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.
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.
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.