Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the November 28, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Hopewell Station — Back on Track

On any given day, about 25 trains rumble past the

Hopewell

Railroad Station. In past years when the station sat dilapidated and

empty, the reverberations merely shook loose some dust, vermin, and

perhaps a few ghosts. But these days the old building is literally

teeming with new life.

"The first floor is used as a community center," says

councilman

David Knights, who, along with former councilman Mark Samse, has

served

as the driving force in the restoration of the 19th-century building.

"It’s a small town, and the first floor gets used for a little

bit of everything, from art shows, to kids’ birthday parties, Girl

Scout meetings, local homeowners’ groups, and meetings of the cemetery

association."

In an interview that took place on the neatly restored benches of

what was once the station’s passenger waiting area, Knights discusses

the hurdles he and his Hopewell neighbors faced in making the project

a reality. "Although there were some painful moments along the

way, it is incredibly gratifying that it has all turned out as well

as it has," says Knights.

Built in 1876, the Hopewell Railroad Station is one of the oldest

stations in New Jersey. In 1984 it was placed on the National Register

of Historic Places. Just a couple of blocks from Hopewell’s main

thoroughfare,

Broad Street, the elegantly detailed Second Empire red-brick building

stood dormant for over a dozen years.

The station in Hopewell served as a working railroad station for over

100 years, flourishing as a stop on the line that ran from Bound Brook

to West Trenton. But its usage declined steadily over the years, and

by 1969 there were only two trains a day running between Newark and

Philadelphia. Passenger service was taken over by New Jersey Transit

in the 1970s, then finally abandoned entirely in 1981. The station

was then purchased by developer Bernie Fedor in 1984 for $84,000.

He sought to restore it and turn it into a restaurant. But after

beginning

restorations, primarily on the roof, Fedor was forced to abandon the

work in 1989.

In 1993, the Borough of Hopewell received an anonymous donation of

$250,000 to be put toward the purchase of the station and its 4.3

acre site. After putting up an additional $65,000, the borough

purchased

the station and quickly formed a committee, chaired by then-councilman

Samse, to determine what to do with it. Pennington’s railroad station,

built at the same time, was previously restored and converted to an

apartment building.

"We immediately did a survey, distributed door to door, asking

local residents what should be done with the station," says

Knights.

"We got an incredible response ratio, over 85 percent. So right

off the bat there was a lot of community support."

Looking back on it now, Knights views the results of the survey as

oddly prophetic.

"It’s weird how it turned out. It came out that the highest

priority

should be on community uses and that no borough money ought to go

into it," says Knights. "That’s how it turned out and I’m

very proud of that. But it’d be nice to say that we were always

focused

and on the right track, but we weren’t. The pieces came together over

the next six years, and quite randomly."

Despite age and neglect, the building was still in good shape when

the borough took it over. "The structure was basically sound,"

says Knights. "Nobody ever voiced a comment about tearing down

the railroad station." On the other hand, a freight shed on the

same property and built at the same time was within year of collapsing

on its own. "It probably should have been torn down," says

Knights. But subsequent grant money allowed for significant

restoration.

"It is now the most structurally sound building in Hopewell

Borough,"

he adds with a smile.

But at this point, although the borough owned the property, there

was no money in place for the actual restoration. Money had to be

found.

"We did a lot of research to determine what grants the project

might qualify for," says Michael Mills, who is partner in charge

of historical restoration at Ford Fairwell Mills and Gatsch, the

Carnegie

Center architectural firm selected to prepare restoration plans.

"That

took some time. We figured out that the project would be a prime

candidate

for a Transportation Enhancement grant from the U.S. Department of

Transportation." The committee prepared the grant application,

and the borough received a grant of $703,400 from the U.S. Department

of Transportation for exterior restorations in 1994.

Mills, also a Hopewell resident, was impressed with the committee’s

motivation and determination. "Everyone did an excellent job.

That’s a real challenge for a volunteer group to organize itself and

do all the photography and get cost estimates together for the

restoration,"

says Mills. "It’s an incredible amount of work and we actually

presented a very professional grant application." The following

year the project was awarded an additional $586,050 from the New

Jersey

Historic Trust to be put toward design work and interior restorations.

Receiving the grant proved to be the key to the realization of the

project. "After we got the DOT grant, we were off and

running,"

says Mills. "Then when it was clear that there was support for

this project, the other grant from the trust just fell into line."

Mills grew up in Ohio, where his father worked as a chemical engineer

and his mother was a housewife. He graduated from Princeton University

in 1973 and received his master’s degree in historic preservation

from Columbia in 1980. He now lives about a block from the restored

station, with his wife and three children.

After the bulk of the money for the restoration was secured (including

some donated services from the Ford Farewell Mills firm), the nuts

and bolts part of the job began. A paint analysis was undertaken by

Joel Snodgrass of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island

Antiquities in order to determine the original paint colors of the

interior and exterior of the building. In January, 1999, a

construction

contract with Haverstick-Borthwick was signed and construction began

and continued until June, 2000.

Also at this time, Samse resigned as chair of the committee and was

replaced by Knights. "I can’t tell you how important Mark (Samse)

was to this thing," says Knights. Samse, also fortuitously an

architect (with CUH2A), "put in five years of behind-the-scenes

work, doing all the less visible stuff like pulling together the money

and filling out applications. I’ve had the relatively easier work,

like overseeing the architects and contractors and things like

that."

"Michael Mills and his firm were also invaluable," says

Knights.

"You just can’t measure the role they played. A good example would

be the cresting — that’s $17,000 worth of metal along the top

of the building. This was a major issue because we were about to run

out of money. It had only been on the station between 1880 and 1920,

then it started to rot and rust. So for most people’s lifetimes that

cresting was never there. But that’s the kind of detail that Mills

was able to pursue and to convince us to go ahead with, over a lot

of objections. Yet it provides a real finishing touch to the

building."

Another major influence on the project is Kevin Kirby, an Eagle Scout

and junior at Hopewell Valley Central High School.

"Kevin came to us in May of 1999 with a full booklet of ideas

to complete the interior renovation of the freight shed," explains

Knights. "It’s going to be a center for both Boy and Girl Scouts.

It’s one of the most ambitious Eagle Scout projects you can ever

imagine.

He has contractors helping him. He’s doing a great job."

Knights grew up in Massachusetts, where both his parents

worked as school teachers. He graduated from Brown University in 1978

with a degree in American Colonial history. He then went on to

Harvard,

where he received his MBA in 1980. Now he is the leasing agent for

Picus Associates, developers of the Princeton Forrestal Center for

Princeton University. He and his wife, an educational consultant,

live in Hopewell with their three children.

"It’s funny, because my undergraduate degree is a kind of tie-in

with this type of work," says Knights. "I also used to

renovate

buildings like this when I lived in Boston. So there was some natural

fit there."

Knights believes that the preservation of historic buildings like

the Hopewell Railroad Station is important in an economic sense as

well as an historic and esthetic sense. "Going into this, it was

our hope that the restoration would have a positive economic impact

on the area, and that certainly has been playing out in great

shape,"

says Knights. "We figured that if we made the investment with

public money and did it right, then other private-sector people would

do the same. There’s a hairdresser now located across the street in

a beautifully restored building, an ice cream shop opened here last

summer, and there’s a new store on the corner. The whole area has

taken on a new meaning since we started this."

In addition, the railroad station is self-supporting. While the first

floor is a community center, the second floor is rented by the Bunbury

Company, a low-profile charitable foundation — named after an

unseen character in Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being

Earnest."

"Because we made the million-dollar investment, and because the

building looks so great after the restoration, their interest was

sparked," says Knights. "We negotiated with them from last

December to this September when they moved in. They’re paying

market-rate

rent." The Bunbury Company, headed by attorney Sam Lambert, had

been located in Princeton for the past 17 years, most recently at

169 Nassau Street.

Having a full-time tenant for the building was important from both

a security standpoint as well as a financial one. "I was worried

that we would put all the money into the building and then have it

sit empty," says Knights. "If all of a sudden, a rock gets

tossed through a window, it takes two weeks to fix and a slow process

of deterioration begins."

While there has been some talk about once again using the building

as a train station, that is, at best, a distant possibility. "It’s

a very complicated subject, maybe applicable 10 to 12 years in the

future," says Knights. "The key factor is that New Jersey

Transit has no ability to use this property for parking. The property

is owned by the borough. So if there is passenger service, it has

got to occur somewhere else, not right here."

But for Knights, the heart of the restored building is the community

center.

"I come here for birthday parties, my kids come here, the building

is used three or four times a week," says Knights. "The best

reactions are when people walk in the door and look at this room,

you see it on their faces. We had our first art show in here a couple

weeks ago. The doors were open, it was just a neat feeling in

here."

And one need not be a resident of Hopewell to access the building.

"People will say to me, `Gee, I wish I lived in the borough and

could use this space.’ I tell them that there’s no rule that you have

to live here to use it. Sure, if we ever have conflicts, yes, a

borough

resident gets priority. But we’ve had East Amwell functions here,

and people from other places in the valley. The fact is the building

should be used."

The coming weekend, Saturday and Sunday, December 1 and 2, the

building

will host another art exhibition, a ceramics show and sale sponsored

by the Morpeth Gallery of Hopewell (see story, page 28).

Knights is gratified at how the community has responded to the

restoration.

"We’ve recently had an art show here, and we have the ceramics

show coming up," says Knights. "The Girl Scouts use it every

Sunday night. The people who use the building have a real stake in

it. It’s a great place to be. Especially if you’re in here when a

train goes by — It can give you goose bumps."

— Jack Florek

Historic Hopewell Train Station, 2 Railroad Place,

Hopewell.

There is no charge to use the community space. Call 609-452-7219.


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