Old Train Station Gets New Life

September 25, 2003

Two 14-foot wooden benches sat covered in dust a few weeks ago inside the dilapidated interior of the historic Midtown train station in Elizabeth.

Throughout most of the 20th century, passengers would sit on them while waiting for trains of the Central Railroad of New Jersey.

But only dirt has sat on the benches since the last train left the station in 1978.

Old train station gets new life in Elizabeth.Like the station, the benches are being restored and patrons of a cafe and pizzeria will sit on them before Thanksgiving.

After the last train left, the station was abandoned until the city bought it from NJ Transit and renovated its exterior in the late 1990s.

However, it remained derelict until this year, when an agreement was reached to lease it and $550,000 in work to open a restaurant started in August.

The building, declared historic in 1984, was a sad sight and an unsafe spot in the heart of the city. Now, it will be turned into an attraction for commuters, shoppers and Midtown workers.

“I’ve been in Elizabeth my whole life and (the station) has always been empty,” said Michael LoBrace, 37, the owner of Michelino’s Pizzeria and one of two businessmen behind the new venture, to be called Michelino’s Midtown Station Cafe. His partner, Mirek Musial, owns nine Dunkin’ Donuts shops in the area.

“An eyesore goes away,” and “a revenue-producing building in the city” is added, said Mayor J. Christian Bollwage.

Every detail of the restoration plan has been approved by the state Office of Historic Preservation, which has a say in the selection of furniture, lighting fixtures and the color of paint and tiles. The office will supervise “everything from ways to minimize damage to the walls and the layout of the interior, to overseeing where electrical outlets are placed,” said Peter Boger, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection.

“We’ll be maintaining the historic value of the building,” said Oscar Ocasio, city director of planning and community development.

The station’s waiting room will be transformed into the main dining area, while what used to be a storage room will be the kitchen, LoBrace said.

The station will look as it did in the early 20th century. LoBrace said he contacted the city fire and police departments and the Jersey Central Railway Historical Society to bring permanent exhibitions of historical artifacts and photographs to the place.

In a Romanesque Revival style with French château overtones, the station was built for $38,600 between 1891 and 1893, according to a 1976 issue of Architecture New Jersey. It was designed by renowned architect Bruce Price, who also counted among his works the Windsor Station in Montreal and the 1895 skyscraper that houses the Bank of Tokyo in New York.

Stone-and-brick stations like this one “were built to last forever,” said Jersey Central Railway Historical Society historian Mitchell Dakelman.

The station led a hectic life. Up to three lines stopped there — Jersey Central, Reading and Baltimore & Ohio — at its peak of activity. The Pennsylvania Railroad went by on the neighboring elevated tracks that are now the only active ones, carrying NJ Transit formations.

“It was quite a busy station,” said Dakelman. Travelers on the Jersey Central lines, which reached Jersey City, he added, “could transfer to the Pennsylvania Railroad and go direct to New York City.”

On foggy days, Dakelman said, when the ferries that usually took them to Manhattan from Jersey City would not work, Jersey Central commuters were given a “fog ticket.” This allowed them to board the Pennsylvania line without paying more.

The station was remodeled in 1920, according to Architecture New Jersey, and its interior was modernized in 1953 at a cost of more than $50,000. Its slow death began in 1967, when the modern Union County commute was born.

The Aldene plan — named after a place in Roselle — diverted Jersey Central trains to Newark Penn Station before they reached Elizabeth. Ferry service was discontinued and those commuters started traveling to Manhattan on PATH trains.

“The Aldene plan really killed that east part of the (Jersey Central) line,” Dakelman said.

The only service that remained in the station was a Cranford-to- Bayonne shuttle, nicknamed The Scoot, which did not see many travelers. Its last trip, on August 1978, was the last to stop at the Midtown station.

Since then, the building stood abandoned until its exterior was renovated and a pedestrian plaza was built beside it as a part of the Midtown redevelopment plan.

The place used to be a haven for panhandlers, drug dealers and prostitutes, said Joseph Foti, owner of The Station House bar on Morris Avenue across from the station. “People get afraid commuting,” Foti said. “It isn’t too bad now, but it was bad.”

The station stands separated from the city’s busiest commercial district by the elevated NJ Transit station and the stone arches that hold the tracks. “It sat there for 25 years,” Bollwage said, “within an area on the other side of the tracks that didn’t get a lot of street traffic or attention.”

The city spent more than $800,000 to renovate the exterior of the building, reviving its turn-of- the-century look a few years ago. New transom windows were put in place and the four clocks on the tower were fixed.

After the renovation, the Bollwage administration tried to sell the station for $100,000 to Jorge Castro, a developer and local Board of Adjustment official who intended to open a restaurant.

The proposed deal sparked one of the hottest battles in the 2000 mayoral campaign. Former school board president Rafael Fajardo, attempting to unseat Bollwage, questioned the sale as a giveaway and his running mate, then-Councilman Tony Monteiro, asked then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to review the sale.

The developer finally withdrew his bid and from then on the city spent up to $100,000 a year to protect the building in the evenings, Bollwage said. With a sale removed from consideration, “we decided to lease on the long term.”

The new restaurant’s owners signed a 10-year lease, with options to extend it for 10 more years.

The eatery, LoBrace said, will be “more like a pizzeria-bakery-cafe with a wood-burning brick oven.” It will serve breakfast for commuters leaving town, lunch for workers and shoppers, dinner and take-out in the evening and espressos and cappuccinos all day.

Owners, city officials and other merchants hope the new presence will help improve the area.

“This restaurant is going to keep people in the area coming off the trains,” Bollwage said.

“It’s going to bring a different environment,” said Carlos Agudelo, vice president of the Morris-Midtown Business Association and owner of Tienda del Abuelo, on Morris Avenue across from the station.

The cafe, with seating for more than 100 customers, will boast an elegant setting — exposed beams, oak floors and the unique clock tower topped by a weather vane with the silhouette of a steam locomotive.

Finally, life will return to the 110-year-old station.

“It’s nice that it’s finally here,” LoBrace said of the deal to open the restaurant. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel.”