An historic building that’s served as a neighborhood car dealer for nearly a century is now being considered for use as private club that would feature an automotive theme.
The Land Use Board is hearing an application from Red Horse Motoring Club of Peapack, LLC., for a use variance at 163-165 Main St., the site of the Robb Francis Sports Cars dealer.
One hearing has already been held on the application with a second scheduled for Wednesday evening, March 17.
The club would include a restaurant that would at least initially be open to the public on a limited basis, a bar and gathering space for car club meetings, benefits and social events. It’s billed as providing “an exclusive environment for the motoring enthusiast.”
Robb Francis, a longtime Bernardsville resident, said on Monday that his sports car business would remain in operation but with a slightly different focus.
“What we plan on doing really is more collector, connoisseur quality vehicles,” he said. “Our volume will be less but the quality will be the best. It’s going to be a more exclusive inventory.”
For decades the building served as the Clayton Amerman Dodge Plymouth dealership. Before that it housed public shows and events like firemen’s balls.
“Before it was a car dealership that was actually an auditorium, called the Allen Auditorium,” Francis said. “There’s a plaque on the building from 1913.
“There’s a tremendous amount of history to that building,” he added. “They had stage performances, plays, things like that. We have a lot of the original photographs of the performers there.”
“The original stage is still there, and that’s where we’re going to have a bar and lounge on the original performing stage looking down on the cars. It’s going to be amazing.”
Preserving the building and celebrating its history – and the history of the automotive industry – will be a main focus of the club.
“Everything that we do has to have some historical significance to the automobile and the town,” Francis said. In addition to Francis, the club will be owned by Pennsylvania businessmen Chuck Harders, Steve Everett and Dan Glennon who run a Red Horse Club in Pottsville, Pa.
“It will primarily be a private car club for enthusiasts to gather and enjoy the kind of car community together in a nice setting,” Harders, the chief executive officer, said on Monday.
Under the proposal, an unoccupied house on the property next to the auto showroom would be removed. “That’s going to be kind of a serenity garden for people to relax and overlook the pond,” Francis said.
“We’re hoping to to make it an outside garden and social area,” Harders added. “It will be a tear down. It’s pretty beat up. We don’t really see a use for it in the condition that it’s in.”
Harders said specific details on the project would be available if the board grants the use variance.
“That’s really important for us to be accepted into the community,’ he said. “Once they do that, we can start doing construction permits and move forward with our architectural plans. We don’t know the total footprint yet because we’re still working out what rooms we would use for what purpose.”
“It’s a great building with great history that would be repurposed into a motoring club,” he said. “We’re very excited to be a part of the Peapack-Gladstone community. We believe we can bring some good fun and great events and we hope to a part of that community for many years to come.”
On Tuesday night, March 9, the Borough Council approved a person-to-person and place-to-place transfer of an inactive liquor license to the club. The transfer was from BHT, Inc., to HEG Beverage, LLC.
The license was previously used at the former Sublime restaurant at 12 Lackawanna St., Gladstone, which is now occupied by Cafe Sapori, an Italian restaurant that does not serve liquor.
At the March 9 meeting, Holland Avenue resident John Kappler, chair of the borough’s Environmental Commission, asked whether the council was putting “the cart before the horse” by acting on the liquor license transfer while the club application was still before the Land Use Board (LUB).
Kappler questioned whether approving the transfer would place “an undue burden” on the board “to say yes” to the applicant.
Borough Attorney John Bruder said the council’s action “does not interfere at all” with the board’s consideration of the application.
Kappler also noted that the license would be going from a public to private use. But Councilman John Sweeney said there are limited areas in which towns can object to liquor license transfers.
Council President Mark Corigliano also said anyone has the right to buy a liquor license, adding that the council’s action to allow the transfer does not equate to an approval by the LUB.
The first Red Horse Motoring Club was opened in 2018 in Pottsville, Pa., a small borough with an estimated population of 22,500 located about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
If approved, the Peapack club would be the group’s second operation.
According to the club website, redhorsemotoring.com, Red Horse is “a private, member’s only car club for car enthusiasts of all types. Members enjoy the use of our 12,000 square foot building to store their vehicle, host clients, hold meetings, entertain friends and enjoy the company of other passionate enthusiasts!”
Photos of the club show a large room with beautifully restored antique cars and auto memorabilia such as old gas pumps and neon signs.
In a video, Harders said the club took over a building previously occupied by the Ludwick Motors Dealership dating back to 1922.
“I have had a concept and a dream in my head for many years to have a congregation of sorts, a building, a unique place for car enthusiasts, car clubs, business owners to have as their own, to have events, car shows, meetings, whatever they need,” he said. “The second part of it is to have events, so have your corporate party here, have your wedding here, and the last part of it really is having a building like this surrounded with a million dollar unique collection available to people that just can’t do it on their own.”
The car dealership in Peapack was founded by Clayton Amerman in 1919 and moved to Main Street in 1922. After Mr. Amerman’s death in 1962, the business was run by his son, John R. Amerman, a lifelong Peapack resident. It remained in the family after John Amerman died in 2007, and was then run by Roger Rubright, the grandson of Clayton Amerman who began pumping gas there while a student at Bernards High School.
Along with hundreds of other businesses nationwide, it was eliminated as a Dodge dealer when Chrysler declared bankruptcy in 2009. Robb Francis Sports Cars has been there since 2012.
Roger Rubright’s sister, Susan Rubright, is the current chair of the Peapack-Gladstone Land Use Board. She is not participating in the board’s deliberations on the club application.
Harders said the club hopes to acquire the property. He said he’s received “positive reaction” from the community to the idea so far. “I spend a lot of time up there,” he said. “I go to the Gladstone Tavern to eat, and have met a lot of people in the community. Everyone seems to be pretty receptive to it.”
“Most car clubs out there don’t have a home,” he said. “They’re just on paper. You’re part of a Porsche Club of America, so you have your $60 a year and you guys meet at Dunkin’ Donuts or you go to the one annual event.
“My concept is for those car enthusiasts to really have a home to come to, to see friends, enjoy time together, create unique events and enjoy the motoring world.”
Pottersville resident Maria Nadel, the club’s director of membership and events, said Red Horse would have limited membership but the number of members – and the fee – has not yet been determined.
The restaurant would offer “exquisite American” cuisine, she said, prepared by a well-known chef. She declined to identify the chef at the time. The number of seats in the restaurant hasn’t been determined, she said, but the owners are “thinking of anywhere from 40 to 100” depending on town approvals.
She said the restaurant would initially be open one day a week to the public but would ultimately be private. The club would host fund-raising events for non-profits, she said, but it hasn’t been determined whether it would hold events such as weddings. Francis said the operation will be quiet. “I will make sure of that,” he said.
Nadel said renovation work would begin soon after town approvals and construction permits are issued, with a possible opening “sometime in 2021.”