for razing 1700s Hugg-Harrison house

The Camden County Historical Society's lawsuit contends that the DOT ignored the well-documented historical significance of the 18th century structure.

Chris Perks (left), president of the Camden County Historical Society, and attorney Matthew Litt  announce a suit against the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The backdrop shows images of the 1764 Hugg-Harrison-Glover House before and after it was leveled.
Chris Perks (left), president of the Camden County Historical Society, and attorney Matthew Litt announce a suit against the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The backdrop shows images of the 1764 Hugg-Harrison-Glover House before and after it was leveled.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The fix was in, the die was cast, the deck was stacked — and thus, a piece of American history that survived the Revolutionary War was lost to a highway construction project.

That's the thrust of a lawsuit the Camden County Historical Society filed in U.S. District Court in Camden on Wednesday, seeking some sort of justice for the shocking destruction of the Hugg-Harrison-Glover House in Bellmawr.

The suit names as defendants the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

It claims NJDOT unilaterally decreed the house ineligible to be included in the protective embrace of the National Register of Historic Places,  despite evidence — the department's initial findings included — to the contrary.

Preserving history apparently was much less important than ensuring the future of the $900 million I-295/Route 42 "Direct Connection" project; the lawsuit also alleges that the demolition violated requirements of the federal Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

"The New Jersey Department of Transportation does not comment on pending litigation," communications director Stephen Schapiro said via email Thursday.

The former farmhouse, a Colonial militia captain's residence and later Catholic cemetery management office, had stood on a bluff near Big Timber Creek from the mid-18th century until just before dawn March 3.

That's when a crew hired by NJDOT, which had acquired the property from the Diocese of Camden through eminent domain, moved in under state police protection and reduced the structure to rubble.

The state took the action ostensibly because the regionally distinctive patterned brick house lacked architectural or historical significance — and was in the path of a component of the massive Direct Connection project.

But as the historical society's board president, Chris Perks, said Thursday, the location of a noise barrier could easily have been adjusted to spare the house while not unduly impinging upon residents of the nearly Bellmawr Park neighborhood.

At a news conference Thursday, Perks also noted that no new construction activity was evident on the site where the house once stood, even four months after NJDOT acted with such seeming haste.

The demolition began and ended just a day after the society filed an emergency application with Superior Court to block such a move. And while NJDOT officials insisted they were unaware of the pending legal action, heavily redacted emails obtained through public records requests suggest otherwise, Perks said.

"This house [was] truly a national historic treasure … until the [NJDOT] summarily and without notice demolished it," he said, adding that the structure played a role in the 1777 Battle of Gloucester, which more or less jump-started the military career of the young Marquis de Lafayette.

The lawsuit seeks "ways to mitigate the effects of the wrongful demolition of the house," he said, adding that "such measures might include construction of a replica house, a Revolutionary War museum, or a monument" at the site.

"There is no longer anything that can be done to reverse the irreparable harm done to the Harrison house," Perks said. "But those responsible will be held accountable."

The Historic Preservation Act "is very pragmatic," noted Matthew R. Litt, the lawyer representing the society. "It balances interests by assigning obligations to the agencies in charge to act in good faith [and consult] with the public."

But in demolishing the house, he added, the state had failed to act in good faith.

I'll say.

When preservationists and others in the community became aware three years ago that the house was to be demolished, they organized an impressive, heartfelt, and patriotic campaign to save it.

The Borough of Bellmawr lined up a new site for the house; Camden County was ready to provide a $50,000 grant to help pay moving costs, and local residents signed petitions, made videos, and even marched in the appropriately ragtag garb of a Colonial militia during Bellmawr's 2016 Fourth of July parade.

I get the fact that threading a new stretch of I-295 up and over the 42 Freeway via massive new elevated structures — in a complex, densely populated, and traffic-clogged environment — is no simple matter.

Eliminating that crazy Al-Jo curve and the rest of that dangerous. merge-or-die confluence of  two busy expressways will be no small achievement.

But the Hugg-Harrison house was not just some old ruin beloved by a handful of history buffs.

It was witness to and, some would argue, participant in the creation of a nation, surely deserving of the sort of thorough and fair assessment provided for by that nation's laws.

That's not what it got from the State of New Jersey. Let's hope federal court will help right that wrong.