By John Burton
Committee still must purchase historic property
RED BANK – The efforts to purchase and preserve the T. Thomas Fortune, are “moving on every direction,” said the man leading the charge.
Peter Primavera, a historic preservation specialist and cultural archeologist, has been heading a committee working to save the deteriorating west side former home of Fortune, a noted late-19th and early-20th century African American journalist, author, publisher and civil rights activist.
Primavera said he and committee members are making headway toward their goal of preserving what they see as an important historical site.
“It’s moving in the right direction and a lot of people are involved,” he said. “Without a doubt, there has been substantial progress just in the last month.”
In September, the committee conducted its first local fundraising event during which attendees contributed “a couple of thousand dollars” toward the campaign, distributed about 100 lawn signs – paid for by a new committee member – and garnered the support of Jennifer Moses, Ph.D., a University of Delaware professor and Fortune scholar. She spoke at the fundraiser and detailed Fortune’s historical importance.
A future fundraiser is tentatively scheduled for January at The Two River Theater, according to committee member Gilda Rogers, a local educator and business owner.
“The actual stickler” in moving forward, Primavera said, “is the negotiation with the homeowners.”
The property at 94 Drs. James Parker Blvd., which was Fortune’s home from 1901 to 1915, is privately owned. Members of the Vaccarelli family have lived in the Red Bank-Shrewsbury area for more than three generations. They purchased the property after Fortune left the area at the time the family emigrated from Italy. They used the site for their home and bakery business.
The Victorian-style home, built between 1860 and1865, has remained vacant for many years. It has seriously deteriorated and has been vandalized over the years, even though it has been listed as national historic landmark since 1976, one of only 2,500 in the nation and 55 in New Jersey with the designation. The site’s condition has caused consternation for area historic preservationists and led Preservation New Jersey a few years ago to list it as one of the most endangered historic sites in the state.
The committee is hoping to strike a deal with the owners to buy the house and property, restore it and have it serve as a museum and an active cultural resource, not only about Fortune, but also about the African-American and immigrant communities.
The remaining Vaccarelli family members have divergent interests and that has caused negotiations to move slowly. Recently, state Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, a Red Bank resident, has offered her support for the project and has even helped with the negotiations, Primavera said.
“I think we’re making progress and getting closer and closer to an acceptable agreement,” he said.
The committee is continuing to look for support of its efforts from various groups and elected officials, and has been applying for grants and raising the campaign’s profile nationally.
Primavera and committee members have been working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and with the National Park Services.
The trust, along with its resources, has a board “that is an extensive network of people around the country” including celebrities like singer Gloria Estefan and actress Diane Keaton. The hope is to get them interested and involved, Primavera said.
The National Park Service oversees the National Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Landmarks. “I’m talking to them almost every week,” he said. “They’re providing expertise that works, experience and advice in general.”
To help get the word out, Primavera has been in touch with members of National Association of Black Journalists, which has led to stories in publications in Denver, Chicago, Atlanta and Texas.
Most recently, the Jersey Shore Chapter of the American Institute of Architects has joined the committee and has endorsed the project, he said.
“We’re getting a lot of great advice from a lot of terrific people and we’re excited about the project,” Primavera said.
He cautioned that, “These kinds of projects don’t happen overnight,” and the group members are “doing our best to keep all of our options open.”