Many residents lamented when a buyer tore down the historic Hezekiah Dare house on Valley Street earlier this week.
A commenter on Patch wrote, "Very sad....How would the town let that happen?" Another wrote: "So I guess this is OK in Maplewood now, tear down historic houses to make a buck? I thought we were better than that..."
Virginia Kurshan, chair of the Maplewood Historic Preservation Commission said that while the house was listed in the town's partial inventory of historic buildings, "it was not a locally designated landmark and therefore there were no restrictions on its demolition."
The man at the center of the controversy, local realtor Robert Northfield, explained the decision to demolish the house.
"It was a glorified shed," said Northfield in a phone interview with Patch on Thursday.
Northfield said he was hired by the home's owner, Blossom (Bobby) Cushing, in February of 2012 after Cushing decided she wanted to sell the house and move to Livingston. Northfield listed the house for $425,000, and had "hundreds" of showings but no serious offers.
"The house was built poorly," said Northfield, and time had not been kind to it. It had only a partial foundation, low ceilings, steep and narrow stairs, water issues in the basement, inoperable windows, an old oil tank, and a moldy smell.
"A lot of people would look and leave, intrigued by the old charm" but scared off by the amount of work the house needed, he said.
Northfield said architects and engineers who looked at the house said it was not salvageable and that builders and developers who showed an interest all said they would tear down the house. Some expressed concern with its location on a busy county road.
"I truly tried to get a higher price," said Northfield.
After several price drops, and some offers in the low $200,000s, Northfield said his client agreed to sell the house for $285,000 to 592 Valley Street LLC, a limited liability corporation owned by Northfield's brother, Mike Abdalla. Abdalla also owns XCEL Renovation and Remodeling.
Northfield, who served as both the seller's and the buyer's agent (with each side represented by its own attorneys) said he realizes that some might see the sale as a conflict of interest, but he strongly objects to that characterization.
"The seller was well aware of the relationship and of the future plans for the house," said Northfield. "Every (builder) who looked at the house wanted to take it down. Mike offered the highest price."
Northfield said Cushing "wanted to get out" and "move on" and that she was pleased with the results of the sale; he also said she initially offered to sell the house to Northfield but he declined. (He offered to provide Cushing's contact information to Patch).
"I would never harm my reputation for the little commission I would collect," said Northfield. "I wouldn't take that risk...it's not worth my reputation." He said he and his family have been a part of the Maplewood community since 1995.
"I run my business honestly and fairly," he said. "I protect my clients...I don't take advantage of anybody. I am not a scam artist."
He said he felt badly about the house being torn down. "I love old houses, but in this particular case, the home was not practical for today's living standards."
Northfield said his brother is "very sensitive" to building something that will fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. He pointed out that XCEL has won awards from the Maplewood Historic Preservation Commission for its work.
"The community should not be worried with the look or style of the (new) house," Northfield said. "It will be consistent with the character of the community."
Northfield acknowledged that his brother initially applied to the township for permission to subdivide the property but he was turned down. Abdalla intends to build a single-family, Colonial-style home on the lot, Northfield said.
"People can make assumptions," said Northfield, "but where were (they) when the house was on the market for six months?"