City Treasures Project

Neighborhood Project

Defining Elizabeth Memorials

Historical Preservation

The City Treasures Project

The City Treasures Project is an important program of the Historical Society; Elizabeth, NJ Inc. The overall target of the program rests with the power and significance of places. One of the first points of interchange between old-residents and newcomers is the commercial district, which itself changes over time. Our intention is to focus on key commercial areas such as Broad Street, Elizabeth Avenue, First Street, and Elmora Avenue – finding the flashpoints of both commercial and cultural exchange in this city.

Each city neighborhood has a building or a park or a store or a house of worship that is especially significant to the residents and City’s public history. Some might even be defined as secular yet sacred. We want to understand historically how those sites function in the sustenance of distinct ethnic and racial cultures. In addition, we want to know how these sites connect individual neighborhoods to the heart of our City and its function.

Learning From Our Past

By working to capture the history of places in the city, the City Treasures Project helps connect the past to the present; and helps plan for the future. When we see how a place in the city has been transformed over time – changing along with the people who live there – we gain a deeper understanding of the history and influence of individuals, neighborhoods and decision-makers along this rich story of Elizabeth, NJ.

The City Treasures Project has several ongoing projects.

Olmsted’s Legacy

Click the button below to find out more about this current featured project.

Neighborhood Project

The City Treasures Project has 3 ongoing projects.

Click below to find out more about each project:

Historical Preservation

James Kirk Center

The Historical Society: Elizabeth, NJ Inc has begun to explore the neighborhood surrounding the old Liederkranz building which centered the activities of the German residents in Peterstown in the early years of the 20th century. Support from the New Jersey Historical commission helped the society to integrate material from the Federal Census records and from Oral Interviews to compile the narrative below:

The building that is now called The James T. Kirk Center, affectionately named after the Elizabeth Mayor James T. Kirk, was once called the Liederkranz Gesang Verein and was built to house the German choral association in the neighborhood. The present residents of the neighborhood (predominantly working class Latinos) know the building as a once active youth center. The Kirk Center’s transformation from a choral house to youth center and now in the process of becoming elderly housing after being out of commission for many years exemplifies the changing needs of the neighborhood. This attractive restoration was the work of Vilu Construction Company (Luis Rodriguez, President) and Elizabeth architect, James Guerra.

The City of Elizabeth saw another surge in immigration at the end of the 19th century. The neighborhood around where the Liederkranz was to be built (a predominantly Irish 2nd and 3rd generation neighborhood) experienced a dramatic influx of German immigrants in the 1880’s and then a swell of Italian immigrants in the 1890’s. In 1900 many of these two populations held laboring jobs and consistently sent their children through school until age fifteen when girls would soon marry and boys would find work. The Germans and the Italians divided themselves into very distinct subsections of the neighborhood.

By 1910 the local industries had become even more significant players in the growth of the neighborhood. Many men regardless of ethnicity found jobs at the oil refinery, at the chemical factory and the brewery. Railroad and street laborers were also common but in this section of the Elizabeth many men found work and the Singer Sewing machine factory not ten blocks away. The men weren’t the only ones to be working.

Many mothers and daughters who previously seemed not to hold jobs for very long between school and marriage were working more frequently from home as washerwomen and tailors.

Woodruff Park Restoration

City leaders – Mayor Chris Bollwage and Councilman Bill Gallman – joined the State Green Acres Program. The Tree Foundation and especially Future City, Inc to rededicate Woodruff Park on Catherine Street on October 12, 2007. The park had experienced several transformations and in it latest mutation was a black-topped public space known locally as the “battleground.” The combination of city leaders and imaginative organizations resulted in the conversion of the park to a beautiful open, green space: new flowers, new sod, and new lampposts and a new design by Elizabeth Architect James Guerra.

Councilman Bill Gallman

Councilman Bill Gallman

David Pierce for Future City Inc.
Mayor Bollwage and Council Gallman unveiling
BRONZE PLAQUE, Woodruff Park Dedication
October 12, 2007

At the rededication, Historical Society President, Paul H Mattingly put the effort in context. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in Manhattan, created what many consider the “gold standard” of urban parks. But he also gave us a powerful way of thinking about such parks that apply to all versions of the genre: parks are “the lungs of the city;” parks offer alternatives to the stresses and tensions of our workaday routines; but most of all, parks permit us to observe people unlike ourselves, to break down stereotypes of social class as well as ethnic and racial inheritance. Parks, Olmsted forcefully argued, are active agents in the shaping of urban civility; they are democratic resources, necessary to constructive city life. Mattingly reminded those present that Olmsted became disenchanted with Central Park because its outer fringe contained only apartments. Residents of apartments did not take a proprietary role toward park maintenance and improvement. They observed, as it were, from above, as spectators of a park’s natural possibility. Later Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Olmsted felt, was a more satisfactory alternative, precisely because of the single-family townhouses on Prospect Park’s western edge. The dedication of Woodruff Park would be for Olmsted, Mattingly said, a starting point. The City leaders have done their part and orchestrated resources for its rehabilitation. Now its citizens, especially home-owners facing the park but also residents of the neighborhood, have a responsibility to maintain and improve this uplift. Were they to do so, Woodruff Park would become not only a democratic resource for the neighborhood, but for all of Elizabeth.

Redesigned by Elizabeth Architect, JAMES GUERRA PA

“The Corner That History Made”

A Presentation of the Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ Inc.

City leaders – Mayor Chris Bollwage and Councilman Bill Gallman – joined the State Green Acres Program. The Tree Foundation and especially Future City, Inc to rededicate Woodruff Park on Catherine Street on October 12, 2007. The park had experienced several transformations and in it latest mutation was a black-topped public space known locally as the “battleground.” The combination of city leaders and imaginative organizations resulted in the conversion of the park to a beautiful open, green space: new flowers, new sod, and new lampposts and a new design by Elizabeth Architect James Guerra.

John Bevan Map

Belcher-Ogden Mansion

In mid-November 2005, the Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ Inc took ownership of the Belcher-Ogden Mansion, 1046 East Jersey St, Elizabeth NJ, on the corner with Catherine Street. [#2 – Belcher Ogden mansion]  It is one of the last actual residences of a royal governor, anywhere in the thirteen original colonies. The building has other features and associations, which inform in major ways what the residence and indeed the Historical Society will become in the 21st century.  Here is a précis of our thinking about both of these enterprises.

Frame wing of Belcher-Ogden

In the 17th century the majority of American homeowners resided in one-room frame houses. Ideally they had a fireplace and all members of the household lived and worked side-by-side in that space.  Colonists cooked meals in the fireplace or outside, weather permitting, and at night – few owned bedsteads – they unrolled feather-stuffed coverlets near the fire. During the day gender roles overlapped, and all members assumed that they could substitute or be substituted in work by other members. If the roof were peaked, the structural beams supported foodstuff, dry goods etc and eventually attics became both storage places and eventually sleeping lofts.

Bonnell House

Particularly south of the Mason-Dixon line few of these frame buildings survive, supported as they were by wooden posts that eventually rotted. One superlative example of substantive 17th century farmhouse is the Bonnell House, also a part of our “corner,” where the Historical Society today has its offices.

By 1720 a revolutionary change had begun, and every community worth the name, sported a few, permanent brick homes, the best of which had two-stories plus an attic for storage. Generally there were several fireplaces – certainly one for cooking in a kitchen that often became the residence’s most public room.

Rear Entrance of Belcher

Another fireplace generally appeared in a main reception area or living room off the central entryway.

Belcher Kitchen

Gender distinctions differentiated the use of space, particularly in sleeping quarters but also in work areas. Portions of the kitchen were not for food preparation but for looms and carpentry tools. Every room had multiple uses, even the living room which often became an office for trade, for business discussion and indeed at times throughout the 18th century for political decision-making.

Belcher Dining Room

Most office holders operated out of their homes, and most of the prominent communal leaders owned homes on public highways. Few communities were centered – as later 19th century New England mythology projected – around central greens or courthouses. Rather, the early 18th century communities were “scattered communities” marked by residences which doubled as homes and workplaces.

Belcher Living Room

The earliest construction on the site of what today is the Belcher Ogden Mansion (1046 East Jersey Avenue, forming an Elizabeth corner with Catherine Street) was a frame structure, which in the mid-20th century its owners carefully reconstructed from historical research and the earliest record documentation. Likely the kitchen was not originally located within the building but for reasons of fire safety was in a separate structure nearby. The original owners and builders, John Ogden and his family, drew upon folklore and house designs from their native Hampshire Co England. And they were likely more concerned about survival than permanence in their structure.

Belcher Frame Wing

The house passed through more than one generation of Ogdens and the family eventually rented or sold the structure to a Massachusetts native, Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757), who already had served the British king as royal governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. By the time of Belcher’s 1747 appointment as New Jersey governor and his 1751 arrival in Elizabeth – making the city the seat of NJ government –  a one-story brick addition had been made to the original frame structure. That addition incorporated a large fireplace and a major workspace for its residents.

Belcher Brick Additions
Governor Jonathan Belcher

Belcher, a graduate of Harvard College, had already traveled to England and was fluent in the ways of the royal court and culture.  However, his support of trade and credit controls ingratiated him more to his fellow colonists than his Anglican king, a pattern that led to most of his political troubles.

However, his political success was a function of bridging the tense differences between these two opposing views. Equally important, his Puritan religious sentiments led him to give shelter during his Elizabeth residence both to the Rev George Whitefield and the Rev Jonathan Edwards– the two most powerful voices of the Great Awakening in America

Rev George Whitefield

Rev Jonathan Edwards

One major contribution of his religious commitments was his support for the original 1746 charter of the College of New Jersey and the appointment of Elizabeth minister and Yale graduate, Rev Jonathan Dickinson, its first president.  Belcher contributed his four-hundred-book library to the fledgling school and persuaded its trustees to name its main building – not after himself – but after William of Orange, formerly the Duke of Nassau, hence Nassau Hall.

The Belcher-Ogden mansion became the mitotic cell of present-day Princeton University.

Rev John Dickerson

Nassau Hall, Princeton University

His further impact on New Jersey registers itself still in the values and technologies Belcher employed in the re-creation of his domicile. From the early 18th century the English monied classes had drawn on a continental Palladian style which the British characterized – after their king – as Georgian, an elegantly balanced and decorated mode that strove hard to impress the onlookers that such a building contained their betters. The portion west of the entrance and probably the second story above the east wing – both in dark, narrow brick with glazed headers – completed the Georgian look.

William Peartree Smith’s Tea Set

William Peartree Smith’s Condiment Dish

This Georgian style was a social class expression that also presumed interior artifacts and mannered decorum. Central to all Georgian structures was an attractive, pedimented entryway and once within, especially in cooler weather, a socially welcoming punch bowl, often mulled wine but highly varied depending on the local fruit and available spirits.

Belcher Punchbowl

Visitors showed their class status by appreciating and using a host’s fine china, particularly his tea set and condiment dishes among other effects.  Belcher himself wrote revealing letters about his partiality – whatever the weather – not just for warm punch but also for beer and Madeira wine, which he admitted he consumed in the amount of a bottle a day.

William Peartree Smith’s Tea Set
William Peartree Smith’s Condiment Dish

In addition, Belcher seems to have been responsible, if not for the second story, at the very least a large expansion of the residence, a doubling of its size and a connection to the older brick area via a hallway, staircase and handsome window at the stairway turn.

Belcher Front Two Story

Belcher Staircase

The rear wall of the residence continues to document these changes and expansion, filling in windows, opening new doorways, and above all finding brick patterns that integrated the original Flemish bond pattern of the old house.

Belcher Rear Brickwork

The shifts registered in the Belcher-Ogden Mansion represent more than a change from wood-frame to brick elements, temporary to permanent social commitments; they also make clear a shift from folk adaptations to 18th century international aspirations, a cultural transformation from survival and mere decorum to urbane refinement.

Belcher From The Street

This residence reminds us that Elizabethans in New Jersey projected economic and cultural linkages not only with New York City but with world trade and cosmopolitanism. Witness here some China plate from Belcher’s holdings, an import via America’s famous clipper ships.

China Plate

This broader outreach – a direct result of British colonial imperialism and revolutionary dynamics – provided a dramatic vignette in 1778. Then owner of the Belcher Ogden Mansion was William Peartree Smith, a member of NJ’s Committee of Correspondence and close friend of soon to be governor, William Livingston, hosted the wedding of his daughter, Kate, to Elisha Boudinot, brother of Continental Congress president, Elisha Boudinot, an East Jersey Street neighbor at Boxwood Hall. In the midst of military maneuvers, Alexander Hamilton served as Master of Ceremonies and welcomed to the wedding reception, Gen George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette (who presented the family with a matched pair of crystal vases).

Boxwood Hall

General George Washington

Alexander Hamilton

British communication, somewhat delayed, learned of the reception and raided the mansion, destroying much of the residence’s contents and furniture, but, sadly for them, two weeks later.  This house served as longtime, strategic military and political locus, Revolutionary target of the British forces, cultural icon for both national and international influences, and surviving embodiment of American and indeed Elizabeth’s own social and commercial ambitions.

Lafayette Crystal Vases

These ambitions sustained themselves in its subsequent owners and residents. In particular, Aaron Ogden (1756-1839), descendant of the original owners and early builders, took ownership of the house in 1797. Before this year he had distinguished himself as a graduate of Princeton (1773) and Revolutionary officer who distinguished himself at the battles of Monmouth and Yorktown, where he led one of the storming parties which culminated in the surrender of British General Cornwallis.

Governor Aaron Ogden

After the revolution he returned to his native New Jersey and became a lawyer and Federalist Party leader.

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown

In 1812 New Jerseyans elected him Governor of the State. Afterward he developed a profitable steamboat company (with an alliance to Robert Fulton, inventor of the first commercial Steamboat on the Hudson – ferrying travelers from the South to New York City.

Fulton’s Clermont

His state-supported monopoly of this traffic invited criticism and legal challenge by one of his rivals, Thomas Gibbons (one of whose employees by the name of Cornelius Vanderbilt would launch a prodigious fortune from his modest steamboat beginnings). Gibbons successfully contested Ogden’s monopoly to the Supreme Court (Gibbons vs Ogden 1824) which argued that the federal government rather than state governments guaranteed interstate commerce.

Thomas Gibbons

The ensuing competition modified Ogden’s profits and diluted his substantial investment in steamboating. Ogden’s loss was New York City’s gain, opening competition for commercial access and stimulating trade not only overseas but in the hinterland of the new country via the Erie Canal.

New York Harbor in the 1820’s

Ogden occupied his later years as Collector of Customs in Jersey City, and sold his East Jersey house to his son, Judge. E. B. Dayton Ogden. Later in the 19th century his wife’s family, the Chetwoods, would own the house while F. B. Chetwood served as Elizabeth Mayor. Ogden’s reduced financial circumstances did not preclude an Elizabeth fete for his old wartime comrade, the Marquis de Lafayette, in 1824 during that French leader’s celebratory tour of the United States.

Marquis de Lafayette

The political service of the Belcher Ogden Manison continued after the Civil War. In 1865 Amos Clark purchased the home and resided there until 1898. In those years Clark served in a number of capacities, most notably as US Congressman, once more connecting this residence to the national discourse.  In 1898 Dr Warren Dix purchased the house and spent many years researching the residence’s history and honoring his predecessors until it passed out of his hands in the 1930s. The majority of Dix’s work and the work of subsequent owners like engineer and entrepreneur, Edward J Grassmann, have concentrated on the 18th century, and we have drawn on their work in this presentation.

Belcher Sketch

But the Society has wondered, why is it that the oldest history of this residence is the best known? Why is it that the place and impact of this building and indeed of its history in the 20th century receives so little comment from its later owners and caretakers? One reason obviously is that the Mansion’s association with very renown individuals of America’s storied past – Washington, Lafayette, Hamilton – seems to accentuate the role and significance of local Elizabethans. But also Elizabeth’s history reminds us that our Founding Fathers produced a Constitution and a country committed to the protection and legitimation of opportunities and initiatives for all its citizens, extraordinary and ordinary alike. The result was an extraordinary model of political and social revolution from which we all benefit. 

Now the Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ Inc – an admitted latecomer to these several histories – seeks answers to other questions that relate to the current state and history of Elizabeth NJ? What importance has the Belcher-Ogden’s 18th century past had for the city’s ordinary citizens in the 20th century, say, the Germans and Italians of Peterstown, the Slavic and later African-American residents of New Point Road and Catherine St neighborhoods, the Irish, Ukraines and later Latinos of old St Mary’s parish on Washington Street, the Jewish residents of Elizabethport and later Elmora, or even the native New Jerseyans, who for so long in the 20th century resided in neighborhoods near the historical train station?

Bonnell House

These neighborhoods surely noticed these historical structures – the 17th century Bonnell farmhouse and its neighbor across East Jersey Street, the 18th century Belcher-Ogden Mansion – and likely used them as orienting devices as they navigated the city. They certainly knew, however inchoately, that this East Jersey/ Catherine St corner was “THE CORNER THAT HISTORY MADE.” But what difference did these buildings’ august histories have on their image of Elizabeth or indeed their daily routines?

Belcher-Ogden Mansion

These questions underscore three very important priorities of the Historical Society and the 21st century role of both historic structures: 1) the 20th  and 21st century history of this city badly needs a new narrative, one which includes the experience of Elizabeth’s many ethnic and racial communities and which accommodates the contribution of its many-faceted ordinary citizens; 2) the memory of Elizabeth’s past plays an ongoing role in how people view Elizabeth’s current priorities and present possibilities and, further, ignorance of the city’s past guarantees that one of the city’s own, best resources – its deep-rooted, collective memory – has foreshortened and unnecessarily fragmented its identity into distinct centuries that seem separate and disconnected; and 3) the successive uses and reuses of these aged residences provide  windows that need to be opened, not just on these buildings, but on the city’s multiple  structures and changing operations for all of the 20th recent past.

19th Century Survey Map