By Marion Filler and Kevin Coughlin
The Abbey, one of Morris Township’s last mansions from the Gilded Age, is poised for a rebirth.
Restoration Hardware, the upscale home furnishing chain now known as RH, is making a pitch to the Township Committee to transform the Madison Avenue manor into a glamorous showroom, restaurant, and wine bar.
A planning board meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 6, 2020, at 7:30 pm, and a special session of the Committee is set for April 29.
Both meetings hinge on whether remote presentations can be arranged to include public participation, Mayor Cathy Wilson said on Thursday. Public gatherings are prohibited because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Abbey has been vacant for years. It’s a beautiful, historic structure that many people (including me) would love to preserve and re-purpose. Doing so is easier said than done. Several attempts over the years have failed,” Wilson said in a message to the community.
Restoration Hardware became interested in 2017 after seeing the Abbey, also known as Alnwick Hall, featured by Mansion in May, a month-long fundraiser for Morristown Medical Center, according to owner Tom Maoli.
A redevelopment plan was submitted to the Township Committee last month. The Township declared the Abbey an area in need of redevelopment in September 2018.
Maoli, owner of Celebrity Motors, bought the 42-room Renaissance Revival mansion for $6.25 million in 2008.
“The design of the building was absolutely stunning, a castle. I wanted to be king of my castle,” said the Mendham resident, who intended to make the Abbey his office.
But heating, air conditioning and maintaining the massive structure proved daunting. Records show taxes topped $62,000 last year.
Maoli considered a housing development for the six-acre site, and he applied for a demolition permit.
He also conducted an online survey of residents. More than 500 responded that they favored saving the Abbey, he said.
“The Restoration Hardware plan is spectacular,” Maoli said. “It saves the grandeur of the the site, and will be the pinnacle of Morris Township. This will put Morris Township on the map… I think it’s a win-win for this town, and for the people and the history of the town.”
The building fronts Madison Avenue, and except for removing a narrow portion in the back, its exterior will remain intact.
Two main additions are planned: A two-story showroom to the right side of the original building that runs parallel to Madison Avenue, as well as a restaurant and wine bar on the far rear of the property, midway between the two buildings.
Diners will be surrounded by gardens and a patio used to display RH outdoor furniture.
Restoration Hardware CEO Gary Friedman, 62, likes to call his stores “galleries.” According to Forbes, the mall-sized stores ranging between 6,000 and 10,000 square feet gradually are being phased out in favor of large, free-standing buildings between 46,000- and 90,000 square feet.
Grandiose showrooms, many with restaurants, are in Chicago, West Palm Beach, Nashville, Toronto, New York, and Yountville.
Video: Restoration Hardware in New York:
How does the 21,000-square-foot Abbey fit into this picture? It’s part of a strategy to supplement the over-the-top urban approach for which RH has become well known. Friedman now is opening smaller galleries in affluent areas and second home markets such as the Hamptons, Palm Beach, and soon in Aspen, with products tailored to local tastes.
Whether large or small, selling furniture in an RH gallery is deliberately incidental to experiencing a lifestyle — and then being seduced by it.
Luxurious monochrome interiors loaded with texture are essential to the look. Linen, leather, fiber, chunky wood and a general lack of pattern, are combined with slightly oversized furniture to bring it all home.
Sales are always the bottom line, so the expectation is that after having a great meal and a glass of wine at an RH restaurant, you will be enticed to buying a chair or two — or more — before you leave.
Video: RH in West Palm:
According to Variety, Friedman just purchased a $37 million dollar mansion in Bel Air, and now lives in the style of his own creation. However, his early life was anything but affluent.
His father died when Friedman was just 5 years old and he was raised by a single mother on welfare who battled mental illness. They moved 16 times by the time Friedman was 18.
He dropped out of Santa Rosa College and found a job stocking shelves at the Gap. Rising to a managerial position, he did well enough to be recruited by Williams Sonoma, where he stayed for 13 years.
When passed over for the presidency, he moved to Restoration Hardware, which was struggling with debt and badly in need of a new image. He was exactly what the company needed.
Though a series of high stakes moves including stock buybacks, Friedman turned the company around and made his fortune along the way.
After some personal problems including a divorce and accusations of improper behavior with an employee 30 years his junior, he left Restoration Hardware, only to be rehired nine months later and increase sales to record levels.
The Abbey, temporarily redesigned for Mansion in May 2017. Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin; hover over image for captions.
Replete with 15th- and 16th century affectations inspired by Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England, the Abbey was built in 1904 for Edward P. Meany, director of American Telephone and Telegraph, as one of the grandest estates along Millionaire’s Row.
The stretch of Madison Avenue from Morristown to Madison attracted Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and other New York captains of industry around the turn of the 20th century.
Many great singers from that era gave concerts at Alnwick Hall, hosted by Meany’s wife Rosalie. Renowned violinist Efrem Zimbalist met famed soprano Alma Gluck en route to one such soirée; they married, and their son, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. became a TV star.
Natural state: How the Abbey looked before Mansion in May. Slideshow photos by Berit Ollestead
The Abbey has been on the State and National Historic Register since 1985.
Its many owners and tenants over the last century included St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, there for nearly a quarter century until 1984, and offices and medical services.
Carol Barkin of the local Historic Preservation Commission described the Abbey as “one of the most distinctive properties in Morris Township,” adding: “We are encouraged that there is a realistic plan to save it. We believe residents will be in favor of it too.”
Monday’s planning board session, if it happens, will address whether the Abbey redevelopment plan complies with the Township’s zoning master plan.
It’s possible the Township Committee could approve the redevelopment plan on April 29, after hearing public comments, Wilson said.
If the plan is approved, the matter would return to the planning board for site plan approval, a process likely to take several meetings. Residents would have more opportunities to weigh in as those deliberations unfold, the mayor said.