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Your Part in History

An invitation to join historic preservation efforts in Bridgeton.

by Patricia A. Martinelli

Anyone who has ever owned a historic home or building knows that it comes with certain challenges that are often quite expensive to support to preserve its integrity. For many people, especially here in South Jersey, those prohibitive costs are usually the reason why so many 18th and 19th century buildings have fallen into disrepair. Or, worse yet, have been purposefully demolished.

Every so often, however, champions for the historic preservation of a community’s built landscape gather together to reclaim such structures. One such group that has been working quietly for almost two decades in Bridgeton is the Center for Historic American Building Arts, often referred to as CHABA.

Passionate about preservation, CHABA’s membership includes a diverse group of architects, engineers, interested area residents and students. Dr. Flavia Alaya, who became a cofounder of the organization after moving to Bridgeton in 2006, is an artist, author and professor who became interested in historic preservation while teaching college in Paterson. The desire to stay involved in the work remained after she moved south with her husband, Edward (Sandy) Feddema, a CHABA volunteer.

Bridgeton, the seat of Cumberland County, was once an industrial giant that is the site of buildings and private homes dating from America’s pre-Colonial days. Over the years, the town was home to many successful businesses, including the Cumberland Nail & Iron Works and the Ferracute Machine Company. Ferracute, despite its status on the National Register of Historic Places, was never restored and then lost four years ago to a devastating fire that led to its demolition. The machine works that included an office building, a forge and woodworking shop was owned in the 1860s by nationally known inventor Oberlin Smith and his brother Frederick.

Protecting the former Nail Works office that stands in city park is currently an ongoing project for the organization. CHABA has gathered artifacts and records of the company that are on exhibit for visitors to enjoy (Nail House Museum is pictured).

“We want to make sure that the Nail House is a resource not just for students of history but also people who are interested in architecture, ecology, social science and more,” Alaya said.

Like many South Jersey communities, Bridgeton was damaged by an economic slump as industries began to disappear. However, in the midst of the loss, a plan was born to preserve not just the “grand dames” that stood overlooking the city park but to save the homes of the workers, as well. In total, more than 2,000 buildings were incorporated into the plan. Like her fellow CHABA members, Alaya sees Bridgeton as a microcosm reflecting changes that were common throughout the United States.

The CHABA trustees and their dedicated volunteers especially want to encourage interest from residents who live in the two-family houses spread throughout the city, which were built as homes for the factory workers. To help them become better caretakers of their historic properties, the organization has created the “Historic Homes Stewardship Initiative” to help people learn why it is important to preserve their homes and businesses. The guidelines are available in both English and Spanish, a project supervised by architect Maria Cerda-Moreno, a CHABA trustee, since Bridgeton has a substantial Latino population. Workshops are open to the public to answer questions about the proper rehabilitation or restoration of a property. In addition, videos are available on CHABA’s Youtube.com channel.

For more about CHABA programs or to volunteer, visit 28 W. Commerce St., Bridgeton or online at centerhabarts.org, call 856-221-3239, or e-mail centerhabarts@gmail.com.