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
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
David Knights, who, along with former councilman Mark Samse, has
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
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
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
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
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
"We immediately did a survey, distributed door to door, asking
local residents what should be done with the station," says
"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
"It’s weird how it turned out. It came out that the highest
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
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
"It is now the most structurally sound building in Hopewell
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
"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
Center architectural firm selected to prepare restoration plans.
took some time. We figured out that the project would be a prime
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
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
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
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
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
"Michael Mills and his firm were also invaluable," says
"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
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
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
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
buildings like this when I lived in Boston. So there was some natural
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
There is no charge to use the community space. Call 609-452-7219.
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