Although it’s one of the most historic buildings in Jersey City, Barrow Mansion is not a museum, such as the Ballantine House in Newark. It remains a functional building, housing a score or more of non-profits that provide services to the community.
Its rooms are used every day, for a variety of meetings and other functions.
But organizers hope to upgrade its public spaces in order to generate revenue that will allow the mansion to rent space for more commercial uses.
This is part of the current restoration of its front rooms, halls and restrooms, not merely to preserve the past but to create a space people will want to come to for art shows, performances, and other events.
Constructed in 1867, the Barrow Mansion is an example of Greek Revival-style, although Gerry Bakirtjy, its property manager, said it differs because unlike other Greek Revival buildings, the mansion is built off center.
“This is unusual for Greek Revival, in which everything is usually balanced,” he said.
The house was one of two similar homes constructed by Cornelius Van Vorst, a founder of the Township of Van Vorst and mayor of Jersey City from 1860 to 1862.
Both were initially constructed as private residences, and one was demolished later. Barrow Mansion has served for public uses since the 1890s, when it was briefly a YMCA. It is currently home to scores of not for profit organizations that have offices it in or use its facilities for meetings and other functions.
During Superstorm Sandy, one of the worst environmental disasters in recent memory, one of the oldest buildings in the city served as a refuge for people and a depot for supplies.
Barrow Mansion, which sits on high ground compared to other parts of downtown Jersey City, managed to avoid being flooded.
“The mansion is actually at the top of a hill,” Bakirtjy said.
Many other sections of downtown are made up of landfill. In fact, when the mansion was constructed, the Hudson River came up roughly to where Grove Street is today. Until a change in the charter, New York essentially had rights for the entire river; later the boundary was moved to the middle of the river allowing Jersey City to begin development.
The fact that the building sat on higher ground allowed supplies to be distributed from it and for families to come here. Volunteers gathered at the church, and for two weeks, the historic mansion became a refuge for residents from nearby flooded areas.
Preserving the historic integrity of the building
The property is owned by St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which took ownership in 1897. The building is on the state register of historic places and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.The building had been in been neglected for years.
The Barrow Mansion Development Corporation (BMDC) was founded in 1985 as a steward with the purpose of restoration, preservation, and operations and promoting the mansion use as a community center, and has overseen the building since 1985.
“It was in pretty poor shape,” said Paul Ellis, a board member. “There hadn’t been any major work done on it for more than a decade.”
In preparing for restoration, the BMDC did a historic structure report that allowed them to know the entire history of the building and how to make various improvements without compromising the building’s historic distinction. For example, to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, BMDC was able to use closet space on two floors to install an elevator.
Massive structural work under the front porch has already helped stabilize the building. Additional work in the past has included converting the original gym to a theater, and a portion of the kitchen into a meeting room. Bakirtjy said they hope to eventually get the funds needed to restore the historic bowling alley and billiard table.
The work currently underway is focused on upgrading the floors of the two main rooms used for public functions, and upgrading toilet facilities.
The next phases include restoration of the main floor hall and two parlors, repainting and lighting the front of the building, renovating the main rest rooms, and structural reinforcement of the main floor.
The structural improvements to the floor in the main rooms will prevent deterioration of historic elements such as the massive fireplaces.
Nearly all the funds for restoration come from grants from the New Jersey Historic Trust and the city, although leasing its front rooms for events generates money to maintain operations.
BMDC recently received $250,000 in grants allowing the next phases of restoration. A majority of funding came from the New Jersey Historic Trust. Additional funding was awarded through the City of Jersey City’s Community Development Block Grant program.
For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com