Municipal Use Preservation Projects in Somerset County with PNJ Building Industry Network Member HMR Architects

Rikki Massand
November 28, 2020

New Jersey preservation circles recognize a name-brand leader for architectural services and attention to all the details in the scope of work. For four decades HMR architects, based on Alexander Road in Princeton Junction, has made headlines and broken new ground with treasured buildings across the state. But a specialty that the firm has cultivated in Central Jersey and among its impressive portfolio are municipal-use historic buildings, including two prime Somerset County ‘Borough’ examples — one in busy Somerville, the other in quiet Rocky Hill.

Robert “Bob” W. Russell, AIA — the firm’s principal since 1993 — joined Holt & Morgan Architects in 1981. Ever since then he’s ascended to being the mainstay in executive leadership of the company that later became HMR, adding his last name to the brand.

For the state, HMR now has a project evaluating potential reuse and repairs for nine historic farmstead complexes around the Six Mile Run State Park in Franklin Township (a site on Preservation NJ’s first 10 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1995). The New Jersey Historic Trust recently awarded the State Parks Service a management grant award of $23,531 for Six Mile Run’s evaluation and preservation planning, from the Preserve New Jersey Historic Preservation Fund and as part of the Trust’s annual grant round.

“Many of New Jersey’s historic buildings tell a great story about the construction. If you look at materials you tell if the building has changed over the years; when and how it was changed, and what materials were available to people that were working on it. It’s a great part of the story. The farmsteads and buildings are wood-framed and sometimes traditionally heavy-timbered. It wasn’t an area of the state that saw much use of fieldstone on the ground. There are examples of our geographic area and building uses  that generated a ‘genre’ of architecture, and local groups are working closely with the State and County entities that can provide grant money for preservation projects,” Russell explains.

Every other year since 2007, Russell teaches a course “Materials and Techniques of Historic Restoration and Rehabilitation” in the Historic Preservation certificate program at Rutgers-Camden, which was previously housed at Drew University. He shares with program participants, “There are two things to look at with historic buildings: one is the structure’s evolution and the other is its condition. There are often tell-tale signs to see damage that has occurred, usually due to water. We can show preservation students examples of any failures with building materials and what to look for in buildings. Most construction today is not rooted in techniques and to a lesser extent the raw materials we used to see in construction.” 

Somerville Borough Hall project

HMR has been involved for over a decade in the preservation of the Gothic Revival “Daniel Robert House” built in 1887 and with a large 1930s addition. Today with the assist from HMR, Somerville Borough Hall is listed on the National Register and houses both municipal offices and a public library, a multi-story branch of the Somerset County Library System. A new book on the history and architecture of the building is available from Amazon: “The County’s Handsomest House.

Somerville Borough Hall

Somerville, County Seat of Somerset County, has a rich and diverse history and an array of modern, multi-use facilities, County government HQ and housing developments, plus stately historic homes with large lawns and porches on quiet, open streets. It’s vibrant downtown, with shopping and destination dining as well as an NJ Transit station (Raritan Valley Line) is located blocks away from the Daniel Robert House, the National Register-listed Somerville Borough Hall.

HMR’s Kurt Leasure leads the Somerville project and has worked at HMR since 2008. The firm completed a Preservation Plan for Somerville Borough Hall and a successful National Register Nomination prior to his coming on board, and today HMR is in the process of updating that plan. Following the 2008 plan there have been a half-dozen projects here. Like Rocky Hill’s former schoolhouse, Somerville Borough Hall is a very structurally sound, well-built edifice. “Somerville Borough has been a remarkable steward of this historic property. Keeping up municipal office use can be hard on a building, but they really have done a great job in emphasizing preservation of this building. When they can, piece by piece, really well-executed restoration work has taken place here. The offices do feature original millwork, fireplaces and doors and the Borough values it, they have done a terrific job of maintaining it and using it,” Leasure said.  “One of the things HMR prides itself on is the longevity and strategic planning for structures — the work with Somerville Borough Hall is going on over 12 years. The Preservation Plan update is funded by a grant by a New Jersey Historic Trust grant, with matching funds from the Borough.” 

Leasure says a major component in maintaining the municipal structures and many more in central Jersey comes through the “very strong Historic Preservation grant program” of the Somerset County Cultural & Heritage Commission, under the County Planning Division. “Rocky Hill’s Borough Hall, the Somerville Borough Hall and even the Rocky Hill Fire House at 154 Washington Street (Route 518) have been beneficiaries of Somerset County’s Preservation grants,” he explains.

“Right now HMR is working on a project for cornices and built-in gutter restoration project as they’re starting to show some age, and need major work. Some exterior work on the stairs and porches also needs to be done. There were two major fires at Borough Hall — 1967 and 1980. After one fire they painted it due to damage to the brick, and the HMR team has tested for the ability to study removal of exterior paint, in order to expose original brick and sandstone foundations,” Leasure said.

Bids for Borough Hall’s cornices and gutters were just received, and more historic window restoration work has been scoped for the long-term. Conservators examined the entry foyer, stair hallway with its decorative painting, and Gothic Revival exterior.

There have been three prior phases already of Somerville Borough Hall window restoration, all in accordance to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards with contractors who have restored existing wood sash and new weather stripping and hardware so the windows are functional. Leasure says careful attention by HMR continues to drive ideas for future preservation. “The first phase of windows work involved restoration of a lot of the stained glass — we had a great stained glass contractor working in the Music Room at the building’s front of the 2nd floor. We have also talked with the Borough about opening up some of the ceiling of the Music Room, which probably had decorative painting and a vaulted ceiling, and the potential to restore some of those spaces.” 

Rocky Hill Borough Hall project

Located in the State and National Register of Historic Places’ district encompassing “downtown” Rocky Hill, at the southeastern edge of Somerset County bordering Kingston and Princeton, HMR Architects has worked on Rocky Hill’s Borough Hall building with an initial report and Preservation Plan in 2012. HMR has overseen phased projects for the 112-year-old Flemish bond brick building with tinted mortar. This early 20th Century Colonial revival former school building is at 15 Montgomery Avenue.

Eric J. Holtermann, AIA joined HMR in 1999 and has served as principal at the firm since 2003. He is the chair of the Pennington Borough HPC and is largely responsible for the creation of the municipal ordinance establishing the Commission. He is HMR’s lead for the Rocky Hill municipal project.

Rocky Hill Borough Hall

“We’ve completed four phases as of summer 2019, with the next phase the upstairs courtroom. HMR is retained for each phase in both the drawings and construction administration as well as assisting Rocky Hill to apply for grants — Somerset County has been very good towards preserving the building, recognizing it as a historic resource. The exterior needed very little and the brick is in great condition, as at only a few points we called for cleaning of exterior, minor repointing and addressing minor limestone stone damage,” Holtermann explains. Moisture didn’t infiltrate the building and there’s been little need for repointing the bricks. Some work was done on the rear dormer and the building’s chimney’s to address roof leaks, but more attention was needed for interior conditions. Work has been incremental and Holtermann says the lobby’s character really matches the history now. 

Originally a schoolhouse used by Rocky Hill for children in 1st through 6th grades up until the 1950s, in 1962 the school use was converted into a municipal building for Borough records and business, Clerk’s office use and local Council meetings. As part of the interior renovations in 2019, the first-floor entry hallway was revamped and slightly enlarged by removing some ductwork enclosures and vinyl tile flooring. Lighting was replaced; the ceiling was restored with period finishes and period lighting. New stained doors were installed, but several of the originally stained interior doors — painted light blue over 50 years ago — were stripped and re-stained. Floor finishings brought the building back to its original materials/conditions and that is gratifying for us to work on,” Eric said.

HMR collected archives and old news accounts of the building’s use and significant historic features since being built in 1908. A former mayor of Rocky Hill, Ray “Toby” Whitlock, attended the school in the 1940s, and he remains involved in the borough today. Until 1948, they discovered, the charming brick schoolhouse had no indoor bathrooms.

Holtermann notes that in 1995 an addition to the building’s rear provided space for an elevator to be installed, adding ADA compliance and accessibility to the second-floor courtroom. HMR plans to work on reexposing the ceiling and getting new lighting for the courtroom, but Borough Council’s dais will be accommodated in a sensitive manner. The first floor houses a nursery school program and HMR was careful to plan this modern “retro” use and “compatibility as a public building,” as it was strictly a school before 1962.

Rocky Hill was recently awarded a grant of $76,000 from Somerset County towards the next preservation project phase at Borough Hall. Holtermann credits Borough Council and administration, in particular the steady work of Clerk Rebecca Newman as well as proactive measures and due diligence exhibited by Councilmembers Connie Hallman and Amy Kirtland, serving together on Rocky Hill’s Grants and Finance Committees. Kirtland persisted on County Preservation grant funding for two years prior to her moving away last summer. “The Borough knew it was critical to have the Preservation Plan for grant eligibility. They persevere and keep seeing it through County grant rounds so we’re able to restore and rehabilitate virtually all the windows, which makes a big difference for weatherproofing as they have all-new stripping and are sealed, no infiltration. We’ve upgraded the entire hallway and addressed infrastructure components through grant funds allocated,” he said.

Holtermann noted some very rewarding, ongoing projects for HMR across the state: in Jersey City’s Journal Square, Loews’ Jersey Theatre which first opened in 1929; the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms in Morris Plains; Hoboken City Hall; Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club; the Passaic County Courthouse, Montclair State University’s Student Center and the rehabilitation plans for Newark’s famed Krueger-Scott Mansion.

In Somerset County, Leasure and HMR also worked on planning of the Voorhees’ Dutch barn at the Jacobus Vanderveer site in Bedminster, after it was dismantled at a private property and moved on site, where it’s currently stored. That project is still in the design phases for reconstruction and turning it into an event space. Project by project, HMR’s footprint in New Jersey is adding up to historical proportions.

Author, content strategist and historic preservation activist Rikki N. Massand serves as Associate Editor of his hometown Montgomery News in Somerset County. He also covers Hunterdon County government, planning and economic development for Flemington’s TAPInto online news and freelances for multiple tristate area ‘newszines.’

Rikki is a regional historian and local advocate in his present municipal government-appointed roles on the Montgomery Township Landmarks Preservation Commission and as township liaison to the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission. He is also experienced in not-for-profit administration and advocacy as office administrator, records manager and bookkeeper for a local United Church of Christ.

Rikki holds master’s degrees from Columbia University and Quinnipiac University. His work has appeared in print titles including China Daily, amNew York, Syosset Advance, AsianWeek and more.