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Emerson’s Historic Borough Hall: Will It Stay Or Will It Go?

The stately Emerson Borough Hall, a Works Progress Administration building built in 1938 and 1939, the heyday of FDR's New Deal. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Jill Manell Maguire contends Emerson's Borough Hall has historic value and should be preserved. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Emerson Mayor Lou Lamatina says he and the Borough Council are inclined toward keeping Emerson's Borough Hall and building additional needed space. Photo Credit: Facebook

EMERSON, N.J. — An Emerson woman has started a campaign to preserve the borough’s historic town hall building, even as Mayor Lou Lamatina says the building is not in jeopardy.

The town hall was built under the Works Progress Administration, one of FDR’s New Deal programs, according to a plaque on the building.

It was officially dedicated to much fanfare, including a parade, on Sept. 23, 1939 under then-Mayor Philip Ambrosine, according to a local history of the borough.

“When discussion began to renovate or replace the Emerson Borough Hall, my own family home’s stately neighbor, I realized my admiration of the building had to transition to action,” said Jill Manell McGuire.

Her Facebook page — Emerson, NJ Borough Hall Preservation Efforts — started last weekend.

As of Tuesday, it had 50 followers.

Since she started the campaign, McGuire had Emerson Borough Hall — and the 11 murals inside it added to the national registry of The Living New Deal project .

“I sat through many mayor and council meetings, in which I shared my concerns over the destruction of the building,” McGuire said.

“However, I did not gain a sense that my message was fully being heard.”

She was particularly alarmed, she explained, when the borough was selecting architects to share their vision of the borough’s municipal complex.

Some versions envisioned destroying the current building, Mayor Lamatina acknowledged.

But that doesn’t mean either he or the governing body share that vision.

Once council members choose an architect with which to work, the mayor said, they will consider its recommendations with regard to renovation and a new building on Locust Avenue.

Locust Avenue is the street behind the municipal building.

“The members of the council whom I have heard from are not inclined to demolish the existing Borough Hall,” Lamatina said.

“Rather, we are inclined to renovate Borough Hall and construct a new structure across the street for the additional square footage we need,” he added. “I share in that viewpoint.”

Architects retained by the council three years ago concluded the borough needs to at least double its space for municipal purposes.

The issue of adding and renovating municipal space arose recently in tandem with talks about JMF Properties potentially building a two-building, four-story development in the same neighborhood.

JMF has no say in what the town decides to do with its municipal buildings, said JMF spokesman Kevin Codey.

As part of the redevelopment deal, though, the firm has agreed to do two things for the borough.

First, it will construct a new ambulance corps facility.

Second, it will be the general contractor for whatever the borough decides to do with its municipal spaces, according to Lamatina.

“JMF’s agreement to serve as general contractor will save the borough hundreds of thousands of dollars on the renovations/new construction,” the mayor said.

He added that JMF’s agreement to become involved with the municipal spaces caused Emerson to buy two lots on Locust Avenue and put out a request for bids from architects.

Emerson’s Borough Hall is not listed on Bergen County’s historic sites survey, according to Cynthia Forster, director of the county’s Division of Cultural and Historic Affairs.

The county would have no say in what the borough does with the building, she said.

“But the state would,” Forster explained. “Emerson would have to go to the state Historic Preservation Office before anything was done with the building.

“Quite obviously,” she added, “there is great value to WPA buildings and to the artwork that was commissioned at that time.”

The borough’s historic preservation commission is not functioning, officials said.

Given that, Forster explained, support of the building would fall to local residents.

“As well as any research that could be done at the state level,” she added.

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