CAMDEN, N.J.(CN) — An historical society Wednesday sued New Jersey and federal transportation departments over the surprise demolition of a Revolutionary War-era house reduced to rubble to make way for highway reconstruction.
Built in 1764 and razed this year, the Harrison House took its name from revolutionary Capt. William Harrison, who fought in the Battle of Gloucester under the command of the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette’s victory in the battle led General George Washington to promote him to major general in the Continental Army.
Harrison is believed to have owned and occupied the two-story red brick house with his family, leading the building to be listed in New Jersey’s Camden County Inventory of Historic Places since 1977.
In its federal lawsuit, the Camden County Historical Society claims that authorities blindsided preservationists by knocking it down without notice shortly after being served with a complaint that sought an injunction.
“This litigation is about the demolition of a national, regional, and local historic treasure
that was perceived by the defendants to be in the way of a federally funded highway reconstruction project in Bellmawr, New Jersey,” the complaint begins.
Announced in 2001, the highway project had the defendant New Jersey Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration team up to reconstruct intersections of U.S. Highway 295 and state highway 42 in Bellmawr.
Two years after this announcement, the society says, independent historians recommended that the house be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The U.S. and New Jersey Departments of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration reached the opposite conclusion.
“The Harrison-Glover House was recommended not eligible for listing in the National Register due to its lack of architectural integrity and subsequent inability to convey its historical and architectural significance,” the agencies found, according to the lawsuit.
In the same document, the preservationists say, authorities buried evidence showing that the building had been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Philly.com reported that the house was slated for demolition on July 20, 2014.
The Camden County Historical Society says it filed and served a complaint seeking an injunction preventing its razing this year on March 2, shortly after the group learned that destruction was imminent.
“Demolition did, in fact, take place beginning at or about 6:00 am the morning of March 3,” the complaint states. “Demolition of the Harrison House was conducted without the proper permit, and under state police escort.”
The historical society seeks punitive damages for violations of the National Historic Preservation Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and state law charges.
It is represented by Ellen McDowell, with McDowell Posternock Apell & Detrick, of Moorestown.
The New Jersey Department of Transportation declined to comment.