IN THE PROCESS OF FINDING AN IMAGINATIVE WAY TO DEVELOP A NEW COMMUNITY, THIS BUILDER SAVED AN HISTORIC LANDMARK
BY LAURA D.C. KOLNOSKI • PHOTOS © AMESSÉ PHOTOGRAPHY
Enthusiasm, determination, and sense of urgency permeate conversations with Roger Mumford, as do the words “creative,” “innovative,” “value,” and “opportunity.” A builder/developer headquartered in Monmouth County, Mumford has visionary ideas for meeting and exceeding what homeowners are seeking in the next generation of abodes, and he can’t get to them fast enough.
His other passion occasionally gets him there sooner than later. The civic-minded exec seeks, for his projects, inventive solutions to societal and construction-related challenges. The epitome of that was realized in May, when he joined a phalanx of dignitaries, guests, and supporters to cut the ribbon on a new museum and cultural center that would not have been realized without his intervention.
“I like a win-win, not a win-lose,” Mumford said with a hint of his native English accent (he came to America as a youngster with his parents in 1968). “We look for creative opportunities where we can change zoning and create value. The best returns come from the most creative projects.”
Red Bank’s T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center, which he helped save and fully restore, is now a museum and cultural hub. Things looked bleak for it until Mumford called fellow local yet complete stranger Gilda Rogers a journalist, teacher, author, and community activist (also an editorial contributor to this magazine) who initiated the rescue and preservation effort a decade ago.
“Whenever I drove by that house, something about it drew me in and I would stop and admire…even when it was in disrepair,” said Rogers, who learned the compelling story of its onetime owner. Timothy Thomas Fortune, (1856-1928), a slave freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, became publisher of his era’s most prominent African-American newspaper, The New York Age, and founded the African American League, predecessor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the 1870s house he dubbed “Maple Hall,” where he lived from 1901 to 1915, Fortune entertained fellow iconic crusaders, including Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, and Frederick Douglass.
When Mumford heard about efforts to save the home, which, despite being on the National Historic Register was slated for demolition, he had an idea. He found Rogers on Google and requested a meeting. To establish a financial foundation for the restoration of Maple Hall, his company, Roger Mumford Homes, would build 31 apartments on the property and deed Maple Hall to the T. Thomas Fortune Foundation for $1. The apartments, called Fortune Square, are built in the same architectural style as the historic home that fronts them.
“It’s very appealing to my company to identify an economic solution that supports a related project we believe in,” he said. “Fortune Square is consistent with my beliefs, and creates multiple benefits.” Along the way, Rogers, Mumford, and other advocates traveled the state sharing Fortune’s story at libraries, school, churches, and civic gatherings.
“I’m focused on ideas and concepts,” Mumford said. “I enjoy creating individual communities, each of which has a theme. Fortune Square tenants say part of their desire to live there, and enjoyment of it, is because they feel they are on the right side of history.” The project received a 2018 Merit Award from the Monmouth County Planning Board and a 2019 Historic Preservation Award from the county’s Historical Commission.
“Roger is empathetic to the struggles of African American people, and his outward expression, by donating the T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center to the Foundation, is a rare find,” said Rogers, who is now Foundation Vice-President.
The theme is “green” at Mumford’s recently opened Hidden Village apartment complex in on Route 34 in Aberdeen. Formerly an asphalt plant in an industrial zone, it’s now an award-winning development of 200 one- and two-bedroom units, along with a pool and clubhouse surrounded by trees.
“At Hidden Village, we took an $800,000 land pit and turned it into a $17 million asset,” he said. “We told Aberdeen that the three factors of green design indoor air quality, energy efficiency, and conservation of resources would be respected. Green building protects the environment in part by incorporating recycled materials in the infrastructure and buildings strategies that conserve natural resources and result in a healthier living environment. We’re very proud of that.”
Mumford has also applied similar philosophies to Beach Front North, one of the earliest residential developments at Pier Village in Long Branch, as well as to the 116-unit Metro in Rahway near the train station. Opening soon are single family home developments Heritage at Little Ferry in Bergen County and Oak Hollow off Route 35 in Middletown, along with Brownstones at Red Bank (22 townhomes on the site of a former factory, expected to open in August) and a new development in Morris County near Morristown, due to open in about 18 months.
We have some completely new, creative, and innovative projects coming,” Mumford said, adding that he is turning his focus to age-targeted and age-restricted communities.
“We see a lack of product for people selling their large home and purchasing a new one consistent with their lifestyles.” While earning his Economics degree at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College, Mumford took a part-time job with a local building company and began reading books on the subject. After graduation, he entered a mentorship in which he learned wallpapering and painting. Moving on to undertake his own small projects, he formed a partnership with Bruce Matzel in 1986, creating Matzel & Mumford two years later. The firm expanded “dramatically” during the 1990s recession, bucking trends and quadrupling the business. After building 3,500 homes in New Jersey and winning numerous awards, they sold the firm to Hovnanian in 1999.
“We were fortunate to have garnered a great reputation based on the outstanding people we hired,” Mumford said. After a brief retirement, he undertook custom home construction through his firm, Forefront Homes. Shortly thereafter, he formed Roger Mumford Homes, which includes a Design Center filled with the latest trends in kitchens, finishes, interior iron railings, and more.
“There has been an explosion of product technology from flooring to tiles to finishes,” he said. “The newest thing in cabinets is shelves that pull down to counter level! The Design Center is a focal point of creativity, where clients come to explore their dreams.”
Over at the T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center, dreams are already coming true through programs and presentations for all ages on wide ranging topics. There is one anecdote about Mumford that Rogers loves to tell.
“The first time Roger and I met in his office, he pulled one of my favorite books from his shelf, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Vintage, 2011) by Isabel Wilkerson, about the great migration of African Americans leaving the South,” she related. “I knew immediately we had a connection.” At the ribbon-cutting, she surprised Mumford with a copy signed by the author. She had made a special trip to Newark, where Wilkerson was speaking, to get the signature.
“We are two people with such different backgrounds who immediately bonded,” he said. “I can’t say enough about Gilda’s dedication and commitment to working every day to create a better world. She and I are extremely close friends now.”
“We live in an incredibly divisive time, on a speck of dust in the universe, and we can’t get our act together,” Mumford concluded. “In my own small way, I was able to do something I think is positive. That’s what I want to do more of. ”
247 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank / 732.842.1580
T. Thomas Fortune Cultural Center
94 Dr. James Parker Boulevard, Red Bank / 732.383.5483