Flushing Out Flemington’s Ghosts: Reopening The Union Hotel

A redevelopment group in Flemington hopes to reopen a storied hotel and help rejuvenate a sleepy downtown.

Union Hotel
The Union Hotel sits vacant (and possibly haunted) in the center of Flemington.
Photo by Jenn Romanowski.

Flemington may soon start polishing its faded crown jewel. The strong possibility that the historic Union Hotel will reopen has locals excited. A revived hotel, they say, would breathe new life into the borough’s sleepy downtown.

The four-story Union Hotel was built in 1878 and made famous in 1935, when reporters from around the country moved in to cover the Lindbergh-baby kidnapping trial in the county courthouse, which still stands across Main Street. The hotel stopped renting rooms in the 1950s, but a first-floor restaurant remained open until 2008, when the whole building was shuttered. The closure cast a pall over neighboring businesses—and fueled rumors that the hotel is haunted.

Now a redevelopment group called Flemington Union Hotel LLC aims to evict the spooks. Principals Matt McPherson, the CIA-trained chef and owner of Matt’s Red Rooster Grille (located steps from the hotel), and Liam Burns, a former marketing executive at Johnson and Johnson, have proposed reopening the historic building as a 40- to 55-room hotel with a high-end steakhouse, casual pub, 250-seat banquet hall, spa and two or three retail shops.

In January, the designated redevelopers—they beat out two competing proposals—purchased the four-story hotel for $950,000 from a private owner; in February they bought Bensi Restaurant in Flemington (renaming it Gallo Rosso Ristorante, or “red rooster” in Italian) and its accompanying liquor license. That license could be transferred to the hotel—a possibility that won’t be necessary if the state Legislature passes a bill proposed by Assemblywoman Donna Simon that would, in part, permit special liquor licenses for historic hotels.

Burns estimates the project’s overall cost at $14 million to $15 million; the availability of a newly issued liquor license under the Simon proposal could mean a substantial savings. “This project is not simple from a financial perspective,” says Burns. “We’re putting a significant amount of risk in a district that’s struggling. We want to be sure we’re exploring all possible avenues.”

Plans to restore the hotel languished for two years when a previous development deal fell apart. Town council president Phil Valella, who heads the borough’s economic development committee, is confident all systems are go this time. “These people are local, and everyone involved has some skin in the game,” he says.

Indeed, McPherson, who grew up in Flemington and lives about 800 feet from the hotel, says he feels the heat to bring back the stately old hotel, with its red brick façade, two-tiered porch, green wrought-iron columns and latticed railings. “I live here, I work here, my kids go to local schools here,” he says. “The pressure is very present, but it’s a good pressure.”

Valella sees the hotel, which could reopen in two to three years, energizing a revival already underway on Main Street, with its numerous restaurants, shops and art galleries. “I’m looking forward to walking into town again and sitting on that porch and buying a glass of wine and having some dinner,” he says.

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