Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Cooley Sanatorium/ Villa Maria Home for the Aged

Located in a quiet suburban town, this decrepit hospital complex was once was once a tuberculosis sanatorium. Doctor Justus Cooley, a graduate of the New York Eclectic Medical College, opened his homeopathic hospital in the newly incorporated boro of North Plainfield as a scenic getaway for residents afflicted with tuberculosis.

Listed in the fourth volume of Journal of the American Institute of homeopathy as opening in 1889, the hospital is one of the earliest existing sanatorium hospitals in the state of New Jersey. Though the inside of the buildings bare almost no trace of how they appeared in those days, the exterior definitely hints to the age of the complex.

It was only seven years earlier that the microbe "tubercle bacillus" was discovered by Dr. Robert Koch. The name was derived from the latin word "tuberculum" which just meant a small bump. Though the name was around long before the microbe was discovered, the name only began to stick then. Before this, the disease was commonly referred to as "consumption".

The sanatorium, which at this time was still just a small two story hospital structure and a small house, was closed by the time World War I started. In 1939 the land and buildings were sold to the Franciscan Servants of the Holy Child Jesus. They would go on to construct new buildings, including a building with a chapel and a three story dormitory directly behind the original sanatorium building. The hospital was renamed the "Villa Maria home for the Aged".

The 1950's saw a need for more beds at the hospital, so another dormitory was added to the front of the original building in 1953. In doing this, a portion of the original building was remodeled so heavily it was basically demolished, and not much more can be said for the inside of the remaining portion of it.

More and more small additions were added to the main building, including a small portion with a false stone veneer added to the back in the early 1960's. Another seperate dormitory building was built for staff next to Dr. Cooley's humble home.

Finally, the most modern section of the hospital was built on the left of the original building in the 1970's. From what I can gather, it was a hospice ward. There was also a library added to the wing adjoining the original building 

It is around this time that the original section would see its final renovation.

Some of the original brick buildings were covered in stucco and painted over in yellow at some time later in the hospital's history. Despite all of the work and improvement done to the complex, the nursing home closed in 2002.

All of the buildings were vacated, save for the caretakers house on the property. Though no operations were held at the facility at this time, the sisters would continue to evade taxes until 2005, when their non profit status was revoked. The nuns would try and argue this, lying about income and hiding assets from the IRS. However, a lien was a placed against the property in 2007, with the sisters owing almost one and a half million dollars in back taxes for the blighted property.

After this ruling, the real scandal began to come out over the property. Collection notices were sent to the abandoned Villa Maria property, which time after time were returned because the property was represented by a group in Morristown. The town should have been aware of this, as the addresses of both the existing Villa Maria in Pennsylvania and the legal representatives in Morristown were on file. OPRA requests to see these documents, however, were rejected by the borough clerk. More and more requests for comment were rejected by borough officials, leading the citizens of the town to believe that illegal deals were made to encourage development of the property.

The outrage of the citizens didn't just stop there either. Several hundred people spoke out against the development of the property, asserting that the buildings should be saved and the land preserved as open space; something the borough lacks entirely. The local newspaper received a handful of letters, all saying the same thing.

As the shady deals began to come to light, the buildings on the property continued to rot away. Numerous local kids had found their way inside the buildings, smashing holes in the walls and leaving graffiti on every spot they could find. Though this played right into the owners hands, they were forced try and keep people out by putting up plywood and "no trespassing" signs.

While everyone was waiting for something to happen with the property, several conservationists reached out to the DEP about the property. It seemed that the 17 acre Villa Maria parcel was home to several uncommon species of trees, some dating back two hundred years.

With all of this information getting stirred up, the owners were getting anxious about their investment. They insisted that one structure on the property was not within the defined flood zone. Therefore a DEP permit should not be necessary in order to begin demolition on the building. However, concerns about asbestos and other hazardous materials played a factor as well.

Strides were made to get the Villa Maria hospital buildings on the state register of historic places, but the state denied the application. They cited lack of cooperation from the owners of the property as the main reason for declining to register the buildings. They did mention, however, that the buildings could still make it on the register if the boro amended their own historic preservation laws for Washington Park to include the hospital as another historic entity.

Unfortunately the boro stated that this was not really the case. They mentioned that if a majority of the owners of a property rejected the designation that there was nothing the boro could do. Since the Villa Maria property was under the sole ownership of a private entity, there is little hope that any such designation would take place. They also added that even if the buildings were added to the NJRHP, they still could be demolished in their entirety.

A representative of the DEP Historic Preservation Office was contacted about the ongoing struggle over the property. He gave a presentation about the property to the residents, in which he insisted that the boro could get the building on the register by adding it onto the "Master Plan" for the town. To do this, a Historic Preservation component needed to be added to the plan. While the buildings could still be demolished in that scenario, it would become much harder to get the proper permits.

As citizens worked on their efforts to preserve the property, an application to build age restricted condos were initially approved in 2007. This was done despite loud and consistent outcry at the planning board meetings. However, the process was halted by Somerset County.

Another issue that generated fear over the fate of the property is the conflict of interest between the Environmental Commission and the Boro's leadership. The chair of the Environmental Commission, Harry Allen, is none other than the husband of the mayor. He has refused to recuse himself on the matter, despite his wife's documented position in favor of building on the property. In accordance with this, the department has objected to repeated attempts from concerned citizens to do their jobs and conduct environmental studies on the property. Fearing the possibility of finding something that would spur development from the area, the commission has elected to ignore this issue entirely. The mayor has gone on record claiming that the boro was denied a grant and therefore cannot do any studies. This is wildly untrue though, as the state environmental commission provides guidelines on how volunteers can conduct the studies themselves. No grant money needed.

In 2008, the property changed hands. It was sold to Watchung Hills at North Plainfield, a limited liability corporation. A site plan came forth, showing extensive tree removal throughout the property. In addition, a majority of the hospital was to be demolished. The demolition included the original Cooley Sanatorium buildings, several of the buildings added under the ownership of Villa Maria, and the caretakers house as well.

Since 2008, almost nothing has been published about the hospital. The buildings have been almost completely boarded up on the first floor, and since then the vandalism has somewhat subsided. Still they rot with time. What we have here is a classic case of "demolition by neglect", where property owners intentionally ignore structural problems and vandalism until the building is too far gone to save. Hopefully that changes soon, and the hospital can see new life as something beneficial to the community. Until then, we just watch and wait.


  1. Very interesting. as someone who lives near the property, I would love to see something done with it, either repair it to a working facility, or tear it down and use it as a park.

  2. hi
    is there a problem with asbestos?

  3. It is such a shame that no one is doing anything with this beautiful property.. maybe for children who are waiting for adoption or a museum where artists can show their work...or a botanical...there are so many things that can be done with this property it is such a shame they are letting it go to waste..YET there seems to be a constant flow of shady cars and vans that go through this place..and a ton of no trespassing signs on yet no one questions these people?? I find that very very strange..The community should get it together and try to do something with this place..Even for a small park and learning center for special needs children..

  4. I was fortunate in 2005 to photograph the stained glass windows of the chapel. Your photos above show that those window were replaced. (round topped windows in the large room photo with the caption below it that begins, "While everyone was waiting for something to happen...")
    I'm curious if anyone knows the fate of the stained glass windows. There were 17 in the chapel and one large round window at the very top floor as seen in the photo above with its caption reading, "The sanitarium, which at this time was still..." I am finishing a book on the stained glass of Washington park in which my photos of Villa Mari's windows will be included. I would love to include a caption that would confirm their fate. pls contact, Ken Lombardo at brokenlom@verizon.net

  5. Pastor Gary DePasquale of I.H.O.P. International House of Prayer should buy it and turn it Into housing quarters or a training facility

  6. Pastor Gary DePasquale of I.H.O.P. International House of Prayer should buy it and turn it Into housing quarters or a training facility

  7. Gift it to Eastern Gate church in Cranford NJ

  8. Arson is what took care of (neighboring) Watchung's centuries-old castle and hotels, paving the way for today's soullessly designed, shoddily-built McMansions. No reason to expect this story will end differently.

    1. It was on fire this morning and the fire was extremely difficult to put out. Arson?

  9. Is there anyway to contact someone who will allow me to go take pictures

  10. I attended many of the private services on sunday with the sisters of the villa maria and seeing these photos is very sad. The living facility was spotless and chapel beautiful, all of the windows, and statues were sold after to their move on 5/8/2006 through an auction that was done on the villa premises.

  11. Unfortunately, a huge fire is destroying this place as we speak.

    I woke up to the sound of fire engines and helicopters. It is very sad.

  12. as a resident of north plainfield im so sadden this is a historical monument and now it gone they should have made something out of this property. They still can hope they find the perks that did this because fire always have a source

  13. Today was the second fire in the building this year and also happened in the same location as the July 2017 fire. Definitely arson. I hope there was some type of security that can help identify who started this. What a shame, I always enjoyed walking on Interhaven and admiring the structure.

  14. Very sad that the person or entity responsible for the upkeep of this historic property just let it go and let either Mother Nature or Vandalism take it's course. It wasn't just a building...too bad some do not see it as more!

  15. It is indeed very sad to see these photographs. My family lived there for 30 years, from 1951-1981. My father was the groundskeeper. My brother and I grew up there--at 450 Grove street. We knew all the nuns. I worked there during my summer college years. It hurts to see what it has become. I hope something can be done with the beautiful property--preserving as much as possible. What a shame.

    1. I drove by today when i was in the area. My grandparents lived in the little house between the apt buildings. My Dad also spent many yrs there. I remember visiting them and visiting villaMaria. It was so sad to see it in such a state of disrepair I googled it to find out what happened and came across this article. )-;

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