VINELAND — A huge steel claw on the end of a piece of heavy equipment tore away at the former Newcomb Hospital on Monday morning, slowly ripping apart the back of the building.
That’s when Charles Javsky arrived, got out of his car and started taking pictures.
The work was somewhat personal, said the 76-year-old from Pittsgrove Township, Salem County.
“I was born there,” he said. “My wife was born there. A lot of people were born there.”
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But sometime during the next four months, only portions of the hospital, including the Cunningham wing, will remain. They will be renovated and joined with new construction to form an assisted- and independent-living facility on the 6.5-acre site bordered by Chestnut Avenue and Almond, State and Howard streets.
The result will be 70 assisted-living units and 140 independent-living units for seniors, veterans and the disabled. Other plans for the site, including a new home for the city’s emergency medical services unit, are still being considered.
A cost for the project, being developed by Newcomb Medical Center Alliance LLC, wasn’t available. Company officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
But developers told City Council earlier that they intend to do the work in phases, as it will result in easier financing.
Local residents say the project will be better than what has been on the site since the hospital closed in 2004. They said the buildings, including some of the original structures from when the hospital opened in January 1924, became a deteriorating, ugly target for occasionally obscene graffiti and a place of potential danger.
Teenagers and “vagrants” were frequently in the buildings, said Luz Orsini, who lives across Howard Street from the hospital grounds.
“Someone is going to get hurt,” she said.
Orsini said rats and other animals also lived in the buildings. Residents are worried the demolition will chase the rats out of the buildings and onto their properties, she said.
Vincent Archetto, president of Archetto Construction Inc., the project’s general contractor, said many areas of the older buildings contain asbestos. Workers wore white environmental protection suits and breathing devices as they worked to remove debris from inside the buildings Monday.
Like Javsky, Orsini has links to the hospital: The 52-year old Orsini has two children, three grandchildren and a sister who were born at Newcomb.
But the sentimentality is overridden by the need to tear down the hospital, she said.
“It’s good to see it torn down,” Orsini said. “It’s time to move on.”
But not completely, said Archetto.
Plans call for saving some of the ornamental wrought-iron railings still in place on exterior, upper floor balconies, he said. Also to be saved is the arched stonework, inscribed with the hospital’s name, that stretches over the hospital’s original entrance, he said.
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The railings and stonework will eventually be moved to what will be a courtyard in what was once a hospital parking lot, Archetto said. The site is currently overgrown with weeds and has a dying beech tree.
It’s also the site of a memorial stone to Leverett Newcomb, after whom the hospital was named. Newcomb’s ashes are buried at the site, he said.
Archetto, a former member of the hospital’s board of directors, was surprised Monday when he waded through the weeds to find flowers left at the memorial stone.
Newcomb was a wealthy local attorney. He donated an estimated $224,000 and two city blocks for the hospital that would eventually bear his name. The Connecticut-born Newcomb died in September 1926 in Ocean City.
This isn’t the first project considered for the property.
Developers and the city were at one point working to convert the property into a medical school associated with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Those plans were scrapped in 2012, when Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation that gutted many of the university’s programs.
City Economic Development Director Sandra Forosisky said her office never stopped trying to find a use for the property.
“You have to keep going, going, going,” she said.