The Hugg-Harrison-Glover House, a Bellmawr landmark that survived the Revolutionary War, became a casualty of a highway construction project Friday.
Borough Mayor Frank Filipek said demolition crews arrived with a New Jersey state police escort about 6 a.m. at New St. Mary's Cemetery on West Browning Road, where the house was formerly used for administrative offices.
"I can't believe it," said the mayor, who late last year announced that the borough had found a new location for the house — which had become a cause celebre among historians, officials, and residents.
"I talked to the [state transportation] commissioner's office this morning, and they told me it was their property and they could do whatever they wanted with it."
The New Jersey Department of Transportation took possession of the house and six nearby acres from the cemetery's owner, the Diocese of Camden, about six years ago. The structure stood in the path of the DOT's "Direct Connection" project to reconstruct the I-76, I-295, and Route 42 interchange.
On Thursday — the same day an attorney for the Camden County Historical Society sought an injunction to prevent demolition — Bellmawr issued the state a permit to tear down an adjacent garage, but not the house, the mayor said.
But at midday Friday, the garage still stood but the house, once owned by the commander of a militia involved in two Revolutionary War battles, was a debris field of shattered bricks and broken timbers.
Ellen McDowell, the historical society's attorney, said she had filed a motion in Superior Court seeking an injunction to prevent the state from carrying out the plan to remove the house.
On Friday, she was seeking to amend the motion to prohibit the state from removing the debris. The state earlier refused to allow historians to document the building's interior.
The early morning demolition "was quite a shock," McDowell said.
Chris Perks, president of the society board, used stronger language.
"I would say this is probably the most irresponsible and despicable action by any government agency I've ever witnessed in my life," he said.
"The injunction was filed and a copy was delivered to [NJDOT] out of courtesy," he noted. "And they mobilized their contractor ... [to] tear it down."
The much-altered house was evaluated starting in 2003 as part of the planning for the $900 million Direct Connection project.
But the structure — for which abundant documentation was readily available — was determined to be lacking in historical significance, a conclusion that opened the way to its eventual destruction.
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.) called the demolition "an injustice for all those in the community working to save this landmark," adding that it also represents a loss for South Jersey.
"We've been fighting to negotiate a compromise that would preserve this historic building and allow [the highway project] to move forward," Norcross continued.
"I'm deeply disappointed the New Jersey Department of Transportation destroyed the home without warning."
Margaret Westfield, a historical architect, and Garry Wheeler Stone, an archaeological historian, said the state's evaluation was superficial and the conclusion profoundly flawed.
"This [was] a building that was documented by [a federal] survey in the 1930s as one of our nation's treasures," said Westfield, of Haddon Heights.
Added Stone, a longtime Haddonfield resident now living in Kennett Square: "The house was owned by Capt. William Harrison, commander of the Gloucestertown Township militia company, who was actively involved in the American Revolution."
A statement issued by the DOT communications office Friday afternoon said the house "failed to meet the criteria for the necessary historic associations."
The DOT also contended that the house was too fragile to be moved.
"Years of water damage severely affected the physical integrity of the structure," the statement said, adding that DOT "removed elements of the house, such as railings, doors, and structural components, and have made them available to the historical society if they wish to preserve them."