If you happened to be in the market for a new mansion, you’d probably leap at the chance to buy one for the measly sum of $10. But when a real estate developer in New Jersey tried to shift an enormous, historic property for that fractional sum, nobody came forward. If that sounds unbelievable, you may want to wait until you hear the catch – because this mansion had some serious strings attached.
The New York housing market is wildly expensive, and it’s only getting increasingly costly to buy a property there. In fact, the average sale price of a home in New York City has almost doubled over the past decade. In 2010 a standard-sized house might be expected to fetch about $384,000. Nine years later, that price had risen to $675,000, according to real estate companies Miller Samuel and Douglas Elliman.
However, prices tend to fall as you head further out from the city, into the surrounding metropolitan area. In New Jersey, for instance, real estate firm Zillow reported in March 2020 that the average home value was roughly $338,000. But prices were still going up, having increased by 1.8 percent in 2019. And Zillow predicts that they’ll only continue to climb, forecasting a further 3.1 percent price rise throughout 2020.
For dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers, there’s one New Jersey area that stands head and shoulders above the rest: the township of Montclair. Situated some 12 miles out from Manhattan, the town was intentionally built to service the city, making it a hotspot for commuters. But you’ll also find some famous faces among its nearly 40,000 residents.
For instance, talk show host Stephen Colbert currently resides in Montclair. And it was once home to singer and songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs, whose music you might have heard on TV shows including Grey’s Anatomy and Weeds. What’s more, the township counts multiple soap stars among its residents, such as Kim Zimmer and Michael O’Leary, who both appeared in Guiding Light – the longest-running drama in U.S. TV history.
Montclair isn’t just popular for its well-known residents and proximity to the city, though. Indeed, it’s also attractive to New Yorkers for its vibe. Meny Vaknin, a Montclair restaurateur and winner of Food Network’s Chopped, told the New York Post newspaper in September 2019, “I think it’s the only town in New Jersey that’s a real mix of urban and suburbs.”
It’s really no surprise that houses are so sought after in Montclair, then. In fact, most homes get snapped up within a month of going on sale. And in some cases, properties have been subject to bidding wars in just their first weekend on the market. Roberta Baldwin, a broker and co-owner of a New Jersey real estate agency, told the New York Post, “Inventory is perennially low and demand is extremely high.”
It’s true that the wider New Jersey area’s property prices are generally lower than those in New York City. However, Montclair’s median house price has actually eclipsed the city’s $675,000 average. Five years ago, you could expect to pay somewhere in the region of $650,000 for a house in the township. But now, it’s more like $760,000, according to Baldwin.
Most of Montclair’s newest residents are families with two working parents, searching for the ideal home in which to raise their kids. But renters are also surging to the area, buoyed by the town’s burgeoning reputation as a place where arts and culture come alive. Unsurprisingly, renting isn’t cheap either: the average price for a one-bed city-center apartment is just north of $1,600 per month.
Those eye-watering prices aren’t putting people off, though, because Montclair is a thriving town. Alongside a summer jazz festival and prominent art museum, the area is also home to an annual film festival. The event’s founder, Bob Feinberg, told the New York Post, “We are not a festival people attend to sell a movie. We try to build on the organic DNA of Montclair and create a place where you will have a great time.”
The town also has a flourishing retail and restaurant scene, with new culinary experiences regularly joining Montclair’s roster. And even while liquor licenses are reputedly difficult to come by, most eateries have bring-your-own policies. “Dining out can be far less expensive than in the city,” local resident Karen Schloss Diaz told the New York Post. “We have great wine shops in town, too – and some offer free delivery to local restaurants.”
Montclair is clearly a popular place for New Yorkers to settle down, then. So when a veritable mansion arrived on the market for the bargain price of $10, you’d be justified in thinking it would be immediately scooped up. Even more appealingly, the 4,000-square foot Victorian manor once belonged to Aubrey Lewis, one of the town’s most famous residents.
Lewis lived an extraordinary life. As a teen, he led his high school football team to a pair of state championships, and became his university’s first black athletic team captain. He then moved away from sports after graduating, and instead set his sights on a career in law enforcement. By 1962, Lewis had become one of the first black Americans to join the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.).
Lewis spent five years in the F.B.I., then pivoted once more to a career in business. In the years that followed, he worked his way up to the role of senior vice president with Woolworth’s, before finally retiring in 1995. And he remained in his Montclair home – where he’d raised his five children – until his death in 2001.
The 110-year-old house, which stood at 44 Pleasant Avenue, boasted six bedrooms and three bathrooms, plus an extra W.C.. And it was one of just 500 homes in the area constructed to a design created by renowned local architect Dudley S. Van Antwerp. Yes, the building was a real slice of Montclair history, and architecturally stunning to boot.
Antwerp designed the sprawling mansion in the American Craftsman style, which became popular in the late 1800s. With its hardwood floors, beamed ceilings and bright white paneling, no one could deny that the striking structure was beautiful both inside and out. In 1922, a local newspaper even described the estate as “one of the town’s architectural jewels.”
After Lewis passed away in the early 21st century, his wife Ann managed the family home. And in 2015, she offered it up for sale, with an asking price of $1.4 million. It was then purchased by BNE Real Estate Group, a property developer that had specific plans for the house.
A year later, the house went back on the market, but this time with a much-reduced asking price. Indeed, the BNE Real Estate Group wanted just $10 for the lavish home. And you might imagine that such a low price tag would have potential buyers scrambling over each other to put an offer in.
However, that wasn’t the case at all – mainly because buying the property came with a huge catch. You see, whilst the initial asking price was mere pocket change, any prospective owner would need to be prepared to cough up a lot more. That’s because if they wanted to live in it, they would have to satisfy a condition agreed between the developers and the Montclair City Planning Board.
Yes, in order to execute its plans for the property, BNE Real Estate Group attached a single stipulation to the sale of the house. But it was a big one: whoever paid the $10 purchase fee would also have to front the costs of moving the house to an entirely different location. And a non-negotiable condition of the sale was that the house could only be acquired by a person, not a corporation.
Moving a house may sound completely unreasonable, but it’s not as rare as you might think. In fact, there are all sorts of reasons why you might want to relocate a building. For example, urban regeneration projects, such as new highways or bridges, have been known to cut through residential areas. Affected homeowners are then often given the option to move their properties to new plots of land.
Faltering foundations have also been responsible for literal house moves in some areas. In 2016 a number of homes in Connecticut suffered from crumbling foundations, decimating property values. In cases such as those, moving a house to a lot with a more stable base may be more cost-effective than repairing the existing foundations.
Lewis’s house wasn’t built on crumbling foundations, and nor was a bridge intended to be built through the area. But the developers were indeed aiming to demolish the historic home. In its place, they planned to build a new living community, dubbed The Collection. However, these proposals were met with hostility by many of Montclair’s residents.
When the developers’ plans first came to light, the Montclair Township Historic Preservation Commission (M.T.H.P.C.) launched a campaign to save the house from demolition. After all, it had belonged to one of the town’s most famous residents, and held plenty of sentimental value for the citizens of Montclair. The M.T.H.P.C. hoped that by designating the home as a local landmark, it could be saved from being torn down.
Prior to the M.T.H.P.C.’s campaign, the Lewis estate was already on the state’s Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, the Montclair Township Planning Board ultimately denied the motion to upgrade it to local landmark status, following a vote in January 2016. According to the estate’s realtor, even Lewis’s family decided not to support the campaign.
Even if the motion had passed, though, it might not have been enough to save the house. During the meeting, the board’s assistant secretary said that the designation would protect the home from demolition. But Montclair’s code states that if the owner of an historic landmark wishes to tear down their home, they can do so – provided they’ve given nine months for a potential buyer to come forward.
In the end, then, the board came to a compromise: instead of simply demolishing the house, BNE had to attempt to sell it first. To fulfil this agreement between the homeowner and developer, the house was placed on the market in July 2017. A prospective buyer then had 60 days to come forward and purchase the house – as long as they were willing to relocate it, too.
Moving a home is no small feat, though. The process first involves digging up the foundation, then inserting steel beams underneath the frame of the house. Then, hydraulic jacks are placed at each corner, lifting the building up to four feet in the air. That’s just enough height to place it on the bed of a trailer, allowing it to be driven to a new plot of land.
According to Wolfe House & Building Movers estimator Ben Brovont, relocating a home like Lewis’s would have taken roughly two to three months. But moving a home doesn’t end with lifting it up and driving it somewhere else. “There is also a general contractor involved who would oversee preparing the new foundation,” Brovont told the National Association of Realtors (N.A.R.) in 2017.
As you might imagine, the entire process can become incredibly expensive. Indeed, Brovont estimated the cost of moving the Lewis home at between $75,000 and $100,000. Nickel Bros. moving company, meanwhile, told TV station NBC New York in 2017 that the price could actually be as high as $200,000. As well as relocation costs, a buyer would also have had to foot the bill for a new plot of land.
The sale was a hefty ask for any potential buyer, then – especially because they were limited to moving the home within a quarter-mile of its current location. To sweeten the deal, the developer promised to contribute $10,000 to the buyer’s moving costs. However, given the quotes estimated by Brovont and Nickel Bros., that’s still only a fraction of what the entire project would have required.
Of course, to the right buyer, it might still have seemed like the deal of a lifetime. After all, the median house price in Montclair was much higher than $200,000, even in 2017. And even without the surrounding land included, the N.A.R. estimated the house’s value to be around $435,000.
In the end, then, the $10 price was essentially a nominal fee. The price didn’t really matter – the house would simply go to whoever could face moving it. But in the 60 days that it was on the market, not a single person made an offer. Laurena White, real estate agent for the Lewis family, told website NJ.com in October 2019, “We never had anyone step forward that found [the home] was viable to buy and move.”
Considering the practicalities involved beyond just the costs of moving the historic home, though, it’s perhaps no surprise. In fact, Majda Kallab, a Montclair architectural and design historian and neighbor of the Lewis estate, told the Montclair Local newspaper that nobody expected the house to sell. And in May 2018, it was finally demolished once and for all.
“Preservationists sought to have it designated a landmark, but the forces of ‘progress’ deemed otherwise,” Kallab said. “Setting another precedent as Montclair loses its sense of history, this loss hits deep in the community and should be a lesson to all areas in danger of tear-downs. Frankly, if this home was in Upper Montclair, it wouldn’t have been torn down.”
Eight new houses now stand in the 2.7 acres of land that once held Lewis’s abode. The three different models are billed as “a limited collection of eight exquisite homes,” with prices starting at $875,000 each. And the four-bedroom, three-bathroom houses look accordingly exquisite, both inside and out.
Each house is set across 3,529 square feet, featuring hardwood floors, a two-car garage and a whole host of optional extras. For instance, buyers could choose to have a finished basement, adding an extra bedroom, bathroom and living space. It’s no wonder, then, that the houses quickly caught the eye of New Yorkers when they first went on sale in summer 2019.
However, Martin Schwartz – a member of the Montclair City Planning Board who voted for the Lewis home’s local landmark designation – contended that demolishing the home was a poor economic decision. “The taxes from this now eight-home subdivision coming are clearly not going to cover the multiple kids who will eventually occupy those houses and will add even more to our school-attendance rolls,” he told the Montclair Local.
Nevertheless, Lewis’s legacy hasn’t been completely ignored by the township. You see, the street upon which The Collection is situated has been renamed, in tribute to the former athlete and F.B.I. agent. One of Lewis’s five children, Aubrey Lewis, Jr., told NJ.com, “I’m very pleased that they’re honoring my father by naming the street Lewis Court.”
When Lewis’s house was torn down, though, it’s hard to deny that the town of Montclair lost a piece of its history. And it was a piece that anyone could have owned for just $10 – provided they could manage the enormous undertaking that was moving the house. In the end, the catch proved too huge, and saving the significant structure was unfortunately out of the question.