Highlawn Pavilion is known for its panoramic views, romantic setting, fine dining as well as a special event destination. That all started in 1984, when Essex County first entered into a relationship with the Knowles family to preserve and redevelop the historic casino building into a fine dining restaurant. Today, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. and the Knowles Restaurants family announced a new long-term lease agreement was approved to enable the Highlawn Pavilion to continue operating in Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation. The casino building, opened in 1912, was never an actual casino in the gaming sense but references instead the Italian word for a country villa with a pavilion:
The open air facility provided the public with a place to escape the sun, relax and enjoy the natural breezes. Its first floor was an open shelter and its second floor was used as a restaurant. There also was an extension on the west side of the building that served as storage and living quarters for a park attendant.
During World War I, the Federal Government took control of the Casino Building and allowed famous inventor Thomas Edison to use the structure as a laboratory where he conducted secret experiments for the U.S. Navy. According to newspaper accounts, a great deal of machinery, heavy electrical cables and a telescope were installed. The building was staffed by Edison’s “insomnia squad,” who worked day and night at the Casino and had their privacy protected by guards stationed at the building. It was rumored that the inventor was working on a submarine detector, a new kind of gun, non-corrosive powder and a mysterious light that could reveal the location of the object it was pointed at without revealing the source of the light.
After the Federal government returned the building to the County’s use, it served as a place where visitors could rest and purchase refreshments. By the 1970s, however, the building fell into serious repair and, by the 1980s, it had become a safety hazard. When the tremendous cost of renovating the structure was fully considered, the Essex County Board of Freeholders chose to offer the building to an outside entity for possible restoration and creation of a revenue-generating business. When it was determined that the best possibility could be a restaurant, a long-term agreement was entered into with the Knowles family. In addition to addressing major structural problems and installing previously non-existent gas, electric and water lines (there had only been one half-inch water line to supply a drinking fountain), the Knowles family expanded upon the original Florentine styling of the structure. Since then, Highlawn Pavilion has gone on to win numerous awards and recognitions.
“We are pleased to be continuing our relationship with the Knowles family to operate the Highlawn Pavilion in Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation,” DiVincenzo said. “Thirty years ago, the Knowles family redeveloped the Reservation’s old Casino building and has earned the reputation of providing high quality service and a first-class dining experience for their patrons.”
The original 1984 agreement was scheduled to expire in September 2014, but the County Executive started the process of selecting the next tenant for the building in 2012 so that all options could be explored. Three restaurateurs showed interest and the Highlawn Pavilion was selected after a thorough review of the proposals by County officials and representatives from the Essex County Improvement Authority, which acted as the County’s broker in the process. The resolution extending the lease for the Highlawn Pavilion was approved by the Board of Chosen Freeholders on December 19, 2012.
“This is a special place. There are so many good things happening that go unnoticed, but our County Executive never loses his focus on getting things done,” Freeholder Brendan Gill said.
Joseph Parlavecchio was a member of the Board of Freeholders when the first agreement with the Knowles family was signed. “This was an empty building strewn with garbage. We knew the Knowles family would do Essex County justice with a first class operation. Here we are 30 years later and this has become a destination,” he said.
The new contract will go into effect on September 15, 2014, and is for 20 years with two five-year options that could extend it to 30 years. Over the course of the first 20 years, Highlawn Pavilion will pay the County an annual rent of $400,000. The rent increases to $416,000 per year in the first five-year option (from the years 2035 to 2039) and to $432,640 per year in the second five-year option (from the years 2040-2044).
The Highlawn Pavilion is also responsible for contributing to a “Complex Beautification Fund,” which will be used for the development, recreation and conservation of the area in Eagle Rock Reservation that is in the vicinity of the restaurant. This includes the outlook area, entrance off of Eagle Rock Avenue and the Essex County Eagle Rock September 11th Memorial. Contributions to the beautification fund are $60,000 annually during the first five years of the contract and increase 4 percent ever five years after that. At the conclusion of the 30 years, the Highlawn Pavilion is scheduled to be paying almost $73,000 to the beautification fund.