ESSEX COUNTY EXECUTIVE DIVINCENZO ANNOUNCES EXTENDED AGREEMENT FOR KNOWLES FAMILY TO OPERATE HIGHLAWN PAVILION IN ESSEX COUNTY EAGLE ROCK RESERVATION
West Orange, NJ – Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. and the Knowles Restaurants family announced on Monday, January 28th that a new long-term lease agreement was approved to enable the Highlawn Pavilion to continue operating in Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation. The County first entered into a relationship with the Knowles family in 1984 to preserve and redevelop the historic casino building into a fine dining restaurant.
“We are pleased to be continuing our relationship with the Knowles family to operate the Highlawn Pavilion in Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation. Through our revitalization efforts over the last decade, our parks have become the focal points of the community and places where our residents are proud to spend time,” DiVincenzo said. “Thirty years ago, the Knowles family redeveloped the Reservation’s old Casino building and has earned the reputation of providing high quality service and a first-class dining experience for their patrons. The natural beauty of Eagle Rock Reservation and the unmatched view of the New York skyline are complemented by this culinary landmark,” he added.
“We’re proud to have been selected by Essex County to continue our legacy of service to the community,” said Harry Knowles, patriarch of the Knowles Restaurants family and redeveloper of the previously neglected “Casino” structure that is now the Highlawn Pavilion. “We believe that being chosen to continue operating at Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation is recognition that we have achieved and maintained high standards of quality and service for our restaurant patrons and guests who have celebrated their special occasions with us. We’re thrilled to be able to continue to be a dining destination for Essex County residents and beyond, and are excited that we can now look forward to continuing to only get better for years to come,” he added.
Even though the original 1984 agreement is scheduled to expire in September 2014, the County Executive started the process of selecting the next tenant for the building in 2012 so that all options could be explored, interested restaurateurs would have ample time to develop proposals and a seamless transition to the new contract could be planned. Three restaurateurs showed interest and the Highlawn Pavilion was selected after a thorough review of the proposals by County officials and representatives from the Essex County Improvement Authority, which acted as the County’s broker in the process. The resolution extending the lease for the Highlawn Pavilion was approved by the Board of Chosen Freeholders on December 19, 2012.
“Make no mistake about it. This is a jewel. Our County Executive has done tremendous things to create the September 11th Memorial and revitalize Eagle Rock Reservation. But when people talk about this place, they also mention Highlawn Pavilion,” Sheriff Armando Fontoura said.
“When you have a partnership that works, you have to keep it working,” Freeholder Carol Clark said. “This is a great venue with an outstanding view. Continuing the partnership with the Knowles family is a great thing,” she added.
“This is a special place. There are so many good things happening that go unnoticed, but our County Executive never loses his focus on getting things done,” Freeholder Brendan Gill said.
Joseph Parlavecchio was a member of the Board of Freeholders when the first agreement with the Knowles family was signed. “This was an empty building strewn with garbage. We knew the Knowles family would do Essex County justice with a first class operation. Here we are 30 years later and this has become a destination,” he said.
The new contract will go into effect on September 15, 2014, and is for 20 years with two five-year options that could extend it to 30 years. Over the course of the first 20 years, Highlawn Pavilion will pay the County an annual rent of $400,000. The rent increases to $416,000 per year in the first five-year option (from the years 2035 to 2039) and to $432,640 per year in the second five-year option (from the years 2040-2044).
The Highlawn Pavilion is also responsible for contributing to a “Complex Beautification Fund,” which will be used for the development, recreation and conservation of the area in Eagle Rock Reservation that is in the vicinity of the restaurant. This includes the outlook area, entrance off of Eagle Rock Avenue and the Essex County Eagle Rock September 11th Memorial. Contributions to the beautification fund are $60,000 annually during the first five years of the contract and increase 4 percent ever five years after that. At the conclusion of the 30 years, the Highlawn Pavilion is scheduled to be paying almost $73,000 to the beautification fund.
Land for Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation was purchased by the former Essex County Parks Commission in 1895, making the reservation one of the original parks created in the Essex County Parks System. The site overlooking the Eagle Rock cliffs was chosen because of the unmatched view of the New York skyline and eastern Essex County.
Essex County began construction of the “Casino Building” in 1910 and opened the building to the public in 1912. The open air facility provided the public with a place to escape the sun, relax and enjoy the natural breezes. Its first floor was an open shelter and its second floor was used as a restaurant. There also was an extension on the west side of the building that served as storage and living quarters for a park attendant.
During World War I, the Federal Government took control of the Casino Building and allowed famous inventor Thomas Edison to use the structure as a laboratory where he conducted secret experiments for the U.S. Navy. According to newspaper accounts, a great deal of machinery, heavy electrical cables and a telescope were installed. The building was staffed by Edison’s “insomnia squad,” who worked day and night at the Casino and had their privacy protected by guards stationed at the building. It was rumored that the inventor was working on a submarine detector, a new kind of gun, non-corrosive powder and a mysterious light that could reveal the location of the object it was pointed at without revealing the source of the light.
After the Federal government returned the building to the County’s use, it served as a place where visitors could rest and purchase refreshments. By the 1970s, however, the building fell into serious repair and, by the 1980s, it had become a safety hazard. When the tremendous cost of renovating the structure was fully considered, the Essex County Board of Freeholders chose to offer the building to an outside entity for possible restoration and creation of a revenue-generating business. When it was determined that the best possibility could be a restaurant, a long-term agreement was entered into with the Knowles family. In addition to addressing major structural problems and installing previously non-existent gas, electric and water lines (there had only been one half-inch water line to supply a drinking fountain), the Knowles family expanded upon the original Florentine styling of the structure. Since then, Highlawn Pavilion has gone on to win numerous awards and recognitions.
Revitalizing Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation
The Essex County Eagle Rock September 11th Memorial was first unveiled on October 20, 2002, after the one-year anniversary of the tragedies at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania where an airplane crashed. The tragedy had a profound effect on Essex County and its residents and, after visiting Eagle Rock Reservation, DiVincenzo said he immediately knew it was the right location for a memorial. An aggressive schedule to create the memorial was followed and DiVincenzo led a fund-raising campaign that collected donations from local corporations and residents as well as grants from the New Jersey Green Acres Program and U.S. Forestry Service. Contractors who performed improvements to the site and built the monument donated their time and materials.
DiVincenzo followed the idea of Continental Flight Attendant Debra Calimano of West Orange and developed a monument at the site to honor the 33 flight crew members who lost their lives when the four airplanes were downed on September 11th. The new monument that complements the original design was dedicated in 2009 and was constructed entirely with donations from corporations and the public. A 7,400-pound steel and concrete World Trade Center artifact and a bronze plaque recognizing the bravery of emergency medical technicians who responded to the tragedy were dedicated in 2011.
In 2009, a Victorian-style gazebo was constructed overlooking the Memorial, the meadow was enhanced with new landscaping, and improvements were made to enhance the pedestrian safety of the reservation entrance off Eagle Rock Avenue. The upgrades were funding with a NJ Green Acres grant received by Essex County and the Eagle Rock Conservancy and a grant from the Essex County Recreation and Open Space Trust Fund. A project to accelerate the regeneration of the forest and enhance the aesthetics of the reservation along Eagle Rock Avenue and Prospect Avenue was undertaken in 2010. Eight enclosures were built to protect natural plant species. As these areas grow, they will act as seed banks and help re-introduce natural plants to the forest.
The Essex County Park System was created in 1895 and is the first county park system established in the United States. The Park System consists of more than 6,000 acres and has 22 parks, five reservations, an environmental center, a zoo, Treetop Adventure Course, ice skating rink, roller skating rink, three public golf courses, golf driving range, two miniature golf courses, three off-leash dog facilities, a castle and the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens.