Willow Terrace is as close as one gets to a de facto gated community in this town. The two alleys on Willow Avenue between 6th and 7th Sts. personify the skeptical conservative stereotype of “old” Hoboken, with hand-written “No Trespassing” signs enforced by scornful scowls from territorial residents. Yet on the end of one of the cobblestone blocks is an eye-popping example of new construction that is quite obviously not the same old brick and mortar.
“What better example of our firm’s architecture than your own house,” says the home’s owner, Anthony Vandermark, who teamed up with partner Frank Minervini to establish Minervini Vandermark Architecture in 2000.
“Our new office is on 14th and Grand. It’s really hard to miss driving down the Viaduct—visually it resembles a rusting box,” says Minervini. “We used a material called Corten steel, applied to the exterior of the building in a shingle pattern. But it’s meant to rust,” he explains. ” We think it acknowledges the historic industrial uses north of the viaduct.”
When asked to describe their architectural style, project architect Ciaran Kelly explains, “We’re developing a new contemporary vernacular architecture”–surprising even his colleagues with that definition. Along with fellow architects Adrian Melia and Sujan Shrestha, the team has been surprising a lot of people with the definitive nature of their work.
“It doesn’t have to look the same,” says Minervini. “Our general opinion is that a new building should not look like an old building.”
That’s all well and good, but in an architectural climate like Hudson County, with established row houses and historic uniformity, a flair for the dramatic can create drama in its own right. Of course both Minervini and Vandermark are keenly aware of this, but feel they have the inside track on linking older architecture in the area with contemporary design. “We’re a good bridge,” says Vandermark. “Both our families grew up in Hoboken.”
While the families eventually moved out, something drew both Minervini and Vandermark back to their hometown. “The city changed. It became much nicer, offered places to eat, and things people in their 20′s and 30′s would want,” says Minervini. “Now it’s offering those same things, plus more for people with families.”
In concert with a hereditary knowledge of the area, Minervini Vandermark Architects cite its firm’s diversity as a tremendous asset in developing unique designs. “What helps our aesthetic, as opposed to other architectural firms that may be in Hoboken, is that we have such a diverse group of people,” says Minervini. Though Minervini and Vandermark hail from the area, Melia and Kelly are both from Ireland while Shrestha comes from Nepal. “Everybody pulls from their background and knowledge,” says Vandermark, “which is why you get such a great mesh of ideas.”
Any attempt to exhibit reverence to the past while embracing the future is obviously a difficult balancing act. “If a project came to us where there’s a series of traditional row houses, we may take those cues and apply it to our building,” says Minervini, “but the aesthetic we prefer, and that our clients prefer is certainly more contemporary.”
Their solution, in some cases, is to simply put one on top of the other. “There was an existing 5-story row house in a historic part of downtown Jersey City, and we added to the top and side of it by constructing an all glass structure that was setback off the main façade,” explains Minervini. “The thinking there was that it made the historic features of the existing building more prominent–with what we’re adding, we’re not trying to compete with or replicate the existing structure.”
A little further up the road, they found a similar project that in turn won them an award. “We added three floors above an existing two-story brick industrial building,” he says. “Instead of replicating and detracting from what was existing, we used contrasting materials and architectural design.”
“Old” Hoboken meets “New” Hoboken
Divisions between the “born-and-raised” and the “newbies” here in Hoboken are evident in many aspects, with the passionate expression of those opinions being the one thing they have in common. Putting it mildly–contemporary architecture is one of those things that may not be for everyone.
“720 Willow is a perfect example of a modern building in the middle of several traditional buildings–you end up with similar mass, but everything else about the building is modern,” Says Minervini. “It’s one of those buildings that we love and lots of people love, but some don’t–and we respect that.
“Some people have called it out as being an eyesore, but we certainly don’t think so,” says Vandermark, who is perhaps even more intimately familiar with the differing opinions considering the buzz generated by his own home on that rigid corner of Willow
Terrace. “In the beginning a lot of people were a little hesitant with the architecture but it’s been embraced by a lot of the local neighborhood,” he says. “As far as the adjacent neighbors, they’ve come to appreciate it.”
Regarding the naysayers, Minervini says, “I think ‘old’ Hoboken is probably more open-minded than we all think, and ‘new’ Hoboken is a bit less open-minded than we all think. We probably can’t change all the opinions. Our thinking was look at those blocks–although there is some historic nature to those specific buildings, they’ve been bastardized. We provided a drawing to show which ones are original and which ones look nothing like they did originally.”
“And that’s 90 percent of them,” says Vandermark. “This was an opportunity to do something different considering the historical context is no longer valid.”
In reference to members of the community, Kelly adds, “We’re always very careful to try to involve them. When people feel that they’re somehow part of the process, they’re a lot more open to the design. When they understand the reasons behind it, that it’s not just for aesthetics but it’s actually deeply rooted in the design and the materials, then it makes a lot more sense.”
Minervini explains, “Façade and exterior design are as important as the design of the floor layouts; its all part of the same process. The interior use of a space should be reflected on the façade–where there are big rooms there’s big glass, where there are little rooms there’s little glass. And there’s the use of modern materials–brick and masonry are not the only materials available to us.”
“That’s part of our design philosophy,” says Vandermark. “We try to push the envelope with different materials–the Corten steel we used on our building, the red cedar we used on my house, stainless steel meshes and different things that you can put forward that make a difference.”
With the economy where it is, one may wonder how robust the contemporary architectural design market is. “Our brand of architecture is conducive to the condo market, and people want to live in a unique building,” says Vandermark.
“The down economy has certainly made it easier for architects to design something nice,” explains Minervini, “because it’s the nicer finishes and nicer designs that are now selling as people are definitely more discriminating in their taste and money is more important.”
For example, their recent project at 213 Clinton was a complete knockdown overhaul with very contemporary design. While other properties languish in a buyer’s market, the entire building sold in a matter of weeks. ” The developer, Paraic Monaghan, allowed us to design something that was a bit different and also added some very nice finishes and detailed design to the interior,” says Minervini, “and it sold. People see that, other developers see that and it’s good for us.”