The Case for Saving the St. Peter’s Grammar School Buildings

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St. Peter's 137 55 York Street Paulus Hook Jersey City Historic 2
St. Peter’s Grammar School, 137-55 York Street, Paulus Hook Historic District, Jersey City. Photo by Darrell Simmons/Jersey Digs.

Two structures — St. Peter’s Original Parish School and St. Peter’s Hall and Parochial Schoo — have been fixtures of the corner of York and Van Vorst Streets since the beginning of the Civil War. Scaffolding encases the Romanesque Revival buildings, which have been owned by St. Peter’s Preparatory School since 2005. A parking lot separates the scaffolded buildings from the Jesuit high school’s main building on Warren Street.

The scaffolding only went up about three years ago, around the same time as the CitiBike station across the street. But in a neighborhood where the tallest building in the state looms at the end of York Street, the obvious sign of decay has seemed present for much longer.

Citing structural concerns escalated by Superstorm Sandy, St. Peter’s plans to demolish the historic structures and replace them with a faculty and staff parking lot. Jim Horan, the preparatory school’s vice president, previously told Jersey Digs, that the new lot calls for “installing attractive fencing and providing appropriate landscaping for the property,” implying that a parking lot with curb appeal contributes to the historic neighborhood’s character and sustainability.

St. Peter’s request for demolition has been delayed multiple times since the spring, and the request is now expected to be heard at the Historic Planning Commission meeting on April 1.

Thus far, there have been resounding calls to preserve the buildings. The Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy (JCLC) laid out reasons for preservation in a letter to Hudson County media outlets in August. JCLC trustee Christopher Perez added in a recent statement to Jersey Digs: “Historic structures give us a sense of time and place, a visual timeline of a community’s journey. The St. Peter’s school buildings have hosted 125-150 years of moments in religion and education that can not be replaced.”

Among Paulus Hook residents, there is a concern that a decision to tear down the buildings would set a dangerous precedent for entities like St. Peter’s. “You have to question why [St. Peter’s] let it sit there for a decade,” said resident George Miller.

Paulus Hook Jersey City
Paulus Hook, Jersey City.

Rewarding an instance demolition by neglect detracts from the value of a historic neighborhood Miller said, adding “zoning is important in urban settings. But that’s only true if you retain the buildings. If everyone doesn’t pitch into this, it just undermines the whole idea [of a historic district] and it becomes valueless.”

“Before you know it, it’s barely a historic neighborhood anymore,” said resident Dan Spadaro. “I think if [St. Peter’s is] not willing to do it, they should perhaps sell the property to someone who wants to maintain the historic structure and sees the value in it.”

Paulus Hook, steeped in Revolutionary War era history, is uniquely situated in downtown Jersey City. Waterfront development surrounds the historic district’s edges. From any corner along the Washington Boulevard commercial corridor, 99 Hudson visibly towers above. Because of the boundary created by Columbus Drive and Montgomery Street, Paulus Hook retains the sense of the small island it once was. This adds to the neighborhood’s sense of character.

Cities constantly navigate balancing sustainability, affordability, and historic preservation. There are arguments that demolishing old buildings only escalates the affordability crisis plaguing American cities. Instead, these issues should be approached in tandem. Consider the plans for the St. Peter’s buildings. Demolition would make way for a parking lot but it’s unlikely a parking lot would accommodate or alleviate the existing parking struggles in the densely populated neighborhood.

It’s no secret that Jersey City residents, especially property owners in downtown neighborhoods, were hit hard by the recent property tax revaluation. Paulus Hook residents in particular also struggled after Hurricane Sandy. But as both Miller and Spadaro point out, Paulus Hook residents would not have been allowed to let their properties deteriorate after flooding and storm damage. “We all had to do repairs from that, and we did them quickly. Nobody wanted to deal with that,” explained Spadaro.

St. Peter's 137 55 York Street Paulus Hook Jersey City Historic
St. Peter’s Grammar School, 137-55 York Street, Paulus Hook Historic District, Jersey City. Photo by Darrell Simmons/Jersey Digs.

Ultimately, the issue comes down to fairness. St. Peter’s presence does benefit the neighborhood, “but I think in this situation, nobody wants to see someone get a different treatment,” said Spadaro. JCLC’s Christopher Perez added, “Institutions with historic structures should be committed to maintaining and preserving their legacy. If they allow their historic assets to deteriorate, they should be responsible for repairing them, not demolishing them.”

“The entire neighborhood wants to preserve these buildings. The city really needs to step up to the plate and basically enforce the law,” said Miller.

The decision regarding the St. Peter’s buildings is expected to be heard at the Historic Preservation Commission meeting on Monday, April 1. The Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy also created an event on Facebook, at which you can RSVP and receive updates, here.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. To tear St. Peter’s Hall down would be a tragedy. To tear it down for a parking lot in an area where there remains significant amounts of surface and other parking facilities would be a disgrace. The fact that anyone is even thinking of tearing down one of the most notable and historic buildings in the area for a parking lot is unbelievable. It is so obvious that this is a decision that will be regretted by everyone, including St. Peter’s Prep.

    • St Peters has been destroying historic buildings in JSQ area for decades, they are savages. You should see old pictures of some of the beautiful victorians they have knocked down. Thank god now there are enough residents fighting back to stop them.

      Jersey City really needs to address the Demolition due to neglect. The Episcopal Diocese of Newark is doing the same thing with St John’s Episcopal Church in Bergen Hill where they have neglected a landmarked property for years in hopes of some day demolishing it.

      • Sal, they are savages? No, I don’t think so! But I agree that St. Peter’s should take another look to try to save these historical buildings. Once gone, they are gone. My father grew up downtown and attended St. Peter’s in the 1920’s in the grammar school.
        Historical Preservation should insist on these buildings be saved.

  2. Paulus Hook is in desperate need of schools. I agree that to tear down an existing school structure for a private parking lot would be a disgrace. Quite honestly, it would also be a slap in the face to residents who do not attend St. Peter’s Prep, and would benefit from a school – not a parking lot! Repair the school buildings, and use them as school buildings.

  3. That’s insane. No way should they be allowed to replace historic buildings with parking lots. If they have a plan to put a new structure on the sites it should be considered, but surface lots have no place in an intact, historic urban neighborhood.

  4. This may require a public/private partnership because as an institution the costs for preservation outway the value and costs to rehabilitate the current buildings give to their organization. Our city’s historic preservation representation/policy needs to create a positive/flexible/adaptive atmosphere to preserve our historic buildings and structures. While the value to the community is the preservation of the character and history of the community- a distinct value to the community, but not to the institution owning the building. There should be a development fund attached to the construction of 5 story + modern atrocities (eyesore tax) being built that are called luxury living for the preservation of our city’s historic structures. Could there be a partnership with the city that finds parking suitable for St. Peter Prep employees in the area for the price of preserving the buildings to be used for community education and for traditional educational uses for St. Peters Prep. This is where a public-private partnership could work, not w/ big corporations trying to flee their past malfeasances (Honeywell) with a city bailout through low-moderate income housing w/ bonding for project development in softening housing market. Here is a low-cost plan- get rid of all city cars (only let them use Uber) then let Prep use City Hall parking lot. We could track the travel of politicians and city gov. while preserving a building and lowering costs 🙂

  5. It can’t come a surprise to anyone who has lived in Jersey City for any amount of time that this is the Dioceses of Newark’s classic playbook. You want to destroy a historic structure for financial reasons so you just leave it to the elements for a few years then claim it would be too costly to repair, a good example would be St.Lucy’s downtown. You tear down for the stated purpose, in this case, of a parking lot wait a few years then flip the space to a developer for a large profit. The church is in for the long game and history or public opinion has little to do with profits.

  6. The two building were included in Paulus Hook historic district when it was formed in the early 1980s. When St Peter’s Prep bought the buildings in the 2000s, their historic designation had already been in place for two decades.

    Up until St Peter’s bought the buildings they had been used as school buildings. In the almost two decades that St Peter’s Prep has controlled the structures they have been left mostly vacant and St Peter’s Prep has failed to maintain them. Having neglected the building for almost two decades, St Peter’s Prep is now seeking to demolish them and replace them with a surface parking lot. This looks like a clear attempt to use demolition by neglect to circumvent the buildings historic protection that was already in place when St Peter’s Prep bought them.

    The character and older buildings is one of the things that makes downtown Jersey City such a great place to live. That character is irreplaceable and must be protected. And the public’s voice matters.

    Come and let your presence show your support for the preservation of historic Jersey City and speak if you want your opinion to be heard!

    When: Monday, February 11, 2019
    Where: Council Chambers of City Hall, 280 Grove Street, Jersey City
    What: Jersey City Historic Preservation Commission meeting to review St. Peter’s Prep’s application to demolish two buildings within Paulus Hook Historical District. Case: H18-061.

    https://www.facebook.com/events/341609093231279/

    • I concur wholeheartedly. Preserving these buildings is a no brainer. They have a historic, aesthetic, and artistic
      value that can not be replaced. Destroying them would be an act of criminality.

  7. Create a multi-story building with parking underneath for the school. Even build a elementary school similar to what Montessori did at the waterfront. Multi use building with parking, retail/school on lower floors and condos above. There has to be a way to make it more than a parking lot unless they want to hold onto the land for the land/property value.

  8. Why not look to the tax abated businesses to donate funds to keep this historic landmark? My great great grandfather was a trustee named on the corner stone of the original church and school. Woodrow Wilson spoke in Saint Peter’s Hall. This building built so many memories for me. Our neighborhood was centered around that Parish. I would like to be a part of any fundraising team/event.

    • I quite realize The Catholic Church must be a bit hard up from all of the current and pending sex abuse lawsuits but their total net worth is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Why should a commercial entity that pays both federal and local taxes have their money used to support a religious organization that has had a tax exempt status for hundreds of years? And furthermore one that let these landmark buildings fall into disrepair through their own willful neglect.

  9. A commercial enterprise takes on a tax abatement to promise to add to the city and make and or donate to contribute to the existing neighborhood. None of the donor but it is part of the agreement. Jim I am giving you ammunition to save the structure. Not to take personal attacks at me. Saint Peter’s prep purposeful let the building deteriorate. I do not think a church or school who pays no taxes be able to do this. I feel cheated. These structures are suppose to last. This school also made the church a cafeteria. So many issues with the Catholic Church I cannot comment on here. But the church I was raised in was special and run by much better people than others have experienced in other parishes. That’s being said. It needs to be restored to its original architecture beauty. Prep should sell it to a restoration project. Or start teaching there students about architecture and appreciation for history.

  10. Private donations are ok, public funding is not ok. I disagree with your proposal. It’s not a personal attack.
    My point is the Catholic Church is an extremely rich organization with a slimy record of covering up and lying about sexual abuse. If one starts to use tax dollars to pay for maintenance, repairs and renovations of church owned properties there would be no end in sight to it. The other issue is the separation of church and state. The state doesn’t exist to support any religious organization.

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