The stereotypical Jersey diner is big and busy, driven by a massive menu, and reflects the most stylish of contemporary decor with a cavernous vestibule that can handle the crowds waiting for Sunday brunch. But there is another side to the state’s diner landscape that includes older, and much smaller factory-made diners, many flanked in stainless steel panels, that stand forlorn and nearly forgotten in weedy lots along the roadside, victims of changing traffic patterns, management cycles, or neighborhood economics. Similar diners thrive elsewhere, and these can too. For the moment, however, these gems of Jersey roadside heritage sit on the eve of destruction awaiting another chance to serve the community.
Preservation New Jersey, a Trenton-based, non-profit organization promoting historic preservation in the Garden State, recently released their Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites list that included a general statewide item entitled “Historic Diners of New Jersey.” Preservation New Jersey understands the value of the diner to Jersey culture, lifestyle and history, and also recognizes the need to promote diner awareness to encourage continued support for existing diners, and the preservation and reuse of idle ones. Adding to their value is the fact that most of the nearly 400 diners in the state were manufactured here. With companies like O’Mahony, Paramount, Kullman, Fodero, the Paterson Vehicle Company, Mountain View, Manno, Musi, and Swingle, North Jersey had the greatest concentration of diner manufacturers in the world. All but Paramount – now known as PMC- and Kullman have closed, and Kullman no longer manufactures diners. The finely crafted masterpieces of these Jersey diner makers, however, still exist in the museum of the open road.
Preservation New Jersey gave a general shout out to save the “Historic Diners of New Jersey” without listing any specific diner. In my Garden State diner wanderings for the upcoming book, Diners of New Jersey, I have discovered endangered diners in almost every county, and have assembled here a list of the most threatened diners in the state. These are classic diners that have been closed for an extended period of time, or have been threatened with demolition, removal, or property redevelopment. The list is tentative in that I do not know their current state. Has a deal already been made to purchase, rehab, or remove these diners? Have some already been lost? This is where you come in. If you have any past, present, or proposed future information on these diners, and their current conditions please share what you know through your comments. Or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Developing a list of endangered commercial properties is a tricky thing because both the business and the building are implicated, and they are not the same. The unpredictability of a “for sale” sign on East Orange’s iconic Harris Diner is understandably a little unsettling to diner fans and local patrons, but that doesn’t necessarily make it endangered. Buildings are bought and sold all the time. After all, Charles Harris, the original owner and diner namesake sold the place in 1958. At the same time, the business is integrally linked to the building. The building that houses Olga’s Diner on the Marlton Circle in South Jersey was manufactured by Fodero in 1959, although its pristine condition causes many to assume it dates to the late-1960s or even 1970s. Yet, an aging diner dynasty, unpaid back taxes, and the potential resale of a multi-million dollar lot has closed the business and put the building at risk of demolition to redevelop the land.
This list of ten endangered Jersey diners reflects more the building than the business. It highlights some of the oldest and most historic diners at risk because of long-term closure and possible destruction due to building neglect or property redevelopment. The average person cannot save these buildings by their patronage. It’s too late for that. Salvation has to come through community involvement and active participation with local elected officials and planning authorities. No matter how seemingly abandoned these diners are, however, they are still private property and there is only so much that can be done. Preservation initiatives should nonetheless be explored and supported, at the very least by voicing concern that these places mater.
In addition to the Ten Most Endangered, I also came up with a second tier of threatened Jersey diners for those of a more recent vintage, yet still important to their community’s quality of life, in addition to diners whose fate may have already been sealed. Business is the best tonic for any open diner. While supporting your local diner, however, recognize that the state’s most historic diners are likely to be located in older neighborhoods that were growing 50 to 60 years ago when these buildings were set on their foundations. So support them by making the occasional trip back to the old neighborhood to get a slice of history.
Ten Most Endangered New Jersey Diners
1. Max’s Grill, 735-737 Harrison Avenue, Harrison; 1927 O’Mahony. Max’s Grill is not only the oldest diner in the state, it is in near museum-quality condition. The 1927 O’Mahony is in Harrison, an old factory town reincarnated as an affordable, condo bedroom community a couple of train stops from Manhattan. This is the perfect walkable neighborhood for a small diner like Max’s. Unfortunately, it and the bar it is attached to has been closed since 2007. New condos mean new customers, unless of course those townhouses land on the site of Max’s. Every resident in Harrison should be ready to protest any proposal that doesn’t lead to the reopening of this very historic, one-of-a-kind diner gem.
2. Tom’s Diner, US 46, Ledgewood (Roxbury Twp.); 1937c Silk City. The last time Tom’s saw action was when Cyndi Lauper filmed her music video, Time After Time, there in 1984. Well, maybe it hasn’t been closed as long as that, but it seems that way. Tom’s is one of the stock model Silk City diners that came out of the Paterson Vehicle Company plant in Paterson, and were scattered all up and down the roadside. At this time, the monitor roof, window transoms, and front porcelain panel for the diner’s name were standard Silk City features. As common as these were in the 1930s, that was some seven decades ago, and unaltered Silk City’s of this vintage are becoming increasingly scarce. Everyone –residents, local officials, travelers, diner fans, and not least of which, the owner- would love to see this Depression Era Silk City back in action.
3. White House Diner, US 22 Readington; 1955c Mountain View. This mid-century Mountain View has been closed so long it may soon disappear beneath the overgrown jungle of its own shrubbery. US Route 22 between Clifton and Somerville presents a challenging set of circumstances for the diner preserver that is written right into the diner geography of the road. Back in the mid-1950s, two modern, stainless steel diners were placed on this stretch of highway when it was the main road west from New York City funneling traffic that supported dozens of diners. This transient traffic was lost when Interstate 78 opened in the 1970s, eventually facilitating the closing of both diners. After a brief hiatus, however, the nearby countryside started filling up with suburban housing developments providing a customer base for two new, postmodern diners that opened in the 1990s: the Spinning Wheel, and Louka’s Last American Diner. These new diners literally flank the older and long-idle White House and Branchburg diners. Could this few-mile stretch of road actually support four diners; two brand new, and two old classics? The diner contrasts along this stretch of US 22 is a great one for leisure roadside rangers and photographers –while it lasts- but a clever business model will have to be devised to save this chunk of Jerseyana.
4. Branchburg Diner, US 22 Branchburg; 1954 O’Mahony. The Branchburg Diner is the abandoned brother to the White House Diner located a few miles west. It is an excellent example of a last-days O’Mahony constructed a few years before this venerable Jersey diner manufacturer closed. Its fluted, vertical stainless steel panels are separated by green flexglass, presenting a unique diner façade that is further enhanced by the exterior clock above the vestibule. The Branchburg was part of a larger roadside one-stop that included a bar and cabins. The owner has expressed an interest in building a strip mall on the property. The diner needs to be saved, even if it means relocating to another site.
5. Little Falls Diner, 9 Paterson Ave. Little Falls, 1946c Kullman. The Little Falls Diner is a picture postcard perfect example of a postwar in-town diner set up against the sidewalk within walking distance of all the businesses in the little downtown of Little Falls. The vertically arranged, cream-colored porcelain panels, and streamline-ended windows are original to this late-1940s Kullman, and the interior is surprisingly in tack for a diner that has been closed since 1990. The owner would love to sell it, and the property could not be put to a better use.
6. Mack Diner, 150 French St. New Brunswick, 1941 Fodero. Although made by different companies, the porcelain flanked Mack Diner is a stylistic cousin to the famed Summit Diner in Summit. Its life as the All-Ears Records store from 1976 to 2005 was nearly as long as its run as a diner, ending ignominiously when its owner was sent to prison on drug charges. The diner has been empty ever since. In 2008, it was bought by Tareq Algharaybeh, who has the intent of relocating his nearby Sam’s Pizza and Chicken restaurant onto the Mack site. He has the diner up for sale hoping someone will move it away.
7. Pickering Diner, 18th St. & 10th Ave., Paterson, 1940 Paramount. When Paterson was still a manufacturing powerhouse, Paramount built the Pickering Diner for the corner lot at 10th Avenue and 18th Street. It was advertised to be the largest diner in New Jersey at the time, a superlative diner manufacturers never tired of trying to top. Amazingly, this pre-war Paramount still stands, yet as empty as the once-humming mills that still surround it. The diner last saw life as a pancake place, but has been closed and up for sale for years. It is time to bring this forgotten treasure back to life.
8. Mom’s Diner, US 1 Avenel (Woodbridge), early-1950s Fodero. There are few early-1950s Fodero’s left that are in as good a shape as Mom’s. Hungry motorists turning into the lot from US 1 can easily be confused as to whether the place is closed because they arrived in the off-hours, or because it is closed closed. It’s closed closed. And its pristine status won’t last forever. Cannot busy Route 1 support a genuine classic diner of this size even as a breakfast-lunch place, or is this a case of the land being worth more than the business? Like the family farm in a suburbanizing countryside, this is a common condition for putting diners on the endangered list. As a community, we usually lose more than we gain.
9. Calhoun Diner, US 1 Lawrence Twp., 1955c Mountain View. A mid-1950s Mountain View has been sitting idle along US Route 1 in Trenton’s suburban Lawrence Township for far too long. Stainless steel and striped in green with hallmark corner scrolls, this Mountain View started life as the Calhoun Diner on nearby Calhoun Street, and still stands as a classic piece of postwar Jersey roadside. Turning its key back on as is would be best, but it is also designed to move.
10. Cookstown Diner, 10 New Egypt-Cookstown Road, Cookstown (North Hanover Twp.), early-1950s Mountain View. The little Cookstown Diner is tucked away in rural South Jersey on a county road between McGuire Air Force Base and New Egypt. It sits at the edge of the unincorporated hamlet of Cookstown. It sits on a bend in the road next to a gas station, a static tableau from another time. It would be a challenge to find for all but locals, and therefore a great place to discover. Unfortunately it hasn’t been open for years, but appears as if it could be with an interior that is in good shape. Although I know little of this out of the way diner’s story, I do know that it is an early-1950s Mountain View. Mountain View made hundreds of its famous scroll corner diners before closing in 1957. The Cookstown, however, is from a more rare preceding generation of Mountain Views, making it all the more important to save.
Second Tier Seven Endangered New Jersey Diners
11. USA Country Diner, US 130 Windsor (Washington Twp.), 1964 Kullman. The Country Diner on US 130 south of Hightstown was erected by Kullman at a time when diner manufacturers were still enamored with the look of modernity, but were experimenting with new ways of presenting it. Stainless steel flanks receded for plate glass so expansive windows functioned more like walls. The USA Country Diner is a wonderful expression of this, stunningly framed in light blue and set on a foundation of horizontal stone reminiscent of a California coffee shop of the same time period. Last time I visited, a sign on a door said they were closed for renovation. That scared me almost as much as if the sign said they were closed for demolition. This building is a perfect rendition of early-1960s optimism with no equivalent anywhere in the state. Renovation for preservation is exactly what is needed, but a radical insensitive rebuild would take the diner off the endangered list, and put it squarely on the who-cares list. Worse yet, that was in 2006. Can benign neglect save this building, or will it disappear one day without warning?
12. Olga’s Diner, NJ 70 & NJ 73 Marlton, 1959 Fodero. Olga’s is another early environmental transition diner in excellent condition. Although it predates the Country Diner, it looks much newer, completed in Fodero’s coffee shop style with large windows and white formstone trimmed in stainless steel along the casements and extended eve. Olga’s might be the most well known diner in all of South Jersey. The business’s first diner arrived on Federal Street in Camden in 1949. Ten years later, Olga’s leaped well ahead of the suburban fringe to the lonely Marlton Circle at the junction of NJ routes 70 and 73. The suburbs followed over the next five decades, and the diner was cemented into the consciousness of the region. The diner is now in limbo, having been seized by the state for unpaid back taxes, and the Marlton Circle will soon be effaced by an overpass and interchange. The property however, will be untouched by the road construction, providing the diner an opportunity for a new life if it can survive its greatest threat; a real estate price tag $5.8 million.
13. Forum Diner, 211 Route 4, Paramus, NJ; 1967 Fodero. The fabulous Forum Diner was a spare-no-expense, groundbreaking diner design when it was constructed by Fodero in 1967. Situated on busy Route 4 between the Garden State Parkway and Paramus Road in the rapidly growing North Jersey suburb of Paramus, this was one of the original, big, Jersey diners. Encased in stone, but with large plate glass windows, and a vestibule capped with a bright yellow, cupola-topped mansard, the Forum mixed colonial and Mediterranean details while retaining lingering hints of modernism at a time when the environmental style diner had come to dominate the roadside. The sprawling three-section restaurant has a massive dining room, and the large, circular booths that came to be a hallmark of the big Jersey diner, were pioneered first by Fodero for the Forum. Bound for retirement, the owner sold the Forum to a Jeep dealership in 2007, but a downturn in the auto market killed the plan for the dealership and gave the diner a temporary reprieve. Preservationist Michael Pearlman has initiated a Save the Forum campaign, and as of the end of the 2009, the property was up for lease at $55,000 per month. The property is valued at $3.9 million, once again begging the question; can these big, suburban diners weather ownership changes with such big, suburban property values?
14. China 46, US 46 Ridgefield, 1965c Kullman. Set on US 46, the old commercial arterial striking west across the Bergen-Passaic suburbs from the George Washington Bridge, China 46 was a well known Chinese restaurant housed in another Kullman classic. This is a mid-1960s colonial transition diner expressing both where diner styles had been, and where they were heading. The diner is part brick, and part visual front; part Space Age canted eve, and part Early American picket fence balustrade. It contains the waning elements of modernity, and the rising influences of environmentalism. And it has been closed since the lease ran out in 2007. As cool as US 46’s retro roadside landscape is, it’s no place to be abandoned. Things can get real seedy real fast.
15. VIP Diner, 175 Sips Ave. Jersey City, 1974. The VIP Diner is the social nexus of Sip Avenue in the downtown Journal Square section of Jersey City. This white rock diner with red pantile mansard roof was the pinnacle of diner design in the 1970s. Although without the stainless steel typical of older diners, it is an excellent example of its type, and a valuable part to the neighborhood. The diner’s corner lot is being hunted by one of the most viral predators of downtown streetscapes: a chain drug store. Chain drug stores frequently target corner lots, invariably destroying the socially valuable, and/or historically significant structure that previously occupied the site for the banality of a high-walled, little windowed, suburban standard model mini-fortress. They rarely fill a need for drug stores, but merely compete with pre-existing ones -as will be the case on Sip Avenue. What they provide is always less than what they destroy. If his price is met, the VIP owner is willing to sell if it happens, but also will continue to operate if it doesn’t. The drug store, however, does not fit into the zoning regulations outlined by the Jersey City Division of Planning, which calls for a higher building to retain the urban character of this downtown neighborhood. Public input and diner patronage can sway events on Sip Avenue.
16. Lamp Post Diner, 6 Weeks Ave. North Wildwood, 1948 Paramount. The Lamp Post is a local landmark known to generations of visitors to the South Jersey shore resort of Wildwood. Although well away from the hustle and bustle of the Boardwalk, the diner commanded a very visible spot on the road connecting North Wildwood to the causeway leading to the mainland. This is however, the backdoor to Wildwood, with most of the traffic entering via Rio Grande Avenue. Closed for years, the Lamp Post reached its peak in the 1970s, which is why it still projects the mansard-capped, pseudo-colonial look. But deep inside is a genuine 1948 Paramount. Is what’s left worth saving? Regardless, restoring the Lamp Post to its former glory would benefit Wildwood and the shore bound who vacation there.
17. Tunnel Diner, 184 14th St. Jersey City, 1942 Paramount and 1950s Kullman remodel. Famous for its commanding location at the Jersey City entrance to the Holland Tunnel, the Tunnel Diner is a fascinating illustration of mid-century diner reconditioning. In addition to building new restaurants, diner manufacturers also reconditioned old diners that were traded in, and even renovated other diners on-site. Although the details of the Tunnel Diner’s building history are not well known, its current condition reflects a 1942 Paramount, most visible on the inside, and a late-1950s Kullman remodel most apparent on the outside. The diner, which played a role in the 1996 Al Pacino movie, City Hall, also comes with a towering, vintage vertically arranged diner sign. Unfortunately, it may be too late for the Tunnel Diner. Despite being set on a river of nonstop, outbound tunnel traffic, the diner closed in 2007, and was soon after slated for demolition. It nonetheless still stands –maybe- albeit surrounded by chain link fence, and that’s never good.