Kevin Riordan: Woodbury landmark needs a tonic

The newly fenced-in G.G. Green Building is visited by the Woodbury Antiques Centre's Steve Glick and Kathy Furber. Furber supports preserving the site; Glick wonders about the cost.
The newly fenced-in G.G. Green Building is visited by the Woodbury Antiques Centre's Steve Glick and Kathy Furber. Furber supports preserving the site; Glick wonders about the cost. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: September 04, 2011

Perhaps someone like Col. George Gill Green himself will step in to save the derelict downtown landmark that bears his name.

The patent-medicine tycoon put Woodbury on the map in the late 1800s, but the G.G. Green Building, the massive commercial edifice he built at Broad and Centre Streets, could soon disappear.

Vacant for more than a decade, the three-story Green Block, as it's known, was fenced off by the city after pieces of brick fell to the sidewalk during the Aug. 23 earthquake. Also, an upper window collapsed inward.

The city is considering demolition, and the structure's owner, Richard Hill, has yet to publicly challenge a move. I haven't been able to reach him, but architect Margaret Westfield, long involved in efforts to redevelop the building, notes that Hill's family has owned it for nearly a century.

According to Mayor Ron Riskie, a post-earthquake inspection revealed cracks in upper-floor walls more extensive than those found in 2002.

"I'm a history enthusiast - I have a degree in history - but I also need to protect public safety," Riskie says. "We respect the opinions of everyone, including the historic [preservationists]. But I don't want anyone getting hurt."

Main Street New Jersey, a program of the state Department of Community Affairs, is working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation on a plan to pay for a second engineering opinion.

Riskie calls this "a good idea." And the building "is a key asset to Woodbury" despite its condition, says Jef Buehler, director of Main Street New Jersey.

"It's a sad state of affairs in there, and clearly it's been neglected for years," says Walter Gallas, director of National Trust's regional office in Philadelphia, who toured the Green Block on Thursday.

"But tearing it down would be a tremendous loss," he adds. "Imagine it as a parking lot. Is demolition the solution? Perhaps the building can be stabilized while a developer is sought."

Alas, support has waned for renovating a unique structure once seen as essential to Broad Street's long-awaited turnaround. The latest downtown redevelopment plan, the summary of which is decorated with generic images of a fantasy Broad Street, barely acknowledges the Green Block's existence.

"There are people who love Woodbury and want to save the building," says Jim Watson, president of the Green Block Community Arts Foundation. "There are also people who love Woodbury and want to see the building taken down."

A remnant of an era when Broad Street was the downtown for much of Gloucester County, the Green Block includes a second-floor opera house that later became a 1,100-seat movie theater called the Rialto. The last picture show was in 1955, and Fashion Bug, the most recent store to inhabit the ground floor, closed in 2000.

Community Arts, downtown boosters, and others who treasure the block's exuberant architecture - it's on the national and state registries - have worked hard to attract developers.

Most recently, the Tricon Group Inc. proposed a $10 million restoration of the theater, ground-floor retail spaces, and the building's imposing Victorian facade, which has been obscured by red paint and various "modernization" attempts.

Gallas believes that obliteration of interior walls and other alterations in the 1950s may have worsened the deterioration.

"It was a great old building," says antiques dealer Steve Glick. "But where is $10 million going to come from? And how long is it going to take?"

Glick is a vendor in the Woodbury Antiques Centre, on Broad just north of the Green Block.

Kathy Furber, who owns the center (it's in a onetime S.S. Kresge store), says the fenced-in sidewalk and loss of street parking have hurt business.

But she also believes the Green Block should be preserved.

She's right.

Once this signature downtown structure is gone, it's gone forever.

So come on, Woodbury.

Make old Col. Green proud.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq

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