FAR HILLS – Long before the Race Meeting grew big and the Mall at Far Hills was built, the Far Hills Center had stores that may have been the borough’s biggest draw.
The retail and office building at 27 Route 202 had a steady slide in recent years but is now undergoing a major renovation.
The improvements were noted at the Borough Council’s reorganization meeting on Monday, Jan. 6.
“The whole property on 202 looks really good,” said Councilman Joseph Carty.
Mayor Paul Vallone agreed. “It’s going to be a significant cornerstone of the borough,” he said.
“It really looks beautiful,” added Carty. “It’s going to be a landmark.”
A resident in the audience, Evelyn Prather of Ashington Club Road, told the council she used to go to the Center when it housed The Country Store which sold clothing from 1950s through the 1980s. “You could buy Shetland sweaters,” she said. “It was a very preppy store. A lot of people went to it.”
The Center, believed to be at least 100 years old, consists of a wide, two-story, white barn-style building and a one-story, red annex.
Five large pine trees with vine-covered trunks largely hid the Center in recent years but were removed as part of the renovation work.
A lone tenant, M&M Perrotti’s butcher shop, occupies the annex while workers restore the rest of the building. As a result, customer traffic currently pales in comparison to The Mall at Far Hills next door.
Historically, the Center has had stores on the ground floor and professional offices upstairs. Back in 1957, The County Store was joined by the Far Hills Pharmacy, which had a complete baby department and also sold cosmetics, packaged ice cream, cigars, cigarettes and candles.
Council President David Karner recalled coming up from the Plainfields to the Center as a youth in the late 1950s and buying penny candy.
“It’s pretty much a monument in Far Hills,” Karner said. “It’s been standing here as long as I can remember.”
Prior to the renovation, most of the borough businesses were in the Center, The Mall at Far Hills at 35 Route 202 and Ludlow Square further east at 49 Route 202.
The Mall at Far Hills was built on the east side of the Center in 1965. Today, it includes the Far Hills Post Office, Far Hills Cafe, Good Earth Coffee, Annie’s Playhouse, Shooting Stars Gymnastics, Attiva Collection boutique, Salon Classique, Fox Chase Nails and Town Cleaners.
Ludlow Square, formerly the L.V. Ludlow lumberyard and hardware complex, was renovated for retail uses in 1997. Its current tenants include Classic Home and Garden outdoor furniture, Discovery Antiques and Jewelry, TALC Salon, Studio Fitness, Poe Yoga and professional offices.
Other longtime businesses in the village include Team Welsh Chrysler Jeep, which added a new showroom on Route 202 four years ago, Butler’s Pantry Trackside restaurant in the Far Hills train station, the Barber Shop at Far Hills on Route 202, and Joseph D’Apolito & Son clothier on Peapack Road.
The village also has a bank, hair salons, nail salons, a massage parlor, a women’s clothing store, tailors, a stationary store, a gift basket caterer, a linens store, an interior designer and a kitchen and bath remodeling store.
Decline and Renewal
The Center continued to hold its own through the early 2000s.
Some of its more popular stores included The Knit Shop clothing store, Beck’s Far Hills Pharmacy, Romo Books, The Gift Shop which sold children’s apparel, and Country Curtains.
Trouble was evident by the fall of 2006, however, after Romo Books and The Gift Shop closed and left vacancies for months.
Perrotti’s gave the Center a boost when it filled the old Romo Books space in January 2008. But a major setback ensued when Country Curtains relocated to Chester in 2014.
“There was a series of owners,” Mayor Vallone said. “Over the last 15 to 20 years, the building had fallen into disrepair. Lumber and old materials were lying in front, and it had become overgrown. All of the shops had moved out.”
The current owner, Melillo Equities of Gladstone, purchased the 1.3-acre site in January 2019 from HCP Properties of Arizona for $1,825,000, according to public records. HCP had acquired it only 10 months earlier.
Mellilo had also purchased Ludlow Square and spruced it up.
Last October, Melillo received Planning Board approval to renovate the Center. According to the minutes of a Sept. 3 hearing, the Center’s total size would be reduced by one third, from 25,042 square feet to 16,638 square feet by removing two, one-story wings that faced DeMun Place.
Meanwhile, the annex would be split between Perrotti’s and a beauty parlor.
Anthony Melillo, managing partner of Melillo Equities, told the board that seven of the 11 spaces had been rented out.
Tenants identified in documents included Perrotti’s, Glo Estetics hair salon and Studio at Far Hills Fitness.
Four months later, the marketing effort remains in progress.
“We continue to experience high levels of interest and are encouraged by the uses being proposed by prospective tenants,” Melillo said in an interview with this newspaper.
Completion of the work is slated for May, he said.
The building was “in dire need of repair,” Melillo noted. “The plumbing and wiring stretched back a century, with no road map to where it started or ended. Many portions of the frame were improperly modified and required substantial repair.
“Years of unaddressed roof leaks and improper drainage encouraged extensive mold growth and sill rot,” he added. “Renovations were long overdue.”
The date of the building’s construction is listed as 1920 on several real estate web sites, but Melillo saw evidence of earlier origins.
During demolition, he said, “we identified many hand-hewn beams acting as the structural frame for the center of the building, which indicates a time before the advent of sawmills.”
Another challenge was that the building had too much square footage for the available onsite parking, Melillo said. The site had only 53 parking spaces for a square footage that required 88.
In response, the renovation reduced the square footage while raising the number of parking spaces to 72.
There was second reason to reduce the square footage, Melillo said.
“The second- and third-floor ceilings were relatively low and somewhat undesirable for a professional office use,” he said. “Therefore, it was decided to vault the second floor, creating an airy, open cathedral for the second-floor tenants.”
The plans also call for architectural enhancements like dormers, double hung windows and a stone wall detail.
“It signifies the work that the Melillos are capable of doing,” said Karner. “The architecture and design fit in with the village.”
Vallone expressed a similar view.
The Melillos “have done and continue to do a beautiful job of restoration,” the mayor said. “I’ve gotten many, many compliments on how it’s come along. It’s really become a nice focal point in the center of town.”
– W. Jacob Perry