As contractors prepare to demolish the vacant Solomon Schechter Day School, one man is quickly prying a historic tile fireplace off one of its walls.
That's Larry Mobley, a tile restorationist from Michigan hired by Union County. Amid the strange, quiet atmosphere of an abandoned kindergarten room, Mobley peels tiles from the wall one by one. After all are removed, he will wipe the dust off them and number each piece.
While he has to pull electricity from a generator in order to use his power tools, this is one of the easier projects he has done, he says. That's because there's no one around that has to deal with the mess.
"I do this in homes where people are living. It's very dusty work, and it's hard to control," he explains.
The fireplace depicts a barnyard scene – a fireplace fit for a children's room. Each tile is painted by hand, he adds.
A tile buff, Mobley explains that the fireplace was made in the early 20th century, listed in the 1926 catalog of Flint Faience & Tile Company, a factory that initially made spark plugs in Flint, Michigan.
Since spark plugs included ceramic, the factory fired up kilns throughout the day. In between baking their main product, workers shunted ceramic tiles into the oven. It is one of the first examples of assembly-line tile creation, Mobley says.
The building in which the fireplace stands was also built in the 1920s, formerly the Roosevelt Elementary School before Solomon Schechter Day school bought it in 1965, according to a Union County press release. In 2008 the school moved out of town and left the building vacant. The township officially purchased the plot this summer, intending to raze the building in favor of an open space project that may include athletic fields.
With the fireplace safely out of the condemned building, the next step is reassembling and placing it somewhere else. Mobley says he will await further instructions from both township and county boards – members are currently deciding where it will go.
In the meantime, tiles will be packed up in neatly in boxes and stored.
County-Backed Preservation Effort
To preserve the tiles, Union County officials have authorized use of a cache reserved specifically for historic items under threat.
"(This fund is) for projects that are historic artifacts or buildings at an immediate risk," Freeholder Bette Kowalski says.
At its Aug. 19 meeting, the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders authorized $9,975 from the Union County Open Space, Recreation and Historic Preservation Trust Fund to have the fireplace taken out by Mobley before the school is completely torn down, according to a Board press release.
While it was a county initiative that saved the fireplace, it was Maureen Strazdon, chairwoman of the Historical Preservation Advisory Board in Cranford, that first raised the alarm.
She originally asked the township, which owns the lot, if she and other Board members could walk through the building before demolition and take photos – creating a visual record of the interior.
Permission granted by the township, Strazdon and others entered the condemned school Aug. 13 and busily snapped pictures. When she walked into the kindergarten room, she stared at the fireplace.
"We saw this and we went, oh my God this is absolutely beautiful," she says.
Hoping to receive funds in order to save the fireplace, she placed a call to Administrator Barbara Fuller at the Union County Office of Cultural & Heritage Affairs. Fuller then submitted an application to the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office requesting that the building be designated as historic. The state confirmed its eligibility on Aug. 26.
So much depended on that state designation, Strazdon says. If the state hadn't confirmed the status of the school, the fireplace wouldn't have been granted Union County funding.
"It was a house of cards," she says. But fortunately for Strazdon, a house of cards that has proved to be standing on steady ground.