Knocking down a house full of childhood memories would not seem to be cause for celebration.
But sisters Naomi Kleitman and Linda Mermelstein indicated on Tuesday they can hardly wait for the wrecking ball to demolish the two-bedroom home of their late grandparents at 20 Hillcrest Ave. in Morristown.
The two-acre site is slated to become Kleitman Park, the greatest tribute they can imagine for Milton and Bertha Kleitman.
“The memories are up here,” Linda said, touching her forehead. “I’m happy something will be built here to benefit the neighbors, so they can develop their own happy memories, like we did.”
As a Red-tailed hawk circled above the hilltop site on a dry and breezy July morning, members of the Kleitman family were lionized by Mayor Tim Dougherty and other officials for resisting offers from developers over the years.
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The town purchased the property in May with $354,000 in grants from Morris County and the state Green Acres program, in what the Mayor described as one of the most satisfying achievements of his mayoralty.
“This is something that is going to be in the history books. People are going to talk about, 200 years from now, who are the Kleitman family, and what happened to have this piece of property preserved?” said the Mayor, who noted two other projects with similar long-term goals.
The town has budgeted $100,000 to prune and replace trees damaged town-wide by last year’s tropical storm and nor’easter, and it’s seeking grants to buy 17 Early Street, home of the community garden run by Grow It Green Morristown. The purchase would ensure the garden’s survival.
Hillcrest Avenue resident Bob Parker–praised by the Mayor along with town Environmental Commission Chairwoman Samantha Rothman and town Attorney Vij Pawar for helping make Kleitman Park a reality–had to fight back tears of joy. Bob has lobbied for a park at 20 Hillcrest for nearly a decade.
“This place is precious, it’s pristine, and there’s just such excitement, I can’t even begin to tell you,” Bob said. “This is historical, it’s a valued piece of property [and] thankfully, the family worked with the town to recognize the history of this property, which involves the Great Depression, involves the family’s love of this property, and the town of Morristown is now going to extend that love to keep this precious piece precious.”
Kleitman Park soon “will be filled with moms and little kids and, hopefully, some older folks sitting in the shade having lunch,” Samantha said. Several mothers and infants were in the audience.
“We’re thrilled about it,” said Dena Sassoon, holding 10-month-old Alec. Amy Jernigan, mother of 9-month-old Ben, is hoping for a swing set.
The town is accepting bids from contractors to demolish the house, in disrepair after several years of vacancy.
Milton and Bertha Kleitman moved to Morristown from Brooklyn in 1942. Milton was a lawyer who worked in the scrap metal business during World War II and then became a commodities trader and investor. The couple was active in civic life, shopping locally, swimming in the town pool and participating in the Morristown Jewish Center. Bertha also served on the town board of adjustment.
After a cousin was involved in a car accident, Milton swore off driving and walked everywhere–to the train station for his New York commute, to a pair of office buildings (and laundromat) that he owned at Bank and Washington streets, and above all, across his steeply sloped property, pieced together from 10 parcels acquired over the years.
Naomi Kleitman, who now lives in Rockville, Md., remembers sledding past the back porch, which served as the bedroom on hot summer nights. Raking of autumn leaves brought the reward of hop-scotching down the hillside into a succession of gigantic piles.
The side of the property facing Fort Nonsense was so steep that her grandparents forbade her from advancing beyond a certain point. Reflexively, she halted at that spot during a tour on Tuesday. Her granddad’s warning still echoed, 30 years after his death.
Her grandmother passed away in 1991. Tenants rented the home until a few years ago. Naomi’s father, David Kleitman, and her uncle Daniel Kleitman, a mathematician at MIT, fended off developers’ offers, she said.
During Mayor Jay DeLaney’s tenure, the town stepped up with an ordinance prohibiting development of steeply sloped tracts including 20 Hillcrest, according to Bob Parker.
The end result, Naomi said, should live up to her childhood memories.
“This whole place was a playground,” she said. “The best possible fate for this place is for others to enjoy it like we did.”