HOWELL – There was a mix of passion and frustration at a recent town council meeting when discussions turned to restoring a very old, historic house at 427 Lakewood-Farmingdale Road.
The MacKenzie House, which dates back to the 1700s and was once the home of a large milling family, has had numerous owners before it was eventually donated to Howell Township by a MacKenzie family member in 1982. After that, the Howell Historical Society took over preserving the house and keeping it open to the public as a historical landmark.
The library and museum houses records and historical documents, and has been the site for school tours, monthly meetings and an annual open house for the community to see artifacts from Howell’s agricultural past.
Questions have been raised at council meetings throughout the past year as to whether or not the building has recently been open to the public.
Now the Howell Heritage Group, seemingly made up of members from the original Howell Historical Society, wants to take over the fundraising and restoration of the house, which according to engineers, is suffering from structural damage such as plaster cracks, sunken floors, and a dropped chimney.
Tara Dolan, who joined the Howell Historical Society in 2003, spoke during the public hearing portion of the meeting and said she participated in fundraisers and school tours for 3rd grade children at the museum and library. She said those children have come up to her and said, “I remember you from the MacKenzie House.”
While she understands that there’s certainly issues and money involved with restoring the home, she also feels the landmark contributed to the community, and that it’s extremely valuable to know the history of where you came from.
Virginia Woolley, who said she was the historical society member who worked to organize and put the museum together when it was first donated, expressed her frustration with the lack of progress, and wondered why the building no longer has a 501c tax exempt number on it.
“How can we raise money? No one’s going to give big donations when they can’t claim it,” she said.
Councilwoman Evelyn O’Donnell spoke passionately about the cause and hoped to do something positive, saying she was previously a member of the Howell Historical Society. She said the tax ID number had been revoked because the historical society had not kept up with the house, and now that this new group wants to help restore the house, they might need permission.
O’Donnell said the house was given to the township by the MacKenzie family with the idea that it would be kept open as a museum and library for the community, and that technically, the family could ask for the house back if it’s not being used that way.
“This is so disjointed,” she said, frustrated.
Councilman Robert Walsh pointed out repeatedly that the same conversation came up 12 years ago, and nothing was done then to restore the house then either.
“We have people that want to volunteer their time, people that want to do with the house as it was given to the town, they want to fulfill the MacKenzie wishes, and somehow this isn’t able to happen,” said O’Donnell.
Mayor Theresa Berger suggested that the most logical thing to happen would be to invite the Howell Heritage Society and the Howell Historical Society to come together as one group and form a new 501c.
According to Community Development Director Jim Herrman, after a historic architect and structural engineer examined the MacKenzie structure, three phases of construction were mapped out based on priority. In total, they amount to $150,000.
It becomes a question of whether council will choose to spend taxpayer dollars on restoring the landmark, or pursue volunteer opportunities in order to raise the funds.
Deputy Mayor Robert Nicastro said since volunteers won’t legally be able to do any work inside the house because they are such major repairs, they can at least help raise the funds.
“We all understand the issue,” he said, adding that within the capital budget if there is a shortfall, they would be able to make improvements to at least make it safe for children to go inside the house again.
Mayor Berger and other officials urged the Howell Heritage Group to move forward with pursuing a 501c tax exempt number, as it can take months to obtain.
Still, Woolley said she would feel better if she could just get inside the building and clean up a little, and maybe stop things from getting moldy.