By Kevin Coughlin and Berit Ollestad
As demolition of the massive Kirkbride Building continues, preservationists are pinning their hopes on a state judge to halt the wrecking ball.
Superior Court Judge Stephan Hansbury is scheduled to hear arguments from Preserve Greystone on May 13, 2015, at 3 pm in the Morris County Courthouse, spokesmen for the group announced Thursday on the grounds of the former state psychiatric hospital.
An attorney for Preserve Greystone will request a stay of demolition so the organization can continue seeking new uses for the 139-year-old Kirkbride Building, said William Needham III, vice president of Preserve Greystone.
The organization is urging a large turnout at the hearing, and is asking supporters to contact state legislators.
“We need to let our elected officials know that this place matters and it deserves to be preserved. Greystone has gained national attention,” said Preserve Greystone President John Huebner.
Although the building is not on the National Register of Historic Places, a former coal-to-gas conversion facility on the Greystone grounds is so designated. The preservationists intend to argue that destroying the Kirkbride Building will negate the historical significance of the coal plant.
“Then it becomes just a building in the woods,” said Needham, describing the plant as a technical marvel of the late 19th century.
Preserve Greystone also is pursuing an historic designation for the Kirkbride Building. That would enable the group to solicit intervention by the National Park Service and other agencies, added Needham, a furniture gallery owner who, as a boy, helped his parents in a civic drive to preserve Morristown’s Community Theatre, now known as the Mayo Performing Arts Center.
‘STRAIGHT IN THE EYE’
With a footprint that once was second only to the Pentagon in the United States, the 675,000-square-foot Kirkbride Building has been deemed too costly to save by the state. A $34 million demolition began last month; two rear wings already have been knocked down, according to Needham.
Preserve Greystone has gathered 4,000 signatures from people urging preservation of the Kirkbride Building, which closed its doors in 2008. About 300 people came to the grounds, on the border of Parsippany and Morris Plains, for a protest rally last month.
Preservationists note the Kirkbride Building’s once-magnificent Second Empire Victorian architecture, and its role in the evolution of mental health care. When it opened, it was a beacon of progressive treatment. Later, amid funding cutbacks, it became a symbol of neglect and despair.
Seven proposals from developers pitched various re-uses, including housing, offices, shops and a museum. If the preservation group wins a stay from Judge Hansbury, Needham said it will focus efforts on saving the central portion of the building as an assisted living facility, with a museum and a renovated chapel for special events.
Designed by Thomas Kirkbride, the asylums that bear his name were built between 1848 and 1890.
At a recent gathering in Traverse City, Mich., where another Kirkbride Building has been converted into an event space, people said they didn’t want their building “to become another Greystone,” related a Preserve Greystone supporter on Thursday.
Andrew Passantino of Union County said the issue is personal for him.
“I’m originally from Texas and in Texas we don’t tear down beautiful buildings like these, like New Jersey does. This hits home for me. People don’t understand mental illness like I do. I’ve struggled for years with depression and bi-polar disorder and this building means something to me.”
Peggy Mesinger, former Greystone chaplain, said she recently saw Gov. Chris Christie at a diner in Somerville and made her case for the Kirkbride Bulding.
“I told him I was the head chaplain there for 25 years and the building deserves to saved,” she said. “He looked me straight in the eye and said ‘it will not be destroyed.’ I’ve never had a politician look straight at me and tell me something that wasn’t true.”
But when a New Hampshire man questioned Christie about the demolition, at the governor’s first out-of-state town hall meeting, Christie defended the tear-down.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, because it is a historic structure … But it was the right decision,” Christie was quoted as saying by The Star-Ledger.