MAKING A HISTORIC SITE
Alluring tales and lingering traces of bygone glory have made heritage tourism a fact of life here for better than a century. In 1888, two elderly women rode their carriage to the old Zabriskie mansion at New Bridge and asked to see the stone vault where their grandfather, Hackensack tavernkeeper Archibald Campbell, had hidden during a cold March night in March 1780 to escape his British captors. They were the first trickle in a steady and growing stream of visitors attracted to the storied landscape that is New Bridge.
Firmly documenting its association with the Prussian Inspector-General of the Continental troops, William Alexander Linn read a paper devoted to “Baron Steuben’s Estate” at the Society’s annual dinner on Washington’s Birthday, 1904. It was published in the first Papers and Proceedings of the Bergen County Historical Society (1902-1905), enlarging public curiosity. The death of Captain D. Anderson Zobriskie in May 1907, however, raised concerns about the fate of this Revolutionary War landmark, which now passed to his daughter, Magdelena.
There was a genuine sentiment to protect its memorable qualities. As reported in July 1909, the Baron Steuben House at North Hackensack was in danger of being “remodeled and made into a tenement house, unless some friend of historic structures comes forward and buys it for the purpose of preserving it.” A reporter for the Newark Sunday Call called the Steuben House “quite as historic and quite as beautiful architecturally” as any other antique building in America, worthy of “better treatment than to be transformed into a tenement house.” It was rumored that the house could be bought for about $5,000 and “would make a delightful summer home for some one who is interested in such a building, and it really deserves preservation.”
The same reporter observed one millstone being “used as a steppingstone for the house and another lying in the mud at the mouth of the creek, above which projects the shaft upon which it turned. A few of the posts which supported the mill are still visible, but aside from that the structure has entirely disappeared.” Despite such publicity, Magdalena Zabriskie sold her family’s 30 acres, including the old Baron Steuben house, to industrialist Charles W. Bell on October 1, 1909. He intended to build a large mill on the property for the manufacture of cardboard, using the waterfront and planning a spur from the New Jersey & New York railroad for freight facilities.
Charles W. Bell engaged machinery to dredge the Hackensack River and Cole’s Brook, near the Steuben House, for the erection of his proposed large manufactory, which was expected to employ 500 hands. Besides foreign capitalists, William Randolph Hearst, of New York, owned an interest in the ink factory, supposedly to supply ink for his publications in case of union strikes. Where the dredging machine was operating at the mouth of the creek, a tributary of the river, workmen unearthed the ancient millstone of Zabriskie’s tide mill. Another millstone and shaft were left imbedded in the mud. Andrew Zabriskie, it was said, also established a brickyard, the first in North Jersey, near the site of the proposed paper mill (located where the Steuben Arms apartments stand today). Hackensack Mayor Charles W. Bell transferred his interest in the 50-acre tract at North Hackensack to the American Ink Company in May 1911.
According to the 1915 State Census, John Schwarzman and his family occupied the old Zabriskie-Steuben House. Mr. Schwarzman was born October 1856 in Austria and immigrated to the United States in 1882. His wife Katie was also Austrian. Their children residing at home were: John G., born in Arkansas in February 1895, then 20 years old and employed as a clerk; Dewey M., born in Arkansas in April 1898, then 17 years old and a farmer; Gustaf, born in Arkansas in June 1899, then 14 years old; and Harry, born in Arkansas in June 1904, then 10 years old. They may have shared the dwelling with the family of Thomas Lawton, an English shoemaker, 81 years old, and his wife Augusta, 69 years old. In 1916, the old Zobriskie estate at New Bridge was sold to the Veronica Realty Corporation (formerly the Veronica Ink Company) of New York.
Through the First World War, the Steuben House was partly rented to the Schwarzmans, he being a tenant farmer who also rented boats to vacationers. He and his family occupied the south end of the house, together with the frame kitchen wing at the rear. The remainder housed several families of summer boarders, each family living in a section of the house containing two or three rooms at most.
The Veronica Realty Corporation sold the premises in 1919 to William Randolph Hearst’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Hanna L. Willson, of Manhattan. She died September 14, 1919. Millicent V. Hearst and her father, George L. Willson, renounced their rights and the property passed to daughter Anita Irwin, wife of Walter W. Irwin, of Manhattan. On May 29, 1929, William Randolph and Millicent Hearst and her father, George L Willson, conveyed all their real estate at New Bridge to Anita Irwin.
The Women’s Auxiliary of the Bergen County Historical Society toured the old Steuben House in June 1920, noting that “in spite of its fall from its past estate, has many interesting features still to be seen.” They returned on June 11, 1921, hosting local chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The owner, Mrs. Anita Irwin, sister of William Randolph Hearst, leased the landmark dwelling to Harry Benson in 1923 for use as a tearoom and restaurant, to be known as the “1752 House.” The interior stone wall dividing the parlors was removed to open a large room, but the project soon failed or was abandoned. The alterations only heightened a sense of public concern.
The American Sesquicentennial of 1926 renewed patriotic sentimentality. On January 25, 1926, State Senator William B. Mackay and Assemblyman John Y. Dater introduced companion bills, asking that $12,000 be appropriated to purchase the Steuben estate at New Bridge (River Edge) as “a place of national significance dear to the heart of every Jerseyman who wishes it to be preserved.” The bill passed the Senate (12 to 2) on February 8, 1926. A large delegation from the Steuben Society listened from the galleries to Governor A. Harry Moore’s oration on George Washington, delivered on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1926. Immediately thereafter, the Steuben House Commission bill passed the General Assembly unanimously (57 to 0) and was signed into law.
The Steuben House Commission was organized on June 26, 1926, to oversee the acquisition and restoration of the Steuben House. While some had hoped that the family of William Randolph Hearst, owners of the historic estate, would donate the premises to the public, negotiations stalemated when they instead demanded what Sheriff Joseph Kinzley, Chairman of the Steuben House Commission, considered “a Tammany Hall price for the place.” When the Hearst family refused all offers, the legislature authorized the use of condemnation. In May 1928, the Hearst interests contested eminent-domain proceedings but lost. The State of New Jersey took title on June 28, 1928, paying $14,000 for the decaying landmark and only one surrounding acre of land.
On March 11, 1929, Sheriff Kinzley urged the Legislature to appropriate $100,000 for restoration of the house and grounds, but received no official response. In the absence of official action, the Frank J. Van Wetering Post of the Hackensack V.F.W. cleared overgrown vegetation that obscured the house and hired a man to maintain the grounds. The General George S. Patton Post of Dumont started a fund drive and some money was raised to assist with maintenance. The Bergen County Historical Society urged that the State immediately appropriate $25,000 for emergency repairs and upkeep. A bill was introduced in February 1930 to that purpose, but it was not enacted.
Finally, in April 1931, Assemblywoman Emma Peters, of Rutherford, managed to get a $7,000 emergency appropriation to repair the deteriorated roof and to settle outstanding bills. On June 18, 1931, a contract was awarded to the Collins Construction Company of Hackensack. Accordingly, $6,116 worth of rehabilitation began in July, under the supervision of architect Wesley S. Bessell, and included uncovering a beamed ceiling and putting on a new roof. Some of the funds went to pay a caretaker and to cover other outstanding obligations.
In July 1931, Joseph Kinzley, chairman of the Steuben House Commission, reported that restoration work on the old Steuben House would be completed by the fall. The work largely consisted of tearing down decaying structures, removing accumulated debris, rebuilding stonewalls, fireplaces and chimneys. The contractor was also directed to preserve “all the old Holland brick, handsome hewn beams, stone block and old sills in the building.” A beamed ceiling that was replastered was “reputed to be one of the finest examples of the Colonial period in this section.”
Initial plans did not provide for heating or sanitation, though there was hope of installing a resident caretaker in one or two rooms. An antique stone step, which had been used in the 1819 County Courthouse in Hackensack, was secured for the entrance (and remains at this location to this day). The Steuben Society, the Bergen County Historical Society, and the Daughters of the American Revolution, applied to furnish and to use some of the rooms in the house for meeting purposes. Large numbers of visitors were daily making special visits, arriving from all parts of the State.
During the Depression years, a family of squatters occupied the house, subsisting in part from rabbits caught on the property. Facing difficult economic times and the need to more efficiently organize its governmental functions, the New Jersey Legislature formed a Historic Sites Commission in the Department of Conservation and Development in 1931 to administer the State’s expanding historic-sites preservation and interpretive program, and to consolidate the powers previously exercised by independent commissions supervising State-owned historic properties. Accordingly, the Steuben House Commission was dissolved in February 1932 and its responsibilities passed to the Historic Sites Commission. In 1934, the Historic American Buildings Survey prepared detailed measured drawings of the house. With these completed, Francis Koehler, President of the Bergen County Historical Society, urged a rehabilitation project.
The Bergen County Historical Society held its first program at the Steuben House on Constitution Day in September 1935, when caretaker, Mrs. Gordon Brown Kynoch, escorted members through the rooms under restoration. On October 30, 1937, the Historic Sites Commission dedicated a bronze roadside marker and a bronze wall plaque at the site. At this time, Louis Sherwood, of the Historic Sites Commission, forecast an impending restoration of the house by the WPA.
On June 20, 1938, a crew of WPA workmen began a $20,000 renovation of the Steuben House (the New Jersey Historic Sites Commission contributing $3,000 and the WPA supplying $15,800 worth of labor to the project). A new oil heating system, a bath and lavatory were installed. The original floorboards of the ground level were removed, thin concrete pads were poured between the original floor joists, and new random-oak flooring was installed on the first floor. Original plaster walls and ceilings were either removed or concealed as a sand-finish plaster was newly applied over expanded metal lath. The grounds were drained by a system of subterranean concrete conduits (called French drains) and the New Jersey Highway Department built an 18' roadway around the house (removed in 2001). A mid-nineteenth century frame kitchen wing was torn off the southwest corner of the building. Lastly, whitewash coating the east and south elevations of the house was sandblasted and a temporary concrete porch pad was laid in front.
On October 14, 1938, Thomas Marple, Assistant Director of the Historic Sites Commission, offered to allow the Bergen County Historical Society to occupy the restored Steuben House as their museum headquarters. The Society accepted on October 20, 1938, passing the required amendment to their By-Laws on December 13, 1939, which provided that, in the event of the Society’s dissolution, its “collections of every sort will become the property of the State of New Jersey under the supervision of the Commission on Historic Sites or its successor, on the condition that such property will remain in the present building known as the Steuben House.” This dissolution clause in the Society’s By-Laws was removed in June 1983.
On August 19, 1939, the Hackensack Boys Workshop of the National Youth Administration set about splitting rails and posts from condemned chestnut telephone poles to fence the Steuben House property. The renovated house was formally dedicated on September 23, 1939. Thomas Marple, Director and Secretary of the New Jersey Historic Sites Commission, represented the State of New Jersey. A Red Oak, the State Tree, was planted near the northeast corner of the front porch. It apparently liked the site and has grown into a beautiful specimen.
The house was not restored in 1938-39 as a period home or as an artifact of its time, but rather it was converted into a museum headquarters and clubhouse, complete with showcases for artifacts, offices and a library. The Society began meeting in the historic homestead in 1940. The museum regularly opened between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. from Tuesday through Saturday. Admission was free and 3,000 children visited during the first year.
Route #4 was built between the newly opened George Washington Bridge and Paterson as part of the original State Highway System, spurring development on its periphery. But although the population of River Edge doubled between 1930 and 1940, 25% of the borough remained farm acreage when the Steuben House opened as a public museum in September 1939. The population tripled between 1940 and 1950, increasing from three to nine thousand. Within this time frame, the Steuben House, sitting upon an acre of ground, quickly lost the open surroundings of centuries past. Kiddy Land Amusement Park opened on the largely wooded grounds of the old ink factory, between Main Street and Coles Brook. An auto salvage yard occupied the northeast corner of the intersection of Hackensack Avenue and Main Street. The Bergen County Historical Society responded in 1945 by purchasing the adjacent 7.3 acres to the west of the Steuben House, thereby preventing further encroachment upon its historic setting. The Society vigorously contested the County’s revived plans to build a new river crossing adjacent to the Steuben House in 1947. The right-of-way for the approaching roadway on the west side of the river is still evident on the tax map, showing the road corridor as it would have crossed through the present parking lot of the Steuben House to the river’s edge.
On July 4, 1942, a new steel flagpole was dedicated in the backyard of the Steuben House. The War of 1812 cannon named “Old Bergen” was permanently relocated to a concrete mount in front of the Steuben House (the cannon was stolen in 1978). In 1944, a sandstone well and well sweep were constructed in the backyard (removed in 1983).
The Historic Sites Commission’s functions and properties were transferred to the Division of Forestry, Geology, Parks and Historic Sites in 1945. As of May 1, 1946, half of the State admission fee to the Steuben House went to the Society
The decision was made in August 1947 to build shelves for the Society’s library in the northwest room on the second story of the Steuben House. In 1948, the Society employed Mrs. Curtis to staff the house on Thursdays and Fridays. Mrs. Herbert T. Johnson and the Englewood Garden Club planted an herb garden behind the house in 1949. In September of that same year, a contract was let for a new oil burner. In October, new directional road-signs were established on local roads. Mrs. Olga Atkins, Supervisor of the Historic Sites Section, decided after an initial inspection of the property in 1950 that the well and four-seat outhouse should be restored.
Drainage remained a problem on the grounds. In 1954 the County installed a new drainage pipe, with a “tidal flap” on its outlet, thus allowing run-off from storm drains to empty into the Hackensack River. As the County had decided to extend Hackensack Avenue beyond its intersection with Main Street to a new river crossing north of the Steuben House, this drainage system was laid in the abandoned right-of-way south of the Steuben House. Using the embankment built for the abandoned bridge approach, 18" to 22" of fill was spread around the Steuben House, helping considerably to alleviate tidal flooding.
As the septic tank was subject to recurrent back filling by high tides, repairs were continually made to address the problem. On November 17, 1954, a contract for the installation of a new 500-gallon Septic Tank, Orangeburg leach lines and gravel beds, was awarded. While digging percolation test holes, old brickwork was discovered along the north driveway (removed in 2001), on the edge of the marsh, about 30 feet from the northwest corner of the Steuben House. The Society commenced a “Buried Treasure Hunt” at this site in June 1959, reportedly unearthing a 12' x 15' building, with a well-laid brick floor, and recovering two dozen buried eighteenth-century bottles containing cherry pits. Diggers kept some bottles for themselves and sold the rest for 50¢ apiece — none now survive at the site.
In 1954-56, the Demarest Memorial Foundation (now the Blauvelt-Demarest Foundation) painstakingly disassembled the Demarest House on its original site, behind the present New Milford Borough Hall (actually where the American Legion Post now stands) and reconstructed it on Main Street, River Edge, directly behind the Steuben House, taking a 99-year lease for 2,800 square feet from the Bergen County Historical Society. The Red Barn (an 1889 English-style dairy barn or “cow house,” also known as the Westervelt-Thomas Barn) was moved from Washington Township and reconstructed in its present location behind the Steuben House in November 1954. This barn was raised and set on a new foundation in 1984.
The Bureau of Architecture, Department of the Treasury, put out specifications for restoration of the roof framing, structural reinforcement, and roof repairs to the Steuben House in March 1955. Most original roof trusses were removed and replaced with circular-sawn oak timbers, a new wooden shingle roof was installed, the first floor was painted, electrical repairs were made, fixtures added, a kitchen installed, and sewage disposal upgraded. Sadly, the old roof trusses were replaced to raise headroom in the garret level, enabling the space to be used for exhibits. The carpenters found it impossible to cut the oak for mortise-and-tenon work; so most trusses are nailed together with fake pegs inserted in auger-holes. In October 1955, while the replacement of the roof rafters was progressing, architect Lawrence Moon decided not to replace the rafters and other timbers at the south end of the house in order to preserve some of the original work and to save the small bedroom.
The garret was opened up (by the removal of old board partitions) to make a 25' x 50' space for exhibits that had been previously displayed downstairs in the large museum room. The large room downstairs was then furnished in a more homelike setting. The entrance was moved to the front porch and the Dwelling-Room converted from an entry and office to a “Colonial kitchen.” There were 4,536 visitors to the house in 1955. In the summer of 1956, the garret was first opened to the public, despite low headroom and a narrow winder staircase.
The new roadway for extending Hackensack Avenue beyond its intersection with Main Street was laid out in 1956 across the northwest corner of the Society's property, to a new concrete-and-steel bridge over the Hackensack River, 500' north of the iron truss bridge. The closing of the 1889 swing bridge to automotive traffic turned Main Street, River Edge, into a dead-end in front of the Steuben House. Old New Bridge Road (on the boundary between New Milford and Teaneck) likewise became a dead end.
The Army Corps of Engineers planned to destroy the old bridge as soon as the new one was completed. The Bergen County Historical Society and the Dumont Women’s Club successfully petitioned to keep the historic span for a pedestrian crossing. Colonel John T. O’Neill, of the Army Corps of Engineers, yielded to Freeholder Walter M. Neill, who promised that the County of Bergen would henceforth maintain the old bridge, if it were spared.
The Westervelt-Thomas Barn was opened to the public on October 14, 1956. On December 4, 1956, the Distaff Committee of the Bergen County Historical Society was organized “to assist in preservation and display of such valuable treasures and to aid in securing additions to the Society’s collection of Americana.” The attendance in 1956 was recorded at 6,624 persons.
Olga Atkins, Supervisor of the State Historic Sites Section, submitted specifications for major maintenance to the Steuben House in August 1957, including cleaning and re-pointing of masonry joints with a sand-lime mortar, raising a ramp to connect the different garret floor levels, repairing attic floor boards, installing lighting fixtures in the garret, applying pine paneling over the stairway bulkhead at the attic level, installing a stair railing, capping the chimneys, installing a new electrical panel in the Toilet and Furnace Room, putting in base and floor receptacles and switches, lamps and lighting fixtures, and painting all exterior woodwork. The Steuben House was closed early in 1958 for repairs and not opened to the public until March 30th. The $18,000 renovation took six weeks.
In January 1959, Mrs. Boeck, caretaker at the Steuben House, reported that servicemen for the Hackensack Water Company had discovered a leak in the water line where it crossed the bed of the Hackensack River. The loss was estimated at about 800 gallons per day. Contractor Theodore D’Agostino excavated a trench from Main Street in River Edge, and installed a new water line in August 1959, using an easement across the lands of the Bergen County Historical Society, secured on February 18, 1959.
The Society transferred a small piece of land to the State of New Jersey in 1959, just south of the house, to provide the first parking lot. The Maintenance Division of the State Highway Department completed construction of the parking area in May 1960. The project also included installation of a brick walk with a “basket-weave pattern,” on a 4-inch concrete base, leading from the new parking lot to the south end of the Steuben House. In July 2001, a portion of this walkway was re-laid to form a ramp to the level of the new wooden porch.
Single-bedroom garden apartments replaced the Kiddy Land Amusement Park that operated on the south side of Main Street, opposite the historic park. Coles Brook, the boundary between River Edge and the City of Hackensack, was straightened and commercial development began on Commerce Way.
Bergen County Freeholder D. Bennett Mazur initiated a project in 1967 to build a Hall of History, using a portion of the Society’s land, lying west of the barn, whereon the County would put up a building to display the collections of the Bergen County Historical Society and the Bergen Community Museum. The old County Poor House on Ridgewood Avenue in Paramus was instead converted to a museum in 1969, but the Society withdrew its participation. In December 1967, archeologist Roland Robbins excavated a section of the river landing in front of the Steuben House, recovering many artifacts.
The Steuben Arms apartments were built on the south side of Main Street, River Edge, in 1967 and commercial development quickly surrounded the new crossroads of Main Street and Hackensack Avenue. Using plans developed by Harry Dobson, the Bergen County Historical Society awarded a contract in July 1968 to spread topsoil, grade, and seed with grass, a strip of their land, 50' wide, extending from the auto-salvage yard to the Demarest House. The first floor of the Steuben House was changed into a “colonial” house museum and the Victorian items placed in storage. Bloomingdales was built on the north side of Route 4 in Hackensack, forming the core of what would become the Riverside Square Mall.
With funding from the Federal Open Space and New Jersey Green Acres programs, the Township of Teaneck acquired 10.54 acres of land in 1968-69 at a bend in the Hackensack River, where the communities of Teaneck, New Milford, Hackensack and River Edge intersect. Once the site of Rekow’s truck farm and several summer bungalows composing Benson’s Campground, the new parkland was named to honor Clarence W. Brett, a former member of the Teaneck Planning Board.
In April 1974, the firm of Miceli, Week and Kulik presented a Lake Hackensack Shoreline Plan to the Bergen County Board of Chosen Freeholders. As its centerpiece, the plan called for creation of a 200-acre freshwater lake behind a tidal barrier to be erected between the Midtown and Susquehanna Railroad bridges in Hackensack. The shoreline was conceived as a continuous recreation system, linking a variety of recreational, cultural and commercial attractions.
As part of this grand scheme, Lake Hackensack planner Luciano Miceli proposed construction of a historic village and extensive recreational facilities in Brett Park. His proposal envisioned a river front beach, bath house and snack bar, multi-use athletic fields, tennis courts, boat rentals and docks, foot paths, family picnic area, an Historic Village, shops and Village Green, a restaurant and parking for 76 cars. Old buildings were to be moved, or antique reproductions built, on the flood plain in Brett Park, opposite the Steuben House. The plan called for “a unifying village motif ... to provide a compact yet appropriate setting for the buildings.” Office rental space was to be offered as a partial adaptive reuse of these historic buildings.
Across the river, the State of New Jersey was to more fully develop the museum potential of the Steuben House through a plan of extensive renovations. Its grounds were to be screened from incompatible adjacent land uses. The State was also to acquire the junkyard at the west edge of the property, making possible a more attractive approach and allowing the removal of the existing road and parking lot, located immediately south of the house. Integral to the proposed park design, the Bergen County Historical Society made plans for a museum and Society headquarters building (on the site where the Campbell-Christie House now stands). The County of Bergen also acquired marshland on the river’s edge, north of Hackensack Avenue, where it planned to build an environmental center.
In May 1975, Teaneck’s own park consultant, Robert B. Kinsey, concluded that the proposed County projects “would constitute an over-development of the Brett Park site — an attempt to include many crowd-producing areas and facilities into a site not large enough to accommodate them.” He further noted “a substantial part of the total acreage does not lend itself to development for active (or even passive) recreational development.” When environmental concerns doomed the projected tidal barrier and freshwater lake as its raison d’être, the plan lost its unifying spirit (in this case, the County of Bergen) and dissolved, largely unfulfilled, into its disparate elements.
With help from the Campbell-Christie Society of New Milford, the County of Bergen and the Bergen County Historical Society cooperated to relocate the Campbell-Christie House from its original site at the intersection of River Road and Henley Avenue in New Milford to the Society’s lands at New Bridge on September 27, 1977. The County leased the plot of ground that the house occupies from the Society, leasing the interior to the Society for its use. After extensive reconstruction, the Campbell-Christie House opened to the public in 1980. Due to fire damage, the original kitchen wing was not salvaged and reconstructed on the new site.
Continental Plaza (433 Hackensack Avenue, containing 633,000 sq. ft. in three towers with an attached parking garage) was built in 1972 on the old driving range, west of Hackensack Avenue. In 1978, the Riverside Square Mall was built around Bloomingdales, less than a quarter miles south of the Steuben House. Shortly thereafter, the County of Bergen designed and built a riverside park, with public access from the rear of the parking garage of the new mall.
The Division of Parks and Forestry installed an ejection-pump sanitary line and connection with the County sewer system in 1973, using a 15-foot wide easement from the Bergen County Historical Society to reach the Steuben House.
Due to flood damage to the caretaker’s living room and kitchen, located in the rear basement rooms of the Steuben House, the Division of Parks and Forestry asked the Bergen County Historical Society to remove their library collections from the northwest room. A new kitchen and living room were then installed in the rear rooms on the second floor in 1979, placing the caretaker’s residence on one floor and above the reach of tidal flooding for the first time. Kevin Wright was employed as “caretaker” on October 31, 1981, and became the site’s first professional Historic Preservation Specialist on July 18, 1984. He and his family resided in the Steuben House until February 1996. Their oldest child, Ivan, was two and a half years old when they moved there. Two children, Benjamin and Anna Wright, were actually born in the house, respectively in December 1982 and February 1985.
John Spring, president of the Bergen County Historical Society, assembled a Site Management Committee in September 1983 to examine the site and structures at New Bridge, to make plans for their care and development, and to report to the Society on findings and priorities. The Committee also made a study of “Society lands and State lands on the west bank of the river as well as an investigation of areas on the east bank of the river.” The New Bridge Landing Historic Park Site Management Plan (August 1984) suggested the name of Historic New Bridge Landing Park as a way to integrate the various historic buildings and their respective owners into a single coordinated entity, saying that the “name represents a recognition that the resources, and organizations which participate in their preservation, are partners in the management of the area.” To this end, the committee deliberately included representatives of the Bergen County Historical Society, the Division of Parks and Forestry, the Blauvelt-Demarest Foundation, and, to the extent possible, from the three neighboring communities at New Bridge.
As columnist Mark Stuart wrote (“History needs a face lift,” The Record, April 17, 1985): “The society’s idea is to recreate this whole collection [of historic buildings] as a historic-cultural park, the heritage of every resident of Bergen County. The park would include not only the society’s property but Brett Park in Teaneck, just across the river; the corner of Hackensack Avenue and Main Street, now occupied by an auto junkyard; and a small stretch of New Milford that includes the street on which the New Bridge Inn now stands.” The Site Management Plan also identified “a need for a Visitor Center” to “display large items from the collection and provide space for group audio-visual presentations on Bergen County history, architecture, crafts and natural environs.” It was to include space for a research library, sales area and rest rooms. Thus the Historic New Bridge Landing General Management Plan of the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission is a direct and complete fulfillment of the Bergen County Historical Society’s own wishes and plans.
After the BCHS Board of Trustees adopted the Site Management Plan in June 1984, a copy was officially presented to the Division of Parks and Forestry for its approval. BCHS President John Spring personally handed a copy to Governor Thomas Kean on his visit to the site during the Hackensack River Festival in June 1985. The Society discussed the plan with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, seeking Green Acres purchase of the junkyard, and also discussed the rehabilitation of the iron swing-bridge with the County Engineer. Kevin Tremble made presentations before the municipal officials of River Edge, Teaneck and New Milford (See “$1.7M plan for historic park,” The Record, March 25, 1985).
The Society encouraged the various stakeholders to act upon this plan. In response, the Division of Parks and Forestry added the board reading “Historic New Bridge Landing” to the entrance sign at the Steuben House. BCHS Trustee Harold Syversen conducted a membership fund drive to erect the rail fencing around the grounds and river landing. To mark the bridge’s centennial in 1989, the Site Committee successfully applied for the Iron Swing Bridge to be included on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places and persuaded the County of Bergen to paint it and clear away vegetation that obscured it from view. At this time, the County of Bergen also erected the two brown historical markers on the river landing explaining the history of the bridge and tide mill. The County also placed directional signs to Historic New Bridge on the surrounding streets and highways.
The Division of Parks and Forestry undertook a major maintenance project to repair the exterior of the Steuben House in 1984, doing extensive repointing of masonry joints, reconstructing the chimneys above the roof line, replacing the wood shingle roof, and making other much needed repairs and painting. The position of Caretaker was upgraded to the professional position of Historic Preservation Specialist in July 1984.
In evaluation of its open space and recreational needs, the Township of Teaneck adopted a Master Plan and Summary of Background Studies, prepared by the firm of Queale & Lynch, Inc., in June 1985. Two important guidelines, recommended in the Draft Revision of 1993, were adopted, namely, (1) that appropriate zoning standards should allow for a natural buffer of about 100 feet along the Hackensack River and that the township should require future development on land fronting the river to provide for a river pathway in conformance with the Hackensack River Pathway concept plan; and (2) that any development of Brett Park should be made with regard to plans for the entire New Bridge Landing area being developed by the Bergen County Historical Society, the County and the State.
PSE&G installed an extended service line to the Demarest and Steuben Houses in 1991, providing gas heat. At this time, a 275-gallon tank was removed from the root cellar of the Steuben House. The basement location of the furnace continued to be a problem, however, due to repeated flood damage. The site curator moved from the residence in the Steuben House in March 1996.
The Site Committee’s efforts to co-ordinate planning at Historic New Bridge foundered because of the Society’s lack of resources and an inability to compel participation from the disparate governmental entities that needed to be involved. The creation of the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission solved these defects and legally established the very centralized coordinating committee that the Site Committee struggled to be.
The Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission was established by legislation (PL. 1995, Chapter 260) in 1995 to coordinate and implement federal, State, county, municipal and private development policies and other activities incidental to the preservation, maintenance, restoration and interpretation of historic buildings, structures, sites and features of Historic New Bridge Landing, so as to develop and promote their optimal educational and recreational benefit to the public. The Commission provides the regular interface needed to inform and coordinate decisions made by diverse public and private entities having ownership of land, buildings, structures or roadways within the Commission’s jurisdiction.
The Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission consists of a representative from the County of Bergen, a representative from the Blauvelt-Demarest Foundation, a representative from the Borough of River Edge, a representative from the Borough of New Milford, two representatives from the Bergen County Historical Society, and two representatives from the Township of Teaneck. Each of these eight members is appointed by resolution of the respective governing bodies they are to represent and serve for a term of three years. The Director of the Division of Parks and Forestry is the ninth member. The Commission’s business is organized and conducted by annually elected officers, namely: a Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson, a Secretary, and a Treasurer.
After years of meetings, seeking public input, and building consensus, final approval of the Historic New Bridge Landing General Management Plan on February 4, 1999, set the stage for remarkable progress. Through the intercommunicative forum provided by the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission, several effective and changing partnerships have formed to achieve GMP goals, turning a diversity of stakeholders into a positive asset.
The Borough of River Edge enacted Ordinance #1334 on May 12, 2001, vacating the dead-end of Main Street (approximately 213 feet in length) between the entrance to the PSE&G Substation and the 1889 Swing Bridge. A portion of the former westbound lane was incorporated into the design of the new parking lot at the Steuben House. The section in front of the Steuben House was given a new gravel surface. The deeds vacating a portion of Main Street and transferring title to the lands from the Borough of River Edge to the State of New Jersey and to the Bergen County Historical Society, the contiguous property owners, is dated September 17, 2001.
On October 27, 2000, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection purchased the former Saw shop property at 1 Old New Bridge Road in New Milford (Block No. 113, Lot No. 10 on the New Milford Tax Map) from Joseph Van Hook.
Through the intercession of Senator Robert Torricelli, the Secretary of the Interior was authorized (P. L. 106-554) to provide $1,097,580 to purchase lands at Historic New Bridge Landing. Authority to implement the appropriation was delegated to the National Park Service. Administrative oversight and stewardship responsibilities were accordingly assigned to the National Park Service Regional Director at the Northeast Region Office in Philadelphia. An Agreement to transfer administration of this fund was signed with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection on August 17, 2000.
The Green Acres Program has been willing and able to secure properties for historic park purposes in a densely settled corner of the State. In July 2001, the County of Bergen joined Green Acres in securing the right-of-way to make the necessary road improvements on or near the site of the proposed entrance and visitor facilities. The County of Bergen also initiated and funded important improvements to its properties at Historic New Bridge Landing, namely, the 1889 Swing Bridge and the Campbell-Christie House. The participating municipalities have also lent their talent, enthusiasm and support to the project. The Blauvelt-Demarest Foundation provided timely support at the inception of the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission and greatly advanced the cause by funding a professional Concept Development Prospectus. United States Senator Robert Torricelli rendered great assistance by securing a $1.1 million Federal grant through the National Park Service for property acquisition.
The Division of Parks and Forestry has committed its resources and talent to leading the project. When the Borough of River Edge vacated the dead-end of Main Street, the Division designed and installed a new parking area (increasing its capacity from 16 to 21 parking spaces), by incorporating a lane of the vacated roadway. The antiquated heating system in the Steuben House irreparably broke in January 2000. Due to the loss of heat, the house closed in November 2000, while awaiting repairs. The Bergen County Historical Society removed and safely stored its valuable historic collections from the Steuben House in April 2001 to allow for the extensive renovations.
Green Acres acquired the Sutton and Lys house (.1 acre) on the tip of the traffic island, south of the intersection of Main Street and Hackensack Avenue, on May 14, 2001. The adjacent Pizza Town property was acquired, with .45 acres to the State of New Jersey and .15 acre to the county of Bergen for a right-of-way. The Sutton and Lys house was demolished in September 2002.
The Division of Parks and Forestry completed a major exterior restoration of the house in August 2001, according to plans and specifications prepared by historic restoration architects Holt, Morgan & Russell. With a small gas furnace removed to the attic level, well above the flood level, a new heating system became operational in October 2001. The renovated Steuben House reopened in October 2001, just in time for the 225th Anniversary of Washington’s Retreat. The “Retreat to Victory” was held on November 17-18, 2001.
On March 25, 2002, the State House Commission approved trading a strip of land on the Lys & Sutton property, located on the traffic triangle, to the County of Bergen in exchange for small neighboring plots of land. The exchange was made to facilitate the widening of Hackensack Avenue as part of the anticipated road improvements to enhance the gateway to Historic New Bridge Landing.
Matt Gebhardt was employed as provisional Resource Interpretive Specialist at the Steuben House in May 2002 (having worked at the house since the previous October). After his departure in July 2003, Sue Shutte was employed as Resource Interpretive Specialist.
The County of Bergen completed restoration of the 1889 swing bridge between November 16 and November 30, 2002, one of only two structures they own, the other being the four walls of the Campbell-Christie House.
HISTORIC NEW BRIDGE LANDING PARK COMMISSION MASTER PLAN – Draft
REVIEW FOR COMMENT BY MAY 26, 2010
The vision and goals for Historic New Bridge Landing have not substantially changed over the past sixty-five years since the Bergen County Historical Society acquired eight acres on Main Street, River Edge, in 1944 to facilitate the relocation of a proposed County highway bridge to be built adjacent to the south gable end of the landmark Steuben House. With the Society's inspiration, investment and encouragement, this significant remnant of the Jersey Dutch countryside, a Revolutionary battleground and one of the last unspoiled vistas of the Hackensack River in its central valley, was preserved for future generations. At that time, as Hackensack Avenue was extended beyond Main Street to a new conjunction with New Bridge Road, plans were made to save not only the 1889 swing bridge, but also the historic Demarest House in New Milford and the Westervelt-Thomas Barn in Washington Township through their relocation to the newly acquired lands. Most importantly, plans were made to build a Hall of History at New Bridge to house the outstanding collection of Jersey Dutch and Bergen County artifacts, displayed in the Steuben House since 1939---these museum collections, accumulated by the Bergen County Historical Society since its founding in 1902, once made the Steuben House the best attended State Historic Site in New Jersey.
Since the State of New Jersey only acquired the Steuben House on a postage-stamp parcel of land in 1928, the Bergen County Historical Society donated land, immediately south of the house, in 1959 to allow for construction of a public parking lot to accommodate visitors. The Township of Teaneck foresightedly acquired the former Rekow Farm and Bensen's Campground through Green Acres purchase in 1968-69, creating Clarence Brett Park. This not only preserves vital wetlands and a scenic and historical view shed of the river, but also a Native American site and a significant piece of the Revolutionary War battleground. In 1977, the Historical Society offered the County of Bergen a 50-year ground lease to move the Campbell-Christie House from New Milford onto its lands on condition that the Historical Society not only have occupancy of the structure in keeping with its mission, but also the exclusive right to determine its use and historic restoration; in exchange, the County of Bergen agreed to pay utilities and to maintain the house and its mechanical systems in sound condition.
The Bergen County Historical Society revived overall planning for the site in 1984, first suggesting restoration of the name "Historic New Bridge Landing" to brand and market the entire site and its popular menu of programs. This branding has been highly successful. Through bipartisan efforts, the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission was established by law in 1995 to "coordinate and implement federal, State, county, municipal, and private development policies and other activities relating to the historic preservation and recreational use of the property under the commission's jurisdiction." The commission successfully generated a general management plan, a comprehensive interpretive plan and an implementation plan. Based upon the common and clearly articulated goals and objectives set forth therein, the Commission acquired through Green Acres purchase the Pizza Town lot and the adjacent Sutton & Lys property on Hackensack Avenue for parking as well as the former Saw Shop property at the eastern approach to the historic swing bridge. Through former US Senator Robert Torricelli, the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission received a $1.1 million Federal grant in January 2001 to purchase and remediate the former BAPCO property as the site for a proposed visitor center and battle monument. In a matter of weeks, the former auto salvage yard will be cleaned and the old fence will come down, revealing Historic New Bridge Landing to 40,000 passing motorists daily. New signage, freely and professionally designed by Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commissioners Ann Subrizi and Deborah Powell (BCHS President ), has been installed to capture an ever expanding interest in what is destined to become a major heritage destination. While Governor McGreevey officially designated Historic New Bridge Landing as one of three new Urban State Parks on October 21, 2004---the others being Trenton and the Great Falls in Paterson---no benefits ever accrued to the site by this action and all moneys were instead spent at the other locations.
While the Steuben House has been subject to supernormal tides over the centuries, a northeaster in April 2007 proved the perfect storm. Despite considerable experience in protecting the artifact collections displayed in the Steuben House over the previous seventy years and despite a timely warning and offer of volunteer assistance, the museum collections suffered $170,000 in flood-related damages. Consequently the powers and jurisdictional boundaries of the Historic New Bridge Landing Park Commission were expanded through new legislation in 2009, transferring administration of the state owned lands and buildings to the Commission. The bill unanimously passed both houses of the legislature, indicating bipartisan support for this model public/private partnership in preserving and promoting a cynosure of New Jersey's rich historical identity. The Blauvelt-Demarest Foundation has recently completed a $60,000 restoration of the Demarest House at Historic New Bridge Landing and the Bergen County Historical Society, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) volunteer organization, provides all programming without any governmental support. The County Historical Society has over 900 memberships (many are households) and remains the largest landowner at Historic New Bridge.
The following definition of a master plan, offered by (now former) Chairman Michael Trepicchio at the meeting of February 4, 2010, may be helpful in guiding an understanding of the purpose and scope of such a document: “A park master plan is a general guide for appropriate park uses and their approximate location within a specific park site. The plan serves as a long-range vision for future development and programming. Issues typically addressed include planned park elements, natural and cultural resource management, and general design concerns. The plan is conceptual in nature and not intended to address detailed issues related to engineered site design or park operations. The plan is just one of many steps in the process that leads to the development of a public park.”