New Jersey Historical Society Moving to Join Cultural Jewels of Crown

Culture and Education
Published June 12, 1997

New Jersey Historical Society Moving to Join Cultural Jewels of Crown

| Published June 12, 1997

Lawyers gather at the Old Essex Club on Feb. 1, 1902, to observe the 26th anniversary of Coult and Howell, a top law firm of the era. The Star-Ledger

This evening, at 6 o'clock, the New Jersey Historical Society will formally move from its old headquarters of the past 66 years at 230 Broadway to its new home at 52 Park Place, launching a new era in state and local history.

As a result of the move, the city's cultural crown will garner another jewel in a cluster that includes the Newark Library and the Newark Museum. Another gem will be added in October when the New Jersey Performing Arts Center opens, making Newark the state's largest, and most important showplace for information, art, high culture, history, music and theater.

Abutting this area is college town, or University Heights, which includes Rutgers-Newark, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Essex County College, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and Seton Hall Law School, along with Science Park, St. Benedict's, St. Vincent's and Arts High School. Truly, this is a glittering array of institutions and agencies. When there forces are fully combined they most assuredly will bring about change for the better, initiate progress, and produce unmatched cultural nourishment for city residents and suburbanites.

Although new to Newark's downtown 'cultural triangle,' the New Jersey Historical Society is in fact the state's oldest cultural agency, founded in 1845, less than 70 years after the outbreak of the American Revolution. The Society was founded in Trenton on a snowy night on January 27, 1845 by 20 men, including Archer Gifford, William B. Kinney, Cortland Parker, and William A. Whitehead of Newark. At first, there was some question whether the Society would be located in Trenton or Newark, but the offer of free space by the Essex County freeholders cinched the Newark location. The following year there was yet another close vote, 36 to 33 in favor of staying in Newark, and so the New Jersey Historical Society was here for good. In the summer of 1848, the Society's small collections were moved into Library Hall, a building operated by the old Newark Library Association. In 1860, it moved again to the third floor of the Newark National Banking Company building on the northwest corner of Broad and Bank streets. In 1901, the Society moved to 16 West Park St., formerly a church and then a theater.

Continued overcrowding brought renewed cries for yet another new home, thus 1929 saw the beginning of a campaign to raise $350,000 for the modern Georgian brick building at Taylor Street and Broadway. The well-known Newark firm of John H. and Wilson Ely was commissioned to design the 117-by-120-foot three-story classical building which opened in 1931 and for six decades was home to the Society. Don't let the fact that the Society moved around a lot in its early days fool you into thinking that its purpose was not well defined from the very start. In its constitution, the founders stated that they were dedicated 'to discover, procure, collect and preserve and make available to its members and to the general public whatever relates to any department of history of New Jersey, natural, civil, literary, political, military, social, education and ecclesiastical, and generally of other portions of the United States.' They also vowed to 'disseminate knowledge concerning the same, and thereby to advance the education moral and mental, improvement of men, women, and children, without pecuniary profit and solely for the benefit of the public.' Put more simply, the Society was founded to preserve the history of the state and to serve the general public and scholars interested in state and local history. Additionally, it was felt that the Society should collect and disseminate all New Jersey information.

By abiding by its original goals and objectives, it has been enormously successful and deserves to be considered one of America's best state historical agencies. Through the years, many individuals have contributed to its success. In 1845, Gov. Daniel Haines asked the New Jersey Legislature to allow early records to be copied both in Trenton and London. William A. Whitehead (1810-84) collected extensively for the Society and edited the first eight volumes of The New Jersey Archives. William Nelson (1847-1914) edited The Proceedings for 30 years and The New Jersey Archives for 16 years. Both are monumental, almost superhuman tasks which recorded much of our early history as both a colony and state. As a result of careful planning, dedication by hundreds of individuals over many years, and a serious collecting policy early on, as well as the fact that New Jersey was one of the original 13 colonies, the Society's library and museum are among the richest and most important of any state in the United States. Some examples of library treasures include the original Elizabethtown Deed of 1664 with the Lenni Lenapi; three centuries of papers from the Stevens family of Hoboken, who were important in America's early steamboat and railroad history; the original records of the Township of Newark, 1666-1836; a collection of books by 19th century sports writer Frank Forester; the charter of Trinity Cathedral signed by King George II in 1745; the William Faden map of 1778 – the most important map of Revolutionary War New Jersey; Wood's Newark Gazette – Newark's first 18th century newspaper; an 1850s photograph of famous New Jersey printer Benjamin Olds; and, the manuscript edition of Hans Brinker by Newark author Mary Mapes Dodge.

Treasures from the Society's museum include an 18th century painting of David Alling's Broad Street home; a lapdesk of David Brearley, one of the four New Jersey signers of the U.S. Constitution; an 18th century silver teapot made by Elias Boudinot in Princeton; a Queen Anne card table and three side chairs belonging to New Jersey's patrician Schuyler family of the French and Indian War era; a 1780 silk dress of Elizabeth Lawrence, sister of Captain David Lawrence of Burlington known for the famous 'Don't Give Up the Ship' quote; a miniature by John Watson from 1685 of Amboy Mayor William Eier; and a silver ladle made by Newark silversmith Benjamin Cleveland, great grandfather of Caldwell born president Grover Cleveland.

The beautiful downtown building that is now the Society's new home was built as the Essex Club in 1926. The merging, therefore, has brought together two important Newark institutions. At one time, downtown Newark claimed a number of men's clubs which were important social centers for the rich and for community leaders. The Essex Club was one of the best. Situated in the midst of the city's finest homes circling Washington and Military parks, its members could walk to their clubs without calling on the family chauffeur. The present building replaced an earlier structure, also on Park Place. So powerful were the men who congregated there, they were even credited with outdistancing city hall and vying with the Legislature in influence. Today, the Essex Club building has been converted to the modern-day needs of the New Jersey Historical Society. It has been extensively renovated to serve the Society's museum, library, young people's programs, conferences and meetings. Major exhibitions will be displayed in the former dining rooms. Meeting rooms will be opened to professional conferences, and storage facilities have been created to accommodate its great library and museum collections of national significance. The first floor's former grill room has been converted into a general purpose auditorium, gift shop, and registration site. The gracious curving stairway has been retained and upgraded and joins the second floor where the members' room and former dining room have become the Society's major exhibition gallery. The third floor contains the children's galleries and extensive modern meeting room facilities. The fourth level includes administrative offices and the top floor has been divided into two floors which contain the library and storage stacks for the institution's treasures.

The Princeton architectural firm of Ford, Farewell, Mills, and Gatsch redesigned the 37,000-square foot building. The Newark construction management company of York Hunter has been responsible for the implementation of the design plans throughout. Project manager Salvator Calao of York Hunter said his job was to carefully supervise all construction details, including the replacement of the building's plumbing, heating, electrical and air conditioning facilities, and to bring the structure up to modern code standards. At the same time, the trick was to keep the gracious feeling of the Georgian-designed interior and exterior. 'Working out the details, keeping to schedule, and staying within budget attests to the professional talents and sense of timing of the York Hunter team,' he said. Architect Paul Gallis, added, 'Saving and upgrading a building of this historical significance has been a challenge well worth the effort. It is appropriate that such a building has become the new home of our state's historical society.' Today's article focuses on the rich history of the New Jersey Historical Society.