Kevin Riordan: Trying to rejuvenate Woodbury a building at a time

Posted: June 05, 2013

When Lewis Green built a handsome little hotel at Cooper Street and Railroad Avenue in 1881, Woodbury was a destination.

"There were 139 trains coming through the city," says professional librarian and amateur preservationist Brian Bonfiglio.

He believes the vacant Green Hotel - a landmark on a gateway to downtown - could help Woodbury become a destination again.

"Right now, there's an enormous push to get the train [service] back," says Jacqualynn Knight, who with Bonfiglio is a member and prime mover of the Village Green Preservation Society. "This is prime real estate. Absolutely."

But the visibly deteriorating Victorian structure - recently listed as among the "10 most endangered" historic buildings in the state by Preservation New Jersey - must first escape destruction.

The old hotel was bought in 2005 by St. Patrick's Church, which stands directly across Cooper Street. The church obtained renovation estimates, but unexpectedly gained a surplus of real estate after merging in 2010 with two nearby Catholic parishes.

Now called Holy Angels Parish and serving 3,000 families, the church has sought to clear the hotel site for parking. But in 2012, the city planning board said no.

"Tearing down a historic building doesn't fix their parking problem, but we do understand that they have a problem," says Randi Woerner, Woodbury's economic development director. "We are in discussion with the church. We don't have a plan, but we have ideas. We're working together."

The church "applied for demolition only as a last resort," Msgr. Joseph DiMauro says. "We are not looking to destroy a historic building. But we don't have a use for it now, and we don't have money to fix it. The exterior alone would cost $1 million."

Stephanie Cherry-Farmer, senior program director of Preservation New Jersey, says the "endangered" designation may prove useful. Inclusion on the list, she adds, can attract interest and "be a catalyst for positive change."

Nearby buildings are being brought back to life. Lenor Mirochna and her husband, Tom, recently opened an art gallery named Priya in a lovingly restored house just down the block on Cooper.

"I love the Green building, and I think we should do everything we can to save it," Mirochna says. "It's cool, it's part of the city's legacy, and it's got a great location."

Nevertheless, a dreary abundance of empty lots downtown attests to this small (population 10,000) city's continuing struggle to reinvigorate its heart.

Woodbury, the seat of Gloucester County, is both pretty and gritty. New restaurants, a Fine Arts Festival, and events sponsored by Woodbury Main Street have enlivened downtown, but pedestrians are few.

And despite renovation of the G.G. Green opera house on Broad Street, a dozen or more buildings associated with the family that helped put Woodbury on the map have been lost.

Bonfiglio and Knight are among a community of younger residents drawn by the city's rich, if somewhat frayed, historical and architectural fabric. "There's a little vanguard of fabulousness here," says Knight, an artist.

More demolition will create more gaps between the pockets of new investment. But preservation can be an economic-development tool.

"I want to shop here," Knight, 35, says. "I want to walk to the store with my daughter. I don't want to walk with her to a strip mall."

Bonfiglio, 39, a father of two, remembers seeing the Green Hotel for the first time as a child, riding into Woodbury from Glendora with his mother.

"Even then," he says, "I knew it was something unique."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists'

blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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