A Year After Historic Mansion in Newark Burned, Former Owner Fights for a Second Chance

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Kastner Mansion Newark Featured
The Kastner Mansion, a Victorian-era home of German beer baron Franz Kastner, has a coveted location on a main thoroughfare midway between center city and one of the world’s busiest airports. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

A year has passed since Newark’s Kastner Mansion caught fire, and the city, spread thin by the pandemic, has yet to decide what to do with the historic residence.


Concerned by the city’s management of the property, the building’s former owner is now battling to get back the blighted landmark that was seized from her in tax foreclosure, hoping to turn it into a community center.

Kastner Mansion 3
Although the Kastner Mansion was named by Preservation New Jersey as one of the state’s most endangered landmarks in 2012, it doesn’t have any formal designation on the state or national registers, and is ineligible for historic tax credits. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

The future once looked bright for the Kastner Mansion only a decade ago. In 2007, Denise Colon, a longtime city resident and business owner in the South Ward, famously bought the 19th-century chateau for a dollar.

It was a symbolic gesture, Colon said, as the previous owners believed she could turn the place into something meaningful.

”They gave it to me for a reason,” she told Jersey Digs.

For Colon, transitioning her tax-preparation firm into a community center would be natural, considering her company has always provided pro-bono assistance to clients, like obtaining forms of identification, filling out documents, and steering folks through the city’s bureaucracy.

“When my people came in needing this or that, if I knew how to do it, I did it,” she said. “I didn’t even charge.”

During her three decades on Clinton Avenue, Colon began noticing a dangerous trend. People in her community were investing large sums of money on vocational training, but their investments didn’t always result in well-paying jobs, sometimes leaving them with considerable debt.

In her mind, the community needed a center  — with housing and wraparound services — to blaze a more direct route to gainful employment for the 60,000 residents of the South Ward, particularly for women reentering the workforce. As for acquiring the Kastner Mansion, the timing could not have been more perfect.

“Once I got the building, I thought, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to help people get real jobs,” she said.

But just like the old house itself, a series of misfortunes caused her dream to come crashing down. First came the real-estate crisis. Then Colon fell violently ill, later to be diagnosed with terminal cancer.

As many people with cancer learn, life doesn’t come with a pause button. The stress of treatments and the gloom of what she thought was a death sentence took a toll on her relationships and business.

“I was too ill to push on with the struggle,” Colon said. “Then finally my husband divorced me.”

Out of work, alone, with no promise of tomorrow, the mounting taxes and cost of renovating a century-old mansion became an afterthought. With unfulfilled promises from former Mayor Corey Booker’s administration to assist her with tax abatements, eight years ago the city foreclosed on the property.

“I invested everything I had into this place,” Colon said. “When I say everything, I mean everything— my family, my business, my health.”

The Kastner Mansion, a Victorian-era home built by a German beer brewer named Franz Kastner, has a coveted location on a main thoroughfare midway between center city and one of the world’s busiest airports. It may seem understandable that City Hall is taking its time to decide what to do with the property. With multimillion-dollar renovations underway at Symphony Hall and the Krueger-Scott Mansion, the real-estate riches of downtown Newark are slowly spilling southward.

But the Kastner Mansion isn’t like most properties — time is the enemy. In 2012, Preservation New Jersey named it one of the state’s most endangered landmarks. And without a formal designation on the state or national registers, it’s ineligible for historic tax credits, which usually offset the costly renovations of historic buildings.

The sad irony is that, while Colon bangs on the doors at City Hall for a response to her proposal submitted last year, the house remains in a dangerous state, open to the elements. In the summer, a massive terra-cotta structure over the mansion’s doorway came crashing down with enough force to shatter the stone staircase.

“It’s unacceptable for a property to sit in a blighted, burnt and unsafe condition and not respond to Denise’s good-faith letter of intent,” said Yvonne Paterson, vice president of the South Ward Community Economic Development Corporation.

Paterson, a public relations professional with experience working on two presidential inaugurations, has assembled a team of business owners and design professionals, which calls itself the Phoenix Restoration Consortium. The group’s purpose is to secure ownership of the home and support Colon’s mission, ensuring she no longer has to shoulder the burden alone.

Along the way, Patterson is hoping to change the way tax abatements are used by municipal governments — turning them into a lifeline for small business owners rather than an enticement for large corporations, like Amazon.

“The city gives tax abatements to these large corporations but doesn’t pass the same kind of considerations to small business owners, especially with all the businesses that have been shut down because of the pandemic,” Patterson said. “Denise is the quintessential individual that should be supported based on her history of business development.”

Kastner Mansion Newark Renovation Rendering
The mansion’s original brownstone turret and signature portico, remain intact. Courtesy of Ascendant Architecture & Interior Design.

In Colon’s proposal, the $7 million renovation would salvage the facade of the Kastner Mansion and surround it with modern buildings.

“Our conceptual plan will make the mansion the visual jewel of whatever we develop there,” said Steven Patrick, a designer at Ascendant Architecture & Interior Design, also a member of the consortium.

Although the renderings are still conceptual — Patrick’s Metuchen-based firm is not allowed on the premises to take measurements — a few key features are clear: the brownstone turret and signature portico, remain intact. The old mansard roof, which collapsed in the fire, would be replaced with a top floor that includes a balcony overlooking Clinton Avenue.

Kastner Mansion Newark Renovation Rendering 2
The property would in time expand into the neighboring lots with a three-story new-build and a parking lot. Courtesy of Ascendant Architecture & Interior Design.

The plan would seek to expand into the neighboring lots with a three-story building and a parking lot. Owners of both businesses have expressed to Colon a willingness to sell their properties.

In remission for the past two years, Colon has been given a second chance at life, and sees her mission with even clearer eyes. Now, she awaits to see if the city government can show her the same kind of mercy.

“I can take on the project,” Colon said. “All they have to do is give us the opportunity.”

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Newark needs more ratables, not another non-profit. If this person is that sincere about her desire to contribute, she should seek office space in the Women’s Resource center, located a few blocks up Clinton Ave.
    While the current incarnation of Newark City government looks to codify poverty, Jersey City continues to demonstrate what responsible, fiscally-sound, city planning and development looks like. We have enough “community” centers, shelters, drug addiction treatment centers, liquor stores, dialysis centers, et al. This city needs and demands tax-generating, private investment, that doesn’t rely on PILOTS or other forms of tax incentives. Newark needs to market its attributes better: its location, highway network, Port Newark, Newark Int’l Airport, Penn Station, institutions of higher learning, fiber optic network, cultural institutions, recreational facilities, etc. While I empathize with this person’s experiences, her failure to remain current on her taxes, isn’t justification for returning this property to her.

  2. Jersey City is a what?! Jersey City is an excellent example of what land grabbing and gentrification has meant to the “native” denizens since the Puritans invaded these shores. Too many Jersey Cityites have been forced out of their residences because landlords are capitalizing on the post 9/11 cross-Hudson Wall Street emigration from NYC….and no one receives more tax breaks than big business….tax incentives to the rich are what have made this country what it is….if this center can help folks get jobs and even start business they can in turn invest in local property etc…. no brainer….

  3. No one is being displaced if these developments are built on land that was once vacant. A little gentrification would do Newark some good. The city is a haven for poverty, how can a city survive, much less thrive, when it’s stuck in a rut of violence, urban blight and every social I’ll that comes with it. Jersey City is an example of success.

  4. Codifing poverty??? Almost every housing project breaking ground/being proposed in the city has barely any affordable housing attached and is mostly market rate. Newark has been adding market rate apartments at a nice clip over the last decade.

    There is also nothing wrong with nonprofits, many provide much needed assistance to people who can’t afford for profit help… many nonprofits assist people with finding good paying jobs/provide people with necessary skills to find jobs. This is exactly what this woman is trying to do with the nonprofit.

    Lastly, you cant go around acting like the city isn’t trying to get productive use out of the land when they are obviously not considering her for the property because she did nothing with it… I bet the city is hoping to get a developer that is willing to do the same thing that is happening at the other mansion down the street, which is being renovated into office space, community space, and market rate apartments.

    I swear, some of you literally have blind folds on when it comes to Newark… never truly seeing whats actually going on in the city, but willing to jump at the first sight of a project not being what you want it to be.

  5. I think this house is symbolic of Newark in general and should be kept as is as a reflection of a once beautiful, majestic city that over the years has fallen apart to the point of almost collapsing. A once grand home that over the decades has turned into a dump. What says Newark better than that.

  6. I truly would love to see any cleaning up of any bad view on any st in Newark we as Newark residents look forward to seeing this property completely renovated and put to good use power to the people that can and will make this a reality

  7. Newark should not attempt to shelter poverty in its borders. Private capital is needed, and a wide spectrum of income would uplift everyone, There is not need for the same ole same ole of the poor leading the poor. The property should go to a proven developer, if one cannot be found in Newark, than outside is good enough

  8. To rebuilt the mansion is well intended…but is not what newark needs….it needs to attract PRIVATE INVESTMENT…IS THE ONLY WAY THESE CITY CAN SURVIVE….CATERING TO MORE CENTERS..REHAB HOUSES…ECT…DOES NOT WORK…

  9. Jersey City is more about urban renewal then gentrification. In terms of a cool vibe I would say it was more like Brooklyn is today. JC has it’s heyday from around 1920 to 1970. People were well dressed and went to theatres, revues, movies and concerts all the time. Journal Sq was the shit back in the day. Imagine going to see a movie matinee at the Lowe’s Wonder Theater, dinner at the Canton Tea House, and then catch Janis Joplin perform at the Stanley. You could do all that in 1968.

    Then Whitey hightailed it to to the suburbs. The slow comeback began around 1990 and had nothing to do with city planning. It was all private money and tax abatements. In turn, Manhattan priced out the middle class so it was inevitable JC real estate would blow up. Last few years it’s been development on steroids. Only thing constant is change.

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