Volunteer Spotlight – Janet Foster

William Neumann
Director, Preservation New Jersey Board
April 4, 2020

Catching up with Preservation NJ member Janet W. Foster is akin to trying to bottle up a hurricane. As one of New Jersey’s most prominent Architectural Historians, Janet claims to be “retired” but it was only last September that she stepped down from chairing the NJ Historic Trust, and she remains active on their Board.  Moreover, for the past year, as Co-Chair to the Madison Preservation Commission, she has been working to determine the future of her hometown’s Madison Movie Theatre.

Growing up in Pennsylvania, Janet unabashedly fell in love with New Jersey. “In a place where you can drive from one end to another in a relatively short time, it is incredible to experience its diversity in architecture and culture. It is not like any other place!”

Janet has made many contributions to architectural history in New Jersey and beyond. At Drew University’s popular Historic Preservation Certificate Program (operated 2000 – 2011), Professor Foster guided students through NJ vernacular architecture, hands-on paint analysis and other essential coursework. At the same time, she served 12 years across the river as a professor and Assistant Director at Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

Janet was also a co-founder and partner at Acroterion LLC, a cultural resource firm that provided consultation to municipalities and NJ State Historic Preservation Office by developing documentary records and physical investigations on historic assets throughout the region. During that time, she prepared National Register nominations, Historic Structure Reports and inventories, and even worked through the complexities of ordinance development and Preservation Master Plans for several NJ communities.

Janet’s research on vernacular architecture and America’s flood of pattern and builder’s publications resulted in two influential books; The Queen Anne House: America’s Victorian Vernacular, [Harry N. Abrams, Publisher, 2006] and Building By The Book: Pattern-book Architecture in New Jersey, co-authored with Robert P. Guter [Rutgers University Press, 1992]. She passionately describes an AH HA! moment that occurred while driving through Shrewsbury, NJ when she came upon a perfectly extant example of a Samuel Sloan design from a pattern book she was just researching. The photo of it ultimately became the cover for Building by The Book.

Another New Jersey building – and the one that most inspires Janet is the Abel and Mary Nicholson House in Salem County which serves as “an excellent example of a Delaware Valley patterned end brick house.” Because of the decorative art of the brick work, the Nicholson house was listed by Preservation New Jersey on the 2018 10 Most Endangered Historic Properties.  But this National Historic Landmark is also a beautiful1722 residence that was never remodeled or updated. “It is not a restoration; it is just pure preservation. Currently, it sits empty and unoccupied” explains Janet, who adds that as “it sits on marshy land along the Delaware Bay the future of this building is very much in doubt.” At times of day it is now inaccessible and endangered by encroaching surface waters brought about by dramatic and rapid climate change. “It is inspiring as it suggests what the preservation community needs to be addressing now to save many of our favorite buildings.”

During her years as a Preservation New Jersey member and Board of Trustee member, Janet volunteered for many projects. She thrived in the collegial atmosphere of PNJ’s advocacy and educational goals. Janet thanks PNJ for the working experience of its board and learning about organizational structure there that would prepare her for all the future boards she would serve on. She fondly remembers the many social engagements with her peers and associates at the annual meetings and galas. Janet says that she was “always interested in what preservation crafts people, the builders, the doers and makers, were up to. It was great to share that back and forth with them at PNJ events.”

Reflecting on her two decades as a career educator, Janet Foster voices a clear relationship between teaching and experience. She believes that inspiration through experience leads to everything and states that “for me the mnemonic is the building. Architecture is something you must fully experience. We should recognize architecture as we do with bird and tree species to understand the history of a place.” 

William “Billy” Neumann is a Preservation New Jersey Board of  Director and chairs the Public Relations Committee. He is the current Chairperson of Bergen County’s Historic Preservation Advisory Board and led Rutherford’s HPC for five years. He has authored two local history books, several National Register nominations and presents talks, walks and demonstrations on history, historic preservation, commercial photography and beekeeping.