Will the Saint Peter’s Grammar School buildings continue standing in Downtown Jersey City as they have for well over a century or will they be torn down? That’s the question that plenty of neighbors and alumni of the former school at 137-55 York Street want answered.
At the end of July, we first told you about plans by the Saint Peter’s Preparatory School to demolish the historic complex in Ward E’s Paulus Hook Historic District. The three-story site consists of both the original parish school, which dates back to 1861, and the adjacent St. Peter’s Hall, which was designed by Herman Kreitler and constructed in the mid-1890s. Both structures have sat vacant for years under the ownership of St. Peter’s Prep. However, despite their current status as unutilized buildings, these Romanesque Revival edifices once were at the center of life in this densely populated neighborhood.
In addition to being where thousands of young students were educated for over a century and a half, St. Peter’s Hall was the location in 1910 where Woodrow Wilson publicly began his first election campaign. Three years before he became the country’s 28th president, Wilson delivered his first speech of the election season inside the building to a largely working-class audience while running to become New Jersey’s governor, according to a book about him by John Dos Passos.
Now, the site, which has been surrounded by scaffolding for the last few years, might be reduced to rubble. St. Peter’s Prep is seeking a certificate of appropriateness from the Jersey City Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) in order to tear the complex down. Jim Horan, the preparatory school’s vice president, told Jersey Digs in a statement that the buildings would be replaced with parking for faculty and staff.
“Parking is an ongoing concern in our Paulus Hook neighborhood,” Horan explained, adding that the plans for the new lot call for “installing attractive fencing and providing appropriate landscaping for the property.”
The plans to tear down the old Saint Peter’s Grammar School have been the talk of the neighborhood for the last two weeks, with plenty of residents in support of preserving the buildings and some posting that they are in favor of its demolition. At the center of the debate is the condition of the site, especially considering that it reportedly suffered damage when this community was flooded during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
“All of our engineering studies and analyses have shown that the grammar school building is in an extremely distressed condition, primarily due to the devastating effects of Superstorm Sandy,” said Horan. “Of particular concern to us is the building’s foundation, which is in a state of deterioration. In addition, one of the facades is currently six inches off of vertical alignment from street level.”
Tom Kilmer, who has lived across the street from the St. Peter’s Prep campus for 25 years, told Jersey Digs by phone that a six-inch misalignment “is not unusual and it’s not significant.” He thinks that the former grammar school and hall could be adaptively reused into a charter school or an arts center.
Kilmer stated that he has been “trying to open up a conversation about the possibility of the building being in really good condition but the owners are letting it self-destruct,” adding that “it was a very well-built building and if you let water into the masonry intentionally, it will deteriorate.”
Mattias Johansson, another Jersey City resident, wrote a letter opposing the demolition to the HPC and several city officials including Steven Fulop that was forwarded to Jersey Digs.
In it, Johansson said that “the original St. Peter’s School is one of the very few, possibly the only, non-residential Civil War era buildings still standing in Downtown Jersey City.” Citing “intentional neglect” by St. Peter’s Prep, Johansson added that “it was clear” during the June 18 HPC meeting that the preparatory school “had not performed any maintenance on the building for at least a decade.”
Meanwhile, St. Peter’s Prep officials say that they are concerned over the safety of leaving the structures standing in their current form. Horan stated that “following their own internal analysis of the building, the Jersey City Fire Department has indicated that their firefighters would not enter the building in the event of a fire, due to dangerous conditions throughout the structure, and they have posted placards to that effect on the building.”
The fate of the property could be decided at an upcoming HPC meeting. The application by St. Peter’s Prep was scheduled to be heard on Monday, August 20, but sources tell Jersey Digs that the matter has been moved to September. The agenda for the Monday meeting has yet to be posted and a request for confirmation from the Jersey City Planning Division has not yet been returned.