By John Burton
RED BANK – Peter Primavera is quite serious about the efforts being made by him and a coalition to save and preserve the T. Thomas Fortune House.
“We’re not fooling around and we don’t want this house to deteriorate any more,” said Primavera, who is mounting a full-court press to save the site.
The house at 94 Drs. James Parker Blvd. was home to and owned by Fortune, a noted late 19th- and early 20th-century African-American journalist, publisher, author and civil rights activist. The structure has been listed as a national historic landmark since 1976. There are only 2,500 such landmarks throughout the country, the highest designation for a historically significant site, said Primavera of Plainfield.
The designation puts the location on the same list as the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and the White House, he said.
There are only 55 such sites in New Jersey, and only three in the state associated with African-American history, he said.
“The Thomas Fortune House is the single most important building in Red Bank,” said Primavera.
Primavera, president of the National Landmark Alliance that oversees and advocates for historically significant sites, is also the founding partner for Peter Primavera Partners, which specializes in historic preservation and cultural archeology. Primavera said he is working with the alliance, Garden State Legacy and a variety of groups to form the coalition dedicated to preserving the site.
There have been attempts to save the location from demolition in the past with local organizations doing what they could. But this effort, Primavera said, will take it up more than a few notches with the coalition already reaching out to the National Park Service, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation New Jersey, plus elected officials from every level of government and local organizations like the Red Bank Men’s Club.
“We’re using our ability to reach a much larger network with much more substantial resources,” he said.
Along with those groups, Primavera also has looked to contact Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning author who teaches at Princeton University and Cornell West, Henry Louis Gates and Julian Bond – all prominent intellectual voices – to rally their support for the project.
Other important voices being heard on the building’s preservation are those belonging to the property owners, with Primavera constantly in contact with them, ensuring they remain a partner in the process, he said.
The Vaccarelli family has owned the house and property for more than three generations. Originally emigrating from Italy, the family settled in the area, for many years living there and operating a bakery on the property.
In the past, things had gotten contentious among preservationists and the owners. While the family is trying to sell the property, those trying to save the homestead point to Preservation New Jersey which a few years ago named the home as one of the most endangered historic sites in the state. Primavera insists the owners “are not adversaries. They are partners to save this house.”
The Victorian-style house was probably built sometime between 1860 and 1885, with Fortune living there between 1901 and 1915.
Fortune (1858-1928) was born a slave in Florida and eventually attended Howard University, though he was largely self-educated. He worked as a reporter for a number of Florida newspapers, went on to publish about 30 books and established and published the New York Freeman and the New York Age. Some sources credit him with coining the term “Afro-American,” with Fortune founding the Afro-American League, a precursor to the NAACP.
He entertained in his Red Bank home the likes of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey, “the political leaders, activists, intellectuals of his day,” Primavera noted.
“We’re talking about an incredibly important person and a national landmark,” he said.
“This man’s life was huge in that period and he lived right here in Red Bank,” said Mark Fitzsimmons, chairman of the borough’s Historic Preservation Commission, which is offering its support to the preservation efforts.
The tentative long-term plan is to raise enough money to buy the site and then develop it as a cultural center and museum to be used by educators and area organizations. Some thought has been given to having exhibits dedicated to not only Fortune but borough native son Count Basie and Vaccarelli family history, he said.
Primavera and Fitzsimmons haven’t been inside the structure – it has been closed and boarded up for a number of years – but they believe it is structurally sound but in need of considerable work.
Former preservation commission chairman, George Bowden, who is also a member of Preservation Red Bank, called the house a “classic example of demolition by neglect.”
The property has been on the market for a number of years, listed between $1 million and $1.4 million. “We’re probably going to have to reach up in that range to buy it,” he said. The group will likely have to raise “the better part of that amount all over again to restore, rehabilitate the building.
“We’ll continue to shake every whatever tree we can to find whatever resources, financial capabilities, available,” he said.