DEP commissioner gives Morven development plan a second chance

Continuation of application approved; modifications expected

By: David Campbell
   As one of his last official acts, outgoing state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell has granted Historic Morven Inc. a continuation of its application for approval of a master plan to remake its estate grounds.
   In a Jan. 9 letter to Morven attorney Christopher DeGrezia, Mr. Campbell granted a request by the attorney to continue the application to the Feb. 23 meeting of the state Historic Sites Council, which voted 4-3 last month to recommend the application’s denial.
   "I find that the council accepted your argument that a new visitor/administrative center is needed, but that the council believed that the proposed design solution was too intrusive to recommend approval of the Master Plan," Mr. Campbell wrote.
   He said he is asking the council to set aside its recommendation for denial and further consider a plan that has been revised to address the council’s concerns. However, he said the applicant will have to waive its rights to a departmental decision within the statutory 120-day review period — or, he noted, he would have to deny the application.
   Morven Executive Director Martha Wolf said Tuesday her organization will provide the council with the additional information it has requested and seek to address its concerns at next month’s meeting. She said the council wanted to see what new construction on the site might look like. Responding to those concerns, she said her organization plans to consult with its architects about preparing designs.
   "I do think it’s important for them to feel comfortable with the way the buildings look," she said. "One thing Historic Morven Inc. doesn’t want to do is have a negative impact on our historic building. This is our prime artifact."
   Mr. DeGrezia said that, given the concerns raised by the council, adjustments to the master plan must be made, but he said it is too soon to discuss specifics. "Clearly, we’re willing to work with them," he said. He noted that at the meeting last month, the council and applicant "simply ran out of time" and were unable to fully "flesh out concerns."
   Morven’s initial plans were to add an administrative building and a visitors’ center on either side of the estate and demolish the pool, pool house and tennis court complex in the rear.
   Morven Museum and Garden, owned by the state and operated by Historic Morven Inc., was constructed by Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton in the 1750s. The Route 206 mansion was later home to Gen. Robert Wood Johnson and served as the governor’s mansion from 1954 until 1982.
   At the council’s Dec. 15 meeting, members struggled to come to a decision and ultimately voted narrowly to recommend the application’s denial. In particular, council members criticized what they said was the vagueness of the plans and asked for more specific information about the proposed new buildings.
   The size of the buildings was identified — the visitors’ center is slated for roughly 5,000 square feet, and the administrative facility is planned to be 2,600 square feet — but Morven representatives said they had not yet been designed by New York-based Rafael Vinoly Architects.
   Council members also favored retaining the 1940s pool house, arguing that it contributes to an understanding of Morven as a governor’s mansion.
   In his letter, Mr. Campbell cited several issues raised by the council that he said Historic Morven Inc. should address.
   Given the statewide and national significance of the property, he wrote, Morven should discuss its project with the National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks program, the New Jersey Historic Trust, which has invested more than $1.17 million in Morven’s restoration, and Preservation New Jersey, among others.
   He cited the council’s concerns about the impact of two new buildings on the historic character of the site, and recommended consideration instead of one building possibly in the parking lot or pool-house area. Also among the issues to be addressed, he asked the organization to consider areas of less archaeological significance for new construction, and raised the matter of preserving the pool house if possible.