Thirty years ago, there was a graffiti-covered wreck of a structure in Eagle Rock Reservation. Then Essex County leased it to the owners of The Manor, who turned it into the elegant Highlawn Pavilion. Today, the county announced that the Knowles family would continue to lease Highlawn Pavilion for another 30 years.
The new contract does not go into effect until September 2014. The county had put the contract out to bid last year, and said today that three restaurateurs had shown interest in the project. The contract signed with Knowles Restaurants (the company owns the Pleasantdale Chateau and Ram’s Head Inn, in addition to The Manor and Highlawn) is a 20-year lease with two five-year options. Highlawn Pavilion, located within the Eagle Rock Reservation that stretches from Verona to West Orange, will pay the county an annual rent of $400,000 for the first 20 years. The rent increases to $416,000 per year in the first five-year option and to $432,640 per year in the second extension. Knowles Restaurants will also pay almost $73,000 into a beautification fund for Eagle Rock Reservation over the 30-year lease.
At a contract signing today–held at the Highlawn–the Knowles family brought out photos of what they took on three decades ago. The pavilion was an open structure that had been built in 1910. When they started the restoration, they discovered substantial cracks in the foundation and structural problems that had to be remedied by $1 million in steel framing. There was no gas or electricity at the site, and the only running water was for a small water fountain. The Highlawn now looks as if it could have been built for a Tuscan nobleman in the hills over Florence, and has become the top draw in the Essex County parks system.
The signing was packed with dignitaries, from former Gov. Brendan Byrne to Joseph Parlavecchio, a member of the Board of Freeholders when the first lease was signed with the Knowles family–who weren’t the lowest bidder. “We decided to go with a family that would do Essex County justice,” Parlavecchio recalled.
There were also three generations of the Knowles family in attendance: patriarch Harry Knowles, sons Wade and Kurt, and grandson Kurt Knowles Jr., who said that he would have big shoes to fill in the future. “We’re honored to be selected,” he said. “We look forward to being able to continue to offer the service that Highlawn has come to be known for.”