"What experience and history teach is this--that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it." - Hegel
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BUILDING "THE VERY BEST" :
A History of the Vernon Board of Education Building
The Vernon School, now the Vernon Township Board of Education Building, has been in continuous public use for over a century. Built in 1903, it represented the culmination of a decade¹s worth of progressive ideas about school design and the role of education in society.
Early schools in Sussex County were simple structures, often primitive. This reflected the limited role public education played at the time, and the meager resources accorded them. They were numerous (Vernon Township had thirteen local neighborhood schools in 1860), but they were bare-bones: one-room, with one teacher teaching grades K through 12. Benches along the exterior walls provided the only seating. The sun provided the main source of light; kerosene lamps were few. An iron stove provided heat. Construction was basic clapboard-on-frame, and in some instances hand-hewn logs.
Attendance was spotty attend school, and there were no truant officers. Poor facilities and lackluster performance made for a dispiriting educational outlook, and public dissatisfaction.
The Vernon correspondent for the Wantage Recorder summed up this sentiment in November 1895: "It is high time that there is something done in improvement of the schools of Vernon Township." The writer noted that the Vernon School, built more than forty years before near the Methodist Church, had a capacity of thirty-six students, but generally had to hold forty to fifty. Furthermore, if all school-aged children attended, it would need to hold seventy students.
The writer continued: "How can people expect the children to go and sit on side benches without any desks and get along well in their studies? Is this not from fifty to seventy-five years behind the times?" They were quite correct: the custom of each student having their own chair and desk, in the modern style, was first introduced in the 1840s, but in the 1890s Vernon Schools still followed the archaic style of seating in long benches along either side of the schoolroom (girls on one side, boys and the other). The unenviable task of the lone teacher was to instruct students varying in age from six to eighteen, in everything from A-B-C¹s to the finer points of high school curriculum.
"What we need," the writer concluded, "is a new school house, so that we can have a good graded school, and so that each boy or girl may have a chance to secure a good education." Lots of other people in Vernon Village agreed, because a campaign for a new, modern school was soon underway.
In the autumn of 1900, the Vernon Township Board of Education advanced a proposal to build a two-story brick school with two rooms downstairs and the ability to hold two more upstairs. The cost was to be $6,000. Some citizens evidently felt this was too expensive, and the plan failed by a vote of 145 to 138.
In May 1901, a petition was sent to State Superintendent of Schools Charles J. Backster, a Glenwood native. The petition was circulated by school proponents to have the existing Vernon School condemned on the basis of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. It was effective: by August 1901, revised plans for a new Vernon School had been approved by the State Board of Education, and the Board of Education was ready to advertise for bids from contractors. By 1902, firm plans were underway for this more modest school, at a cost of roughly $3,000.
The Board of Education desired to give the new school a location with more space and prominence than the old one, which stood close in the shadow of the Methodist church. The Board acquired for $250 a five-eighths of an acre lot from Mary Winans Cox and her husband Martin B. Cox, who lived in the dwelling (which recently burned) where the Highlands Bank now stands. The school was planned for a small rise of ground set back nicely from the road.
In drawing up plans for the new Vernon School, the Board of Education sought out a local architect, Thomas W. DeKay (1865-1937). He was the great-great-great-grandson of Thomas DeKay, the first European-American to settle in Vernon, in the 1730s. Thomas W. DeKay studied engineering and architecture at the Columbia School of Mines in New York City (now Columbia University School of Engineering) and later taught there in the mid-1890s. In the late 1890s he was a partner in the New York City architectural firm of DeKay & Bartholomew.
Returning to live in Vernon in 1899, Thomas W. DeKay settled on the family farmstead, and split his time between agriculture and occasional jobs in architecture, drafting, and engineering. Aside from the Vernon School, DeKay also designed the Sprague School, near Route 517 and Drew Mountain Road, and the Owens School, on Liberty Corners Road near the Wallkill River, as well as the St. Thomas Church Parish House. He was also Justice of the Peace in Vernon from 1906-1916.
The design DeKay produced for the two-room school drew from both the Colonial and Classical Revival styles of the era (for a photo, see page 41 of the Arcadia "Vernon Township" photo history). It was a one story, t-shaped cross-gable structure, featuring a full-height columned front portico with a half-round window in the gable. Sitting as it did on a small hill, this gave the new school a Greek temple-like appearance, suggesting the importance and honor the Board placed on public education. The exterior walls were clad in clapboard, and coursed wooden shingles covered the gables. Corners and eaves of the structure were trimmed by simple pilasters and cornices. On the roof was a square louvered cupola that served dual purposes of belfry and ventilator, topped with a weathervane.
The contract for construction of the new Vernon School was awarded to Hamburg contractor Jonathan Dymock, who subcontracted excavation of the cellar and laying the foundation to Vernon businessman Joseph Burrows (owner of the Vernon Hotel). Ground for the school was broken in late September 1902, with an estimated completion date of November 29th to be far too optimistic. At the same time as this, the Board of Education took a step to ensure the new school would be well attended: they hired two truant officers.
The Vernon correspondent for the Sussex Independent greeted the news of the groundbreaking: "We hope to see the building ready for occupancy before the cold weather sets in." But slow-moving contractors and bad weather hampered progress. A week before the initial projected completion date, the Vernon correspondent wrote: "We are sorry to see that work on our new school is progressing so slowly. Winter will soon be upon us and the building is sadly needed for the comfort of the children." Indeed, a January cold snap forced the closure of the old Vernon School near the Methodist Church due to an inability to keep it properly heated. A December snowstorm further delayed progress. At the same time the Board of Education deliberated on a heating system for the new school, ultimately choosing a central hot air furnace Work progressed, however, and by March 1903 completion was in sight. The correspondent for the Wantage Recorder wrote: "Our new school house is nearly completed, and it is hoped that the building may be used either on Monday, March 9, or on March 16. A hot-air furnace is being put in, also a thorough ventilating system, making the building the very best."
By the end of March, the new Vernon School was open, as noted in the paper: "Well, our new school building is completed and school is going along nicely, with a fairly good attendance grounds are now being graded, and it will certainly be a splendid location when finished. The school board deserves credit." As principal of the new school (i.e. principal teacher, of the upper grades) the Board of Education hired Electus S. Cole; as assistant teacher, of the primary grades, they hired Cora Rosencrans.
Soon after the new Vernon School opened, the old schoolhouse at Longwell (near the corner of Route 517 and Vernon Crossing Road) was closed, and its enrollment sent to Vernon. . In January 1903 the Board sold the old Vernon School and lot (27/100ths acre) to Lewis J. Campbell for $405. By March 1904, the old school was demolished and the site was used for an 80' carriage shed for the Methodist church.
At the same time as plans for the new Vernon School were being advanced, Ralph Decker was appointed Sussex County superintendent of schools. The replacement and consolidation of smaller, one-room schools with larger, more modern schools crusades in the more than forty years he spent in the job.
As roads improved and automobiles became more common, it became feasible to replace even two-and three-room schools with a single consolidated school for an entire township. In Vernon, this did not occur until 1958, when the Vernon Consolidated School (renamed Walnut Ridge in 1969) was built, replacing schoolhouses at Vernon, Glenwood, Prices, Owens, and McAfee.
The schoolhouses at Glenwood, Owens, and McAfee were auctioned off; the McAfee school became St. Francis de Sales church, and the schools at Owens and Glenwood became homes.
Prices School reverted to the original property owner, and was preserved as a museum of early education. Only the Vernon School continued in constant public use: in November 1958 it became the Vernon Municipal Building. In the 1960s, a southern wing added to the school served the function of township library.
With the construction of the present Municipal Center on Church Street in 1978, the old Vernon School once again reverted to educational purposes, becoming the Board of Education headquarters. The columned portico on the front of the building was enclosed soon after it became Board of Education headquarters, providing increased interior space. Similarly, the belfry/cupola was removed some time after it ceased being a school.
In other respects, however, the structure is clearly the same edifice the Board of Education opened 102 years ago. No other municipal structure in Vernon Township has been in longer use.
--Ronald J. Dupont, Jr.
Thursday, July 28, 2005
GOODBYE AND HELLO, VERNON VILLAGE
One of my college history professors was Kenneth T. Jackson, a preeminent historian of New York City. Though a southerner by birth, he was an avowed New York City patriot, and loved the city warts and all. In class, a big subject was historic preservation in New York City, which, until the mid-1960s, meant none. It was not until the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1962-66 that New York City finally found the political will to create a strong mechanism for historic preservation.
Ken Jackson valued historic preservation, but he also held no illusions about why, traditionally, some towns and cities remained well-preserved and others were perpetually knocking down and rebuilding. He said (and I am paraphrasing from memory); "Just remember: all these cities and towns you see that market themselves as being quaint and historic, where everything looks like it did a hundred years ago, just remember: they are that way because, economically, they were failures."
They were failures?
Yep. It must be admitted that before the advent of historic preservation laws, towns and cities with large swaths of historic buildings were generally places that went through an era of prosperity and then entered the doldrums, or indeed, withered economically, and hence avoided the phases of demolition and re-construction that accompany growth and prosperity. Think faded East Coast seaports--Savannah, Charleston, or Baltimore. Think resort towns whose popularity waned a century ago: Saratoga, Newport. Think cities whose growth came to a standstill under Communism: Havana, Prague, or Budapest.
The advent of historic preservation laws forty years ago changed all that, and towns and cities started to preserve large areas of historic structures not by default due to economic stagnation, but because the built landscape was valued for what it was. Historic preservation laws limited what could and could not be done in historic districts.
This brings us to Vernon Village. To which many will say: "What Vernon Village? There is no such village." The area around the intersection of Routes 94 and 515 has never, in the minds of many, been much more than a cluster of homes, churches and businesses loosely scattered. A hamlet, maybe, or a neighborhood. But a "village"? A village has a town green with a gazebo for concerts, a statue or two, a fountain, and streetlights. A village has a main street with a sidewalk, where you can walk from store to store. A village is like you find in New England--a church in the center, everything else neatly organized around it. A village is cohesive, cute, friendly. Was Vernon "village" ever any of these things?
To a large degree, this image of a "village" has only limited basis in reality, at least in New Jersey, and is the product of perhaps too many visits to Vermont and Disney World. It is a simple stereotype of a village, and represents patterns of social living, commerce, and growth that often did not exist here. Of course there is (and was) a Village of Vernon. It just doesn't jive with our cutesy concept of what a rural village should be. If you want to see something that is totally bogus, with no basis in historical reality, check out Olde Lafayette Village: a pleasant place to shop, but it is to historical reality what Twinkies are to a healthy diet.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF VERNON VILLAGE
Vernon Village grew up where it did because of two important early roads, and they are the product of geography. One road traces the western foot of the Highlands, the other follows a small valley up into and through the heart of the Highlands. Both were likely routes used by Native Americans, later adopted and expanded by European settlers. The road along the foot of the Highlands was surveyed by the British Crown in the 1730s as a "King's Highway," and today we know it as Route 94. The other road, in use by settlers since at least the 1760s, provided a shortcut southeast into the Highlands, and to the Turnpike road across them (modern Route 23). We know this road as Route 515.
By the mid-1750s, present-day Vernon Township (then part of Hardyston Township) was sparsely settled--you might travel a mile along a road between farmsteads--and the frontier intersection where these two roads met might have been no more than a fork in the woods. That soon changed. As traffic on the road increased, locals no doubt saw the spot as a good one for businesses servicing both travelers and the local populace. In short, taverns, blacksmiths, and wheelwrights--the Colonial equivalent of a restaurant, motel, and gas station getting built at a new highway exit. This settlement pattern--farmers living spread through the valley and only depending on the village center as a place to conduct business--had major implications. Vernon's settlers were, to begin with, a religiously varied lot. At an early date, they included Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and probably Dutch Reformed and a few others. Such religious variety more or less ruled out the community getting together and building one big church, with a nice green in front of it, and having their houses and business nicely arrayed nearby, This was much more common in New England, where many villages were dominated by a single denomination. As such, from the get-go, Vernon Village's reasons for existence weren't primarily ecclesiastical or civil--they were commercial and mercantile. When the first tavern or home was built in the village-to-be is unknown. Even James P. Snell, writing in 1881, had some difficulty pinning down the earliest settlers and businesses in Vernon Village. This is because before 1802, most of the residents of the village were tenants, some 130 acres of what would become "downtown" Vernon being owned by Richard Edsall, Jr. With no land deeds to record their endeavors, evidence of what happened in Vernon Village prior to 1802 is thin.
Revolutionary War officer account books indicate that Winans' Tavern was operating by the 1780s (the property leased by Winans, evidently), and an earlier (c.1777) highway survey prepared by Robert Erskine, Surveyor-General to the Continental Army, seems to show the name "Vanest" at the intersection, suggesting that someone of that name had a tavern near the intersection even earlier. Taverns provided food, drink, and lodging to travelers, and a social and civic watering hole for the local population. As such they were important places.
Still, as a village servicing the needs of travelers, Vernon had stiff competition, with the more substantial 18th century villages of Warwick to the north and Sharpsboro (Hamburg) to the south, both of which had important Colonial taverns. So to a considerable degree, Vernon Village's main role was servicing the town trade--providing goods and services to local farmers--which meant its growth was tied to (and limited by) that of the larger township.
And as Vernon Township grew, so did the village. During the Revolutionary Era, it was probably little more than one or two taverns and their supporting farms, and a handful of other businesses such blacksmiths, wheelwrights. Vernon also had Town Brook running through it, and this powered a number of mills over the years, thus adding to the town's fortunes. A grist mill, and a later a cider mill, operated in the south end of town, while a saw mill operated on Pond Eddy Road. In addition, a tannery yard operated near the intersection of Vernon Crossing Road and Route 94, next to Town Brook. This was likely because tanning required large quantities of water. There is also reference to at least one "still house" (i.e. distillery) on the Vibbert (Sea Captain's House) property, and there were likely others, too.
In 1802, Richard Edsall Jr. sold off two large tracts that encompassed most of the village center. Edsall (1750-1823) was a surveyor for the East Jersey Proprietors, and it is unsurprising that a surveyor bought for himself one of the most potentially valuable tracts of land in the valley, around the road intersection. In January 1802, he sold 42 acres to Richard Kimble (a DeKay relative) of Orange County, NY, and in May of the same year he sold 88 acres to William Winans, including the tavern property. If you bisect the village with a line running along Route 94 from Church Street to the Route 515 intersection, the Kimble property included most of the land north of the line, while the Winans tract fell south of the line. In the ensuing decades, Kimball, Winans, and their heirs sold off tracts to others in the village area.
By 1802, the young village had a schoolhouse and a meeting house, both mentioned in deeds (it seems the meeting house, which was gone by 1825, stood in what later became part of the Methodist-Episcopal churchyard cemetery, roughly opposite the Old Firehouse, now Boz Electric). That the village had grown to the point where it could support a schoolhouse suggests it had a dozen or more homes in addition to the businesses. Even so, there was no church yet, nor would there be until 1840. Early Methodist circuit preachers gave services at Winans Tavern on Sundays. Townsfolk made the trip to Warwick or Hamburg if they wanted regular church, or do some more serious shopping and business.
Even so, Vernon Village held an obvious attraction for local farmers. When wagons and carriages were the main means of transportation, moving at four or five miles an hour, folks didn't want to go miles and miles from village to village: they went to one village and did as much of their buying and business there as they could. Even in 1850 Vernon Village offered a variety of several stores with a wide variety of goods, and had the services of a number of doctors, lawyers, wheelwrights, and blacksmiths. In 1807, Vernon Village got its own post office. This was a major step forward for the village, because where people got their mail, they also did other buying and business. This cemented the village's growing role as the civic and mercantile center of the township. William Winans was our first postmaster.
Vernon Village did, in fact, originally have a town green. It was about where the Vernon Mobil Station is now, and it existed from probably the Revolutionary War days up through 1880s. The 1860 Map show it as a little square enclosed by public roads. Legally, it was part of William Winans' land, later acquired by the Denton family. In 1888, Solomon S. Denton built his new general store right in the middle of the green, evidently to some local annoyance, since it had been a communal space for all living memory. But legally, the land was his, and that was the end of Vernon's original "Town Green."
As the 19th century progressed, Vernon Township saw growth in farms and industry, and this is reflected by growth in the village. Route 94 became the Vernon Turnpike in 1811 and this facilitated the freighting of farm goods to the city, as well as stagecoach travel. The cemetery first came into use about 1816. Denton's general store was built in 1827, the Vernon Hotel (originally Vandegriff's Tavern) was built about 1830, and the first church, the Methodist, was built in 1840. A spate of new houses were built in the mid-19th century, most of them occupied by merchants and business people. The Episcopal Church was built in 1847. By the 1840, the village is noted as having two "cheese factories"--presumably small-scale operations taking local milk and converting it to hard cheese for shipment to city markets. All of this reflects the general growth and prosperity the village experienced in the years between before and during the Civil War.
In 1860, we get a snapshot of Vernon Village from the Map of Sussex County published that year by village resident Dr. Carlos Allen. The maps shows a village of some two dozen homes, two churches, three stores, a schoolhouse, two hotels, a post office, a sawmill, a grist mill, a tannery, the cemetery, two wheelwright shops and three blacksmith shops. In addition, the village had a doctor and a lawyer. Not a big village, but tidy and prosperous. The prosperity engendered by the "stagecoach and turnpike" era of American history began to change as the railroad entered American life. By the late 1840s, farmers in Orange County were already shipping out produce on the Erie Railroad, and other rail lines had reached Warwick and Hamburg by the time of the Civil War. This was good news--for villages that had a railroad depot and station. Vernon did not, and would not until 1881, when the Lehigh and Hudson River railroad station at Vernon Crossing was built. It is interesting that the railroad chose to lay their tracks near, but not through, Vernon Village--their assessment probably being that the small village was not quite worth the difficulty and cost to connect with directly.
In any event, by 1881, the "boom" engendered by the arrival of the railroad in the 1850s and 60s had largely faded. The area around the Vernon depot, called the "Lower Deck," eventually included the station, a creamery, a general store, and a hotel. The railroad provided a convenient shipping point for milk, and other goods, and easy access for summer boarders. But overall, the arrival of the railroad didn't help Vernon Village as much as it helped Vernon Township as a whole. In some ways, it probably hurt. Just as the construction of Interstate highways siphoned traffic off old highways, so the railroad made for vastly easier access to bigger towns and cities, and their goods and services. Likewise, the age of railroad and coal meant the end of the old stream-powered mills of Vernon, which did nothing to help the village. In the day when bustling, prosperous towns were invariably centered around a railroad station and depot, the old "turnpike" towns like Vernon Village began to fade a bit.
A few decades later, the automobile again changed the fortunes of Vernon Village, having a kind of double-edged effect. Railroads had taken away some of the primacy of highways in commercial life, but automobiles and improved roads brought some of that back. This was good for villages like Vernon, but--as with railroads-- it also made villages like Hamburg and Warwick much more accessible. For that matter, even if your business was in Vernon, living elsewhere was now much more feasible. Growth was occurring in the outlying areas more than in the old village centers (an early form of commuter sprawl, some might say). So, from about 1920 until the mid-1960s, the age of the auto kept Vernon Village alive, but still pretty quiet, and not much changed.
However, as growth in the township as a whole really took off in the 1960s, and traffic grew, the commercial significance of land in the village grew--the same as in the 18th century, only magnified. These sites were now valuable for highway-oriented businesses. In addition, the introduction of zoning regulations in the 1960s led most of the village center to be zoned "commercial." This led to a gradual reduction in people actually living in the village, and the conversion of more and more homes to businesses (plus, the increasingly busy, noisy traffic--and the fire horn-- made the area less attractive to live in).
New zoning and increased population growth in the township thus led to new businesses being built in the village in the 1960s--Vernon Grocery (now H & H Auto), a bank, a carpet store, gas stations, an insurance office, a bakery, a grocery, and professional offices. This trend reinforced the longstanding preference to locate businesses where there was the greatest concentration of traffic, and hence shoppers. This trend has continued to the present day.
The kinds of cohesive, New England-y, church-on-the-green, main-street-with-lamp posts village we regard as the "ideal," and which so much planning tries to emulate, generally had some of the following things in its history: 1) early religious homogeneity--founded by one church or sect. 2) economic isolation; it grew because it had a monopoly on the business and civic life of its region, and 3) early access to a railroad, which fueled very concentrated growth in the late 19th century.
As we have seen, Vernon Village had none of these things, and hence does not fit into the Norman Rockwell-meets-Walt Disney vision of a quaint village. Still, a village it was, is, and shall be. Indeed, my quick guestimate is that our village has four structures at least 200 years old, about ten that are at least 150 years old, another ten about 100 years old, and probably a dozen that exceed 75 years of age (a total architectural age, if you are into such silliness, of over 4, 000 years).
A TOUR OF VERNON VILLAGE
So join me, if you care to, for a seat-of-the-pants, completely idiosyncratic barnstorming tour of historic Vernon Village--some old, some new, some long-gone, with the caution that far more research needs to be done to fully understand the history of the sites herein mentioned (I would welcome additional information or memories from any and all). Sources for this include: a 1920 newspaper article by Henry B. DeKay, giving his recollections of Vernon Village going back into the 1850s; the 1860 Map of Sussex County; aerial surveys, and a plotting of historic deeds in the village by Richard M. Stevens of Greendell. The notation (1860*) indicates that the building shows up on the 1860 Map of Sussex County. An * before a name denotes a structure of historic interest.
COUNTY ROUTE 515 (south to north):
*The Cider Mill House, 514 Route 515, c.1775.
Self-advertised as "Vernon's Oldest Historical Landmark." While that may not be true, it is certainly one of the oldest. The house (on the right) is a classic example of an early, frontier-era frame cabin, with a massive chimney and fireplace, and probably dates to the mid-1770s. It includes an el-wing that was added in 1929. The Cider Mill itself, to the left, is the central portion of the complex: a c.1884 cider pressing operation that replaced an earlier grain mill. The mill was added on to in the 1960s when it was converted to an antiques store. The property was owned by R. Harrison c.1860s, and around the turn of the century by Sylvanus Wood. The property was turned into an antiques store and home in the 1960s, and has served various commercial purposes since. The house retains a considerable degree of integrity. The property is for sale at this writing.
D & S Mall, 525 Route 515, c.1983.
One of Vernon's earlier strip mini-malls was built by Fiore "Chris" Crispo, owner of the now-gone Costa Azzura Pizzeria in the Vernon Valley Plaza, and named in honor of his sons, Dominic and Salvatore.
Architecturally, nothing to love.
Vernon Valley Plaza, 530 Route 515, c.1975.
This was Vernon's first (thus far only) big commercial shopping plaza, built in the mid-1970s. Before that, it was Ztanze's cow pasture (the Ztanzes owned Winans' Tavern). The exposed bedrock on the right of the plaza does give a wonderful glimpse into the geology of the Highlands.
Red's Gas Station, 534 Route 515, c.1966.
Now owned by Mr. Singh, the gas station in front of Vernon Valley Plaza isn't historical, but old-timers recall it as "Red's"--built by Edward "Red" Guthrie, Vernon mayor, in the 1960s. Guthrie Drive across Route 515 is also named for him.
New Vernon Fire House, Firemen's Pond and Pavilion, 533-535 Route 515, c.1960.
Before Veteran's Memorial Field on Vernon Crossing Road was built, and before the Fire House was built here, this was the location of Vernon's holiday festivities. The pavilion originally stood where the Firehouse (built c.1997) is, and was moved to its present location. For decades, up to the mid-1970s, this was the site of Vernon's Fourth of July festivities and fireworks (how many of you remember hearing the Black Pearl Stringers here?)
*Vernon Board of Education Building, 539 Route 515, 1904.
Originally the Vernon School, built in 1904. Designed by Thomas W. DeKay. The addition on the north was done in the 1950s, after the structure became the municipal building, and served as the town library. This is the oldest public building in continuous use in Vernon Township. This property and the adjacent Firehouse property were originally a part of the Winans tract; Winans sold these parcels to Ebenezer Crissey in 1824; Crissey sold them to William Randolph in 1825; by 1842 the tracts were owned by Henry K. Winans, who owned most of the land on this side of Routes 94 and 515 at the time.
*Weichert Realtors, 540 Rt. 515, c.1790.
Formerly Property Management Services/Lapham Realty. This small house was probably built in the late 18th century, the rear portion in the mid-19th. It is said to have been a summer kitchen for the nearby Sea Captain's House. Nicely restored about a decade ago.
Lombardo Prudential Insurance, 542 Route 515, c.1970.
This small business office was remodeled several years ago with an eye toward making it blend in with the clapboard-style architecture of the village, a very successful effort, and a good example of what "infill" architecture can accomplish.
*The Sea Captain's House/a.k.a. Coldwell Banker Realtors, 546 Route 515, c.1780; enlarged c.1819.
A famous building with much history associated with it--see either "Vernon 200" or the "Vernon Township" Arcadia book for history and photos, as well as the VernonWeb Jacobus stories about Ross Winans, who worked in the attic here. The Planning Board has previously debated the historical significance off this structure, refusing to add it to the town list of historic sites (odd, since some of the earliest work on railroad technology occurred here). Originally part of the Winans property, it was sold to Horace Vibbert in 1816; he sold it later that year to his brother Capt. William Vibbert, who built the gambrel-roofed main section of the house. Vibbert died at sea in 1819, and Winans again came into ownership of the property. He sold it to Richard S. Denton in 1827; Denton sold it to William Brown in 1845; Brown sold it to Henry W. McCamley in 1846, and it stayed in the family into the 1920s, after which it was owned by locally famous physician Dr. Edward Livingston.
*Denton-Predmore-Webb House, 541 Route 515, c.1885.
This gray, boarded-up dwelling sits between the Vernon B.O.E. property and the Mobil Station, which owns it. Probably of late 19th century origin, it is a fairly typical side-gable, two-story frame dwelling of the era. It seems to have been built and lived in by Smith Denton (R.S. Denton Jr.) about the time his son built the store on the adjacent corner (now the Mixing Bowl Restaurant on Church Street). Mrs. Webb, who lived there in the 1940s and 50s, was infamous for never releasing stray balls that bounced into her yard from the adjacent schoolyard! The demolition of this building would seem to be a done deal already, pending the eventual, long-ago-approved redevelopment of the Mobil Station into a gas station mini-mart.
Bank of New York, 550 Route 515, c.1965.
This brick structure, formerly National Community Bank, was one of the first commercial buildings to be built in Vernon in the "modern" era--i.e. the late 1960s. It was formerly Ztanze's garden patch, next to the original Winans' Tavern.
Denton-Uptegrove-Ztanze Barn, rear of 550 Route 515, c.1860?
A large barn to the rear of the property was originally part of the Winans/Denton/Uptegrove/Ztanze property. Now used as a storage facility.
COUNTY ROUTE 94 (south to north):
*Early 20th century houses, 200-300 Route 94, c.1925 From about 1920 until the 1950s, Route 94 just south of Vernon Village seems to have been an attractive place to build a single-family home; a number of homes along Rt. 94 here, some converted to commercial uses, embody the architectural styles of the era: romantic, bungalow, Tudor, etc. These include the former Mary Nagle house, 296 Route 94, and the former Anna Riggs house, 298 Route 94, now Carew Graphics.
*Campbell House, 295-297 Route 94, c.1848.
This white, two-story front-gable house was built by John Baird in the mid-1840s, according to DeKay. It was later (1860*) owned by William Campbell, and his son Lewis J. Campbell (this had originally been Campbell land in the 18th century).
Tapestry Haircutters, 300 Route 94, originally c. 1900.
The original home here was probably built c.1900 or so; as a haircutting salon, it suffered its first fire c.1980. The damage was repaired, and the building suffered a more serious fire c.1987, resulting in the almost complete destruction of the building. The present structure was built on the same footprint as the old one.
Dunkin Donuts, 301 Route 94, c.1955; remodeled c.1998.
This structure was originally a Texaco Gas and Service station; in later years it became Don's Automotive Service. Converted to Dunkin Donuts in the late 1990s.
*Dwelling House, 302-B Route 94, c.1825.
In front and to the right of the Euro Bakery (formerly Saxony Bakery) is small, early-19th century dwelling, now vinyl clad, but still preserving the size and scale of a small, single-family dwelling of the era. One-and-a-half stories, with eyebrow windows, it is typical of a number of small dwellings built in Vernon in the early 1800s, including at least four on this side of Route 94, of which this is the only survivor. According to DeKay, it stood nearly opposite the schoolhouse, and was occupied by Silas Storms in the 1840s, and "quite some time" before that, suggesting it may date to the 1820s.
In 1860 it was a tenant house of Henry K. Winans', who had several tenant homes on this side of the road. In the early 20th century it was occupied by Mrs. John G. Truesdell.
Euro Bakery Property, 302-A Route 94, c.1950.
Possibly the site of another Winans tenant house in the 1860s (1860*)
*Vernon United Methodist Church, 303 Route 94, 1873.
Originally among the parcels acquired by Robert A. Linn from the Kimble heirs, Linn sold this parcel to the Methodist Church in 1835. The original church was built in 1840, and was replaced by the present church in 1873. The parking lot was originally the location of the Vernon Schoolhouse, the first built by c.1802, the second in 1850, both apparently on or near the same site.
Solomon & Ramer Office, 304 Route 94, c.1973.
This lot appears to have been occupied in the mid-1800s by a house built by blacksmith James Riley. The property was sold to the vestrymen of St. Thomas Episcopal Church and the house became the Episcopal Parsonage. The dwelling burned in January 1865. It is reported that in 1911, a new rectory was built "across from the Methodist church." It is not clear if this new rectory was here or elsewhere. In any event, a structure was evidently rebuilt, as a dwelling shows up on the site in 1950s aerial photos.
*The Old Vernon Firehouse, 306 Route 94, 1936.
Maybe not everybody's idea of historic, but it is: built in 1936 by Vernon volunteer firemen using concrete blocks they salvaged from the old Glenwood Creamery Icehouse. It was the Vernon Firehouse until the mid-1990s when the present Firehouse by the pond was constructed. Now home of Boz Electric. It appears that the site was originally the location of three separate structures:
1) A tenant home owned by Henry K. Winans (1860*) stood somewhat in front and west of where the one-story garage bays are. This survived into the 1950s.
2) Next to it, where the original portion of the Firehouse is, stood one of the older dwellings in the village. It was sold by Henry S. Edsall in 1817 to William Osborne, Jr., and in later decades was lived in by William Crampton, Jr., Samuel Benjamin 3rd, Robert Rutan and others before being sold to Henry K. Winans in 1834. Winans evidently lived here until 1854 when he purchased his brother William R.'s larger home, just up the street. In 1860 the dwelling is shown as an H.K. Winans tenant house. It was presumably gone by 1936, when the Firehouse was erected.
3) Next, a stone blacksmith and wheelwright shop operated by Henry K. Winans in the 1850s and 60s stood in front and to the right of the Firehouse, nearly opposite the Parish House. DeKay recalled its existence, and it is shown roughly here on the 1860 map. The shop was gone by 1920.
*Vernon Churchyard, c.1805
Even though the earliest graves here date to c.1816, this burying ground was never formally set aside as a cemetery proper, but was always transferred with adjacent lands. Part of the land sold by the Kimble heirs to Robert A. Linn, he sold it to William Brown in 1845, who then sold it to Henry W. McCamley. McCamley subdivided the tract, selling the churchyard and an adjacent tract for a chapel to St. Thomas Episcopal Church; a parcel in the rear he sold to Dr. Carlos Allen; all transacted in 1847. It appears that the Episcopal Church subsequently deeded half the cemetery (the portion closest to the road, containing Methodist burials) to the Methodist Church.
*St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Vicarage & Parish House, 305-307 Route 94, 1847 (chapel), 1913 (parish house)
Originally part of the Kimble tract, the chapel and cemetery parcels were purchased by Henry W. McCamley in 1845, and sold to the church. McCamley was a founder and vestryman of the church.
The chapel, built in 1847, is Vernon's oldest original church building, and a landmark example of Gothic Revival.
The Vicarage, built a year after the chapel in 1848, was originally the home of Dr. Carlos Allen. It was moved west in 1992 to accommodate construction of the new sanctuary in the late 1990s. DeKay notes that in the 1800s a Storms family dwelling stood about one hundred feet northeast of the Allen house (at its original site). A house shows up in the location on the 1860 map, a Noah H. Hopkins tenant dwelling. This house was gone by 1920, and there seems to be no evidence of it today.
The Parish House on Rt. 94, built 1913 and designed by local architect Thomas W. DeKay, looks much as it did when built. The site was originally occupied by a blacksmith and wheelwright shop. In the mid-1970s, the Parish House was home to the Vernon Township Library.
St. Thomas' has done an outstanding job of expanding their facilities while preserving the historical flavor and integrity of their site. All in all, a classic example of how growth and historic preservation are not at odds--and how the use of a site can be greatly expanded while avoiding demolition of valued older buildings.
*LaBar House, 309 Route 94, c.1835
Originally a portion of the Kimble tract, heir Thomas J. Kimble sold a parcel to Robert A. Linn in 1834. This property was then sold by Linn to William McQuoid in 1844. The present house was probably built either by Linn in 1834 or McQuoid in 1844, or possibly a combination of both. McQuoid sold the house to Richard S. Denton Jr. in 1851, who appears to have added on to the rear; passed down through the Wallace and LaBar branches of the family, the house remains in the same family today.
Farber House Site, 310 Route 94, c.1825.
Standing next to the Mobil Station, the historic home on this site burned in September 2004 (suspected arson). The property is soon to be occupied by the Highlands Bank, now being constructed. The house that stood here was part of William Winans' property. He sold it to his son William R. Winans in 1824, who may have built the original home. William R. Winans, a lawyer, had his office on the roadside corner of the lot, near the entrance to the Mobil Station. On the 1860 map, the office building is shown as a post office and grocery; the structure was gone by 1920.
William R. evidently encountered financial difficulties, as the property was conveyed by a Judge to his brother, the famous Ross Winans, in 1838. In the 1840s, William R. Winans and family left for Russia, to help his nephews with their project of building the Moscow-St. Petersburg Railroad. Ross owned the tract and house until 1854, when he sold it to his other brother, Henry K. Winans, who is shown living there on the 1860 map. Henry K. Winans was a local judge for some twenty years. Later owned by his daughter Mary Winans Cox, and for most of the 20th century by the Farber family.
This historic dwelling was discussed for relocation elsewhere, but arson got it first, and the remains were demolished. A sad loss.
Terry's Automotive, 311 Route 94, c.1980.
Originally the site of Lozaw's Vernon Esso (1926), Vernon's first real gas station. It's owner, Oscar Lozaw, was also Justice of the Peace. Torn down when the present structure was built. Oddly enough, this corner lot seems to have been vacant prior to that time.
Adjacent to this building, next to the LaBar House, stood The Old Methodist Parsonage, originally built by Henry H. Betts in 1846. It was torn down in 1994. For a photo of this structure, see Arcadia photo history of Vernon page 58.
Vernon Mobil Station, 312 Route 94, c 1966.
Originally the site of Richard S. Denton's Store, and adjacent home, in 1827, which would have stood roughly to the rear of the present gas station. In 1865, his son Richard S. Denton, Jr. (called Smith Denton), took over the business, which DeKay in 1920 remembered as a "quaint old store". The business passed to the third-generation with Solomon S. Denton in 1881. In 1888, S. S. Denton built a new store close to the corner, on what was regarded as the town green; in 1898, the store was taken over by his nephew R.D. Wallace, who operated until the early 1950s. The store was moved to 4 Church Street in 1966 when the gas station was built; it is now the Mixing Bowl Restaurant. A good example of how growth does not automatically require the destruction of a landmark. They could do it forty years ago--why not today?
Back when Wallace's Store was here, this was the home to Vernon's "Honor Roll," the bronze plaque now at Veteran's Memorial Field which lists Vernon residents who served in the Second World War. Dedicated in 1946, the Honor Roll was originally mounted on a masonry pedestal built of stones, each stone one that a veteran had brought from his property. This added a personal meaning; alas, when the Honor Roll was moved to Vernon Crossing Road, the masonry pedestal was left behind and demolished.
*V.F.W. Post #8441, 313 Route 94, c.1920.
This building originally housed Gene Parker's Tavern. Architecturally, the building is what is known as a "four square," meaning the original floor plan included four rooms arrange in a square. Probably built around 1910-20.
Burger King/ site of Winans' Tavern, 314 Route 94.
There was a tavern here by c.1780, possibly considerably earlier. It was later the home of the Denton / Uptegrove / Ztanze family.
Not many towns can boast a Revolutionary War-era tavern right at their heart; and now, Vernon can't either.
The tavern, now much altered, was moved to Maple Grange Road. The great, absurd joke of it is that in removing an historic landmark to make way for a fast-food restaurant, the developer actually vindicated William Winan's judgement 225 years ago that this site was the best site in town to conduct business.
Zimmerman's Law Office, 316 Route 94, c.1970.
A store was located here during the mid-19th century (it is shown on the 1860 map), and the building, a one-story frame structure close to the road, survived until at least c.1960. It is shown clearly in the Bloom photo of Winans' Tavern in the Arcadia photo history of Vernon. It was operated by John DeKay, who lived in the house due north of the site (later the Czetl residence) in the Civil War era. In later years it was a residence. The present structure, originally Buruchian Carpets, later served a variety of functions, including a billiard hall.
Vernon Bike & Board Shop, 317 Route 94, c.1841.
Originally part of the parcel sold by the Kimble heirs to Robert A. Linn, Linn in turn sold this smaller parcel to blacksmith James L.B. Francisco in 1841. Francisco's shop was in the evidently in the adjacent structure at 319 Route 94. The present house dates to c.1841 or earlier. In later years it was owned by St. Thomas Episcopal Church and rented out.
*Czetl House, 318 Route 94, c.1840.
Originally the John DeKay House, built c.1840. DeKay was a grandson of Willet DeKay, whose family settled Meadowburn Farm near Price's Switch. The house is a nice example of modest Greek Revival, and became famous for the "lost" treasure found in it (see "Vernon 200"). In the mid-20th century, it was occupied by Dr. Kirchener. The property includes outbuildings, including a well, a privy and a barn; all will soon be gone, as the property is slated for an office building. Another sad loss.
*Inez Ellis House, 319 Route 94, c.1840.
This dwelling is reputed to have originally been the blacksmith shop of James L.B. Francisco, who lived next door. It seems possible, as blacksmith and wheelwright shops often took the two story, front-gable form of this dwelling (see Arcadia photo history p.33 for an example in McAfee.) Apparently converted to a dwelling by c.1905.
*William Uptegrove Barn and property, 321 Route 94.
This large field was used to raise hay by William "Willie" Uptegrove through the mid-1990s; it was stored in the large timber-frame barn. A last vestige of agriculture in Vernon Village that ended with Uptegrove's death.
*Vernon's First Library, 322 Route 94, c.1853.
Originally a part of the John DeKay property next door, DeKay sold this parcel to Noah H. Hopkins in 1853. The present house would seem to have been built about that time. It was later owned by a blacksmith, Aaron S. Blanchard. From 1943 to 1965, under Jessie Burrow's ownership, it was Vernon's first public library. The library was in later years located in the Board of Education building and the St. Thomas Parish House. More recently it was Jim Opfer's Law Office. Some nice Victorian detailing survives.
*Kimble Homestead, 323 Route 94, c.1802.
This was the original Kimble homestead, and as such likely dates to the time Richard Kimble acquired his Vernon property. It was later owned by John S. Conklin (1860*) and John S. Conklin Jr., who operated a wheelwright shop next door (now 325 Route 94). In the early 20th century it was owned by Azariah Barrett, and in more recent years, by the Faber family.
*Alvah Martin House, 325 Route 94, c.1840.
DeKay noted that a wheelwright shop was operated on this site "away back" by Amzi Barr (probably in the 1840s) and later by John S. Conklin Sr. and Jr., who lived next door (1860*). Given the two-story, side-gable form, it seems possible that the present dwelling was converted from the original wheelwright shop. Now used by the adjacent realtor office.
*Brookside Florist Shop, 324 Route 94, c.1838, addition c.1875.
This was originally part of the Kimble tract; in 1838, Kimble's heirs sold all their land on this side of the road to the Vernon Methodist Episcopal Church (at that point just a congregation trying to build a sanctuary). The Church built a parsonage here, probably by 1840, when the original Methodist Church building was constructed. They soon thereafter sold the balance of the tract to John DeKay, who constructed his house up the road about 1840. This building remained the parsonage of the Methodist Church until 1874, when it was sold. Appearance suggests the structure was enlarged in the mid-1870s. It was owned by house painter George Cooper in the 1920s. A recent fire has somewhat diminished its historic appearance, but its basic form remains unchanged.
*Gross & Jansen Realtors, 327 Route 94, c.1850.
Located on the corner of Route 94 and Vernon Crossing Road. A mid-19th century local tradesman's dwelling,, it was a tenant house owned by Noah H. Hopkins in 1860 (his tannery yard was next door). It was recently enlarged by the realtor's office, done with some consideration for its original character.
*Burrow's Tenant House, 328 Route 94, 1916.
This dwelling at the corner of Pond Eddy Road and Route 94 was built as a tenant house by Joseph Burrows, owner of the Vernon Hotel and a large sawmill, in 1916. Formerly Nelson Insurance, now Capital Funding.
*Dwelling, 333 Route 94.
This white, two story, side-gable dwelling just south of the Yanzer Homestead and opposite the Vernon Inn, appears to be of 19th century vintage; more research necessary.
*Yanzer Homestead, 337 Route 94, c.1780.
DeKay asserts that this house is one of the oldest in Vernon. In the mid-19th century, it was owned by John Vandegriff, proprietor of the Vernon Hotel. In later years it was owned by Lawerence (a.k.a. Lorenzo) Yanzer, a shoemaker born in Baden, Germany, and later by his son Herman Yanzer, who operated a popular barber shop on the rear lower level. For a photo, see Arcadia "Vernon Township p.10).
*The Vernon Inn, 340 Route 94, c.1830.
Originally Vandegriff's Tavern, later (1884-1926) Burrow's Vernon Hotel. Much changed by fire and remodeling over the years, but it's still nice to know that this old place, though looking only generally as it did 175 years ago, is still in business. It has to rank as Vernon's oldest continually-operating commercial establishment. The originally barn, located behind the tavern, was a large one, as befitted a public hostelry. Built into the hillside, the lower level held stables for guests' horses, while the upper levels stored hay. The main floor of the barn was used for large public meetings, and for elections.
VanWagoner's Hotel and dwelling site, c.1850.
Adrian Van Wagoner built a hotel just north of the Vernon Hotel sometime around 1850. In later years the hotel was operated by Leonard Godfrey, William Sutton, Harrison DeKay, and others. In the late 1800s, Vernon Hotel owner Joseph Burrows purchased it and used it as an annex for summer boarders. In these years the old hotel was customarily referred to as "The Beehive," though no one seems to quite know why; evidently it was always "abuzz" with activity. It burned in the 1930s. Just north of the hotel was Van Wagoner's dwelling (1860*), which does not seem to survive.
Edsall-Crabtree House site, c.1820?
North of Van Wagoner's Hotel and dwelling was another dwelling, originally occupied and owned by Joseph and Sarah "Sally" Edsall c.1820-45. In 1860 it was occupied by Jack F. Crabtree. This dwelling also does not appear to survive, the current house in this location being of more recent vintage.
VERNON CROSSING ROAD (south to north):
*Cardinal Art Gallery, 95 Vernon Crossing Road, 1908. This was originally the site of Kimble's tannery yard, later operated by Noah H. Hopkins. After 1881, the location was separated from the adjacent property by the construction of Vernon Crossing Road, which was built to access the new railroad station (old Vernon Crossing Road was further south, near the Campbell House on Route 94.) Indeed, some of the tannery yard may in fact have been located where Vernon Crossing Road now is. The present structure here was the Vernon Grange Store, built in 1908, now remodeled into an art gallery. A nice adaptive re-use.
*Vernon Grange Hall Site, roughly 88 Vernon Crossing Road, c.1920. On the west side of Vernon Crossing Road are old concrete foundations, now mostly filled in and landscaped with wood chips. This was the site of the Vernon Community Building, a.k.a. the Grange Hall, Vernon's main public building from the 1920s until the construction of the present Municipal Center in the late 1970s, when it was torn down. The level area across the street, until recently used to store sand and gravel, was a parking lot for the building.
*Stone dam, 67-68 Vernon Crossing Road, c.1880,
Located in the ravine of Town Brook, below Vernon Crossing Road, is a massive stone dam. Its date of construction and its builder are unknown (at least by me). Built of massive cut stone, with a spillway opening near its center, it would have raised a pond of perhaps five acres. The end of the dam near Vernon Crossing Road is completely demolished, suggesting it was intentionally drained at some point in time. No pond shows up here on any published map, and an 1894 water power inventory of New Jersey does not indicate its existence. Tree growth behind the dam suggests it has not held water for at least seventy-five years or more. Topographically, it is not a particularly good location for a dam, suggesting that it was built primarily to take advantage of the nearby rail depot. The pond may have provided ice for the nearby creamery, or perhaps it was built to provide water power for a never-realized industrial undertaking. In any event, it is a remarkable piece of stone construction.
*Sunset View, 68 Vernon Crossing Road, c.1900.
A one-time small summer hotel, built by the Shaw family. Long neglected, it suffered a fire c.2001: now restored, looking not quite as it was, but still nice.
*Parker Store Site and Vernon Creamery Ruins, 66 Vernon Crossing Road, c.1910.
Adjacent to the railroad tracks, opposite Place by the Tracks, are the concrete ruins of the Vernon Creamery. Next to it stood Parker's Store, one of the main commercial businesses in Vernon.
This area of Vernon was called "The Lower Deck."
*Place by the Tracks Deli, 65 Vernon Crossing Road, 1883.
Originally the Lehigh & Hudson River Railroad Vernon Depot, 1881. A great example of L & H architecture, well preserved and re-used for retail purposes.
POND EDDY ROAD
*The Pig Pond, Pond Eddy Road, c.1820.
This small mill pond served a variety of sawmills over the course of the 19th century, including Joe Burrows saw mills. Today it is owned by the Vernon Township Fire Department, which refills its pumper trucks here.
*Abram Rutan House, 9 Pond Eddy Road, c.1760.
Henry B. DeKay noted this small dwelling as being "one of the oldest places in Vernon." Abram Rutan bought land c.1760, and the present structure, under much vinyl siding and remodeling, is one of the oldest in Vernon. It was later used as a vacation home by the Frank Hennion family, in-laws of Joseph Burrows and family. Now owned by the Anthony family.
We are losing old Vernon Village pretty fast: Winans Tavern. The Farber House. The DeKay House. The Predmore House is effectively doomed. The Sea Captain's House? The Cider Mill House?
Some success stories: Coldwell Banker (for now); Vernon Inn; St. Thomas' Church; other realtor (altered, but still there). Place by the Tracks. Sunset View.
What is left? Is it worth saving? While not all of these buildings are by themselves of great significance, collectively they tell a story and present a landscape. There is plenty of material for a Vernon Village Historic District. But is there the political will?
The idea that a village ever represented a moment in time is false. Vernon Village was always changing and evolving. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower. It never stayed the same for long, just as it isn't staying the same now.
Our current lists of historic sites in the town master plan have been prepared by knowledgeable non-professional volunteers (myself included). They are valuable and important, but legally, they will survive challenge about as well as would a zoning map prepared solely by non-professional volunteers. Which is to say, they won't.
Until such time as the Township Council hires a professional historic preservation firm to conduct a thorough historic structures and sites inventory of the entire township (which will cost money) any efforts at historic preservation at the township level will likely amount to mere fiddling around.
If we decide that it's important, we should act fast. The times are changing fast; once sewers go in, the die will be cast.
--Ronald J. Dupont, Jr.
- Jacobus Van Brug
THE BELL'S TALE
Last year, the bronze bell that had long hung in the belfry of old St. Thomas' church (built 1847, Vernon's oldest church building) was taken down, sent out for cleaning and restoration, and fitted in the belfry of the new nearby Sanctuary with an electrically-operated clapper, so it can again be rung.
During this process, Father Steve Steele of St. Thomas', parishioner Pete Mayhew, and others involved became interested in the history of the bell, which is roughly twenty-four inches across at the base and weighs something like 275-290 lbs. The bell bears the following inscription, which wraps around its upper part (its "shoulder," in bell-maker's parlance): "MADE BY DAVID ROSS OF ELIZ TOWN NEW JERSEY 1795".
That the bell is some fifty years older than St. Thomas' congregation and original sanctuary is intriguing, but not so surprising. Bronze bells, as massive, durable items, have a way of out-living the church and congregation they first served. Today there is a ready market for second-hand bronze church bells, and there undoubtedly was such a market in 1847, when the Chapel was built. Indeed, used bells have the advantage of being not only cheaper than new bells, but also time-tested. Bronze bells sometimes crack and fail while still fairly new; a bell that has hung and rung for years has reliability on its side.
What about its maker? "Eliz Town" is Elizabethtown, or modern-day Elizabeth, N.J.,which in 1795 was a busy hub of industry and commerce, as it is now. Who was David Ross? Inquiries on New Jersey history Internet sites produced no information, but one excellent suggestion: to ask the question on the "Ross Family" genealogy forum on the Web. That produced a response from Robert L. Ross of South Pasadena, California. Bob Ross literally wrote the book on the New Jersey Ross family (The Ross Family of New Jersey, 1990), and is related to the bell founder David Ross. So who was this man who made the bell that now hangs over St Thomas' church?
David Ross was born in Elizabethtown in 1733; his family had lived there since the 1600s. The Rosses were a large family, and in his own lifetime there were three other David Rosses, all related to him, who also lived in Elizabethtown (probably why he always referred to himself as "David Ross 4th," in spite of the fact that his father's name was Thomas.)
David Ross married Hannah Scudder around 1755, and they raised a large family. He took as his trade coopering (making barrels) and bell making (one presumes there wasn't enough bell business to pay all the bills, so he made barrels between bell jobs). He had a finely noted reputation in both trades.
He fought in the American Revolution, and rose to the rank of sergeant. The war years were punctuated by the death of his wife Hannah in 1779, leaving him with a large family to look after. He married twice more in his lifetime.
After the war, David Ross served as sheriff and high constable of Essex County. He cast our bell in his sixty-second year of life, and it may have been one of his last: David Ross died the next year, in November 1796. That might be all we know about David Ross, except for that his records book survived, and was later donated to the New Jersey Historical Society. Its pages provide interesting insights into the business dealings of an 18th century New Jersey bell founder.
Operating a bell foundry was a costly business--his records book notes expenses for altering and repairing his cupola furnace (where the tin and copper were melted to produce bronze for casting), paying two employees, purchases of cordwood for fuel, and other expenses.
Ross was casting some large bells, indeed--some at least five times the size of St. Thomas's bell (which is technically called a "Chapel bell," church bells being slightly larger and up). In one entry in the 1780s, Ross charged for a bell by the pound--three shillings tenpence. For a bell of 1,240 lbs. that came to £186. Translating that into current dollars, that bell cost something like $14,000.
St. Thomas's bell, at say 290 lbs., would have cost in 1795 the equivalent of roughly $4,350 in today's money. Even today, bell makers are wary of inflicting sticker shock on people looking for a new bell for their church, and are cautious of giving out pricing information. However, Robert J. Verdin III of the Verdin Bell Foundry, Ohio (one of American's oldest bell makers) says that today, an equivalent bell would cost a bit less--perhaps $3,200. Of course, American bell makers today have competition from less expensive bells manufactured in India, something old David Ross never had to contend with.
The remaining mystery is: how did the bell get from Elizabethtown in 1795 to Vernon in the mid-19th century? It may have been bought second-hand by the Church building committee of 1847. Or it may have come to Vernon for an earlier purpose. One of Vernon's prominent citizens in the late 1700s was William Winans, whose family is connected by blood and marriage to the Ross family going back to the mid-1700s (hence the reason that William Winans' son was "Ross" Winans). William Winans was probably related (albeit distantly) to David Ross. When the need for a bell came up did he write a letter to Cousin David in Elizabethtown? Did the bell serve an earlier Vernon church, a school, or did Winans use it at his own tavern, where numerous public meetings and early church services were held?
As usual, research ends up raising as many questions as it answers. But the bells rings as clearly as it did in 1795, and we hear the same peal that fell on the ears of those more than two centuries ago.
[ Past Stories Archive ]
Latest book by Ronald J. Dupont, Jr.
Arcadia Publishing, Images of America series, 2002
A treasury of 200 rare photos, dating from the 1880s to the 1980s - a must for anyone who loves historic Vernon, NJ!
OF THINGS LEFT INSIDE WALLS
(I hope my readers will forgive the long absence of new material here. Fate determined that in the year 2002, I would a) write a photographic history of Vernon, b) oversee the building of an addition to our house, and c) welcome a new son into the world. All these worthy endeavors have a way of monopolizing time. But I can report that, at present, it seems like all three efforts have turned out at least as well, and probably better than, could have been expected. Now, on to the subject at hand . . .)
People have a habit of leaving things inside the walls of structures they build. Time capsules, or sometimes wry mementos: the carpenters who remodeled my house in the late 1950s left as a reminder inside the walls several Schlitz beer cans--empty, of course. The old style beer cans, that you had to open with a churchkey. Schlitz beer and cans opened by churchkeys--both ancient history.
The guys who left those beer cans probably did so with a laugh--a memo to future generations saying "We were drinking beer while we built this!" In earlier years, people also left things inside the walls of the homes they were building. But the purpose was not so lighthearted.
In 1899, while tearing down the old Papakating Baptist Church near Sussex, workmen found between two walls what they referred to as a petrified or "ossified" cat. It was effectively mummified, and the hundreds of people who saw it (it was on display at the Sussex Independent newspaper office) reported that it looked like stone.
The newspaper writer who reported on the "petrified cat" presumed the cat had gotten stuck inside the walls: "From the position of the cat, it does not look as though it had been imprisoned long in its home, yet it must have been, and was probably starved to death. One foot is extended two inches, a common attitude of the feline tribe."
But the cat's placement inside those plaster walls was probably no accident.
A decade ago, during the dismantling of the Park Log House on Pochuck Mountain, a "mummified" cat was likewise found between the frame walls of the cabin gables. Another accident--or intentional?
During work on the Ztanze home, better known as Winans' Tavern, an assortment of shoes were found inside the walls, all probably from the late 1700s. A ladie¹s shoe and several childrens¹ shoes. Another lighthearted memento to future generations? No, probably not.
The case is that long-ago generations had ancient and deep-rooted superstitions and fears. One of the greatest fears was that supernatural beings, without a corporeal body, would try to enter your house and wreak mischief and deviltry. Call them what you will--spirits, demons, witches--ancient folk-belief held that you had to guard against them. Evidence is that both mummified cats and old shoes placed inside walls were both forms of supernatural protection against evil spirits.
Indeed, in the United Kingdom, and to a lesser degree the U.S., dried cats are found in the walls of old buildings with some degree of regularity. Old shoes inside walls are extraordinarily common. The logic of using a cat for such a purpose is not hard to divine: cats are good at keeping various kinds of vermin at bay, and perhaps the thought was that they could serve the same function, on a spiritual plane, in the afterlife. And since witches' "familiars" were usually cats, too, it made sense to have a cat on your side in a battle with the supernatural.
This is perhaps why cats found inside walls are often not curled up in a ball or lying down--as a starving cat would probably be--but in a position of attention or even attack--like the Papakating cat, with his one paw lifted. The job of transforming your friendly purring furball into a deceased, posed cat providing protective magic with the remainder of its nine lives was certainly a nasty job.
The shoes, too, seem to have served as a kind of spirit trap (although another line of folk-legend ascribes their function as enhancing fertility.) But often, the shoes are left inside walls near doors and windows, or on the smoke shelf up inside a chimney--all strategic openings where spirits could enter.
One theory is that the shoes were put in dead-ends inside walls and chimneys as a trap--they contained enough residue of human activity (they are always well-worn shoes) that they would attract a witch, but since (according to some folklore) a witch cannot go backwards, there the evil spirit would remain stuck.
Whatever the case, it is worth noting that both customs--dried cats and concealed shoes--date far back into European history, indeed into the Dark Ages, when people feared spirits and witches as much as we fear burglars and telemarketers. In England of the 1400s, these were things to be worried about.
Four hundred years later, here in America, they were apparently still to be worried about. Both customs perserved well into the 1800s, and did not die out entirely until the 20th century. On windy, dark, and dismal October nights, Puss was inside the plaster, keeping an eye out for all those supernatural critters, and there were shoes in the walls, just waiting to trap the first evil spirit that came along.
- Jacobus Van Brug
A NEW CHAPTER FOR THE STEWART HOUSE
Vernon's historic structures have not fared well in the last two decades. The list of those that have been lost is substantial: the Wawayanda Mule Barn, the Glenwood Baptist Church, the Capt. Daniel Bailey Homestead, all burned by fire. The Longwell Homestead, the Van Winkle Homestead, the Garlinghouse Homestead, the Old Methodist Parsonage, the Willowbrook Inn--all demolished.
But there are also the success stories--buildings that have found a new life, given them by owners who appreciate the history they represent. Notable examples here are the Glenwood Grist Mill and the Alpine Haus, both significant historic structures that have found new careers as bed-and-breakfast inns.
To this happy list we can add the Stewart House, long a landmark on the corner of Route 94 and Sand Hill Road. With its large porches, shade trees, handsome stone walls along the roads, and rustic outbuildings, this old home has been admired by generations of Vernonites. Now owned by the Intrawest Corporation as part of the Mountain Creek Resort, the Stewart House is now undergoing the preliminary phases of a restoration that will return it to its historic charm and incorporate it as a part of Intrawest's plans to develop a village along Route 94 with historic ambience.
The age and history of the Stewart House remains a subject of ongoing research. It was constructed in at least two major phases, with the portion facing Route 94 being the oldest, and dating to roughly 1810 or some time prior. The larger portion of the house extending back, parallel with Sand Hill Road, was added in the late Victorian period or the very early 20th century. Prior to 1810, the property on which the Stewart House stands was owned by Hamburg resident Francis Walling. Walling's grandfather was among the first settlers of Hamburg (then called Sharpsborough), and operated a tavern there.
In 1773, Sand Hill Road was surveyed as a public highway. In that survey, a number of landmarks are cited where Sand Hill Road intersects Route 94 (referred to as "ye Old Road"--it had been around since about 1730). While the survey notes the Perry House (now the Bud Kelly farm, just south on Route 94) several hundred yards west of the intersection, no structure is mentioned where the Stewart House now stands. As such, it seems likely the original portion was built after 1773. Oral history from later owners claims the house was a tavern in the Colonial period. It may be that Francis Walling built the structure (or some portion of it) as a small tavern during the Revolutionary War.
Whatever the case, Francis Walling and his wife sold the property to Nathan Tompkins on August 18, 1810. Peggy Minto, who conducted a survey of Vernon historic structures in 1991, believed that the original structure was a "sidehall" building (with an entry hall and two rooms off one side), and was later enlarged into a symmetrical building, perhaps by Nathan Tompkins.
Nathan Tompkins was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. It appears from the 1816 Tax Assessment of Vernon Township that he resided on the property with his son, Isaac Tompkins, who inherited the property after his father's death in 1822. Isaac Tompkins either died or sold the house by the late 1850s, because on the 1860 Map of Sussex County, it is owned by Amos Freeman.
Not much is known about Amos Freeman, who owned the property from at least 1860 until 1873. Early in this period, during the Civil War, agricultural prices skyrocketed, and many farmers embarked on ambitions plans--improving their farms, purchasing additional acreage, all at great expense. After the War, prices fell substantially, and many farmers found themselves in economic difficulties. Amos Freeman was apparently one of them, as he lost the property at Sheriffs Sale on March 3, 1873.
The property was bought by William Campbell of Vernon. The Campbells were an old Scottish family, and had lived in Vernon for generations. William Campbell himself was described as "one of the oldest, most prosperous, and one of the most successful farmers of Vernon Township." In fact, William Campbell was generally regarded as the owner of a greater number of farms than any other township resident. When he snapped the old Tompkins/Freeman farm up at Sheriffs Sale, William Campbell perhaps regard it as just another real estate deal. In fact, the old farm would stay in his family for over a hundred years.
It's not clear whether the Campbell family simply rented out the house to tenants or used it themselves. William Campbell himself was clearly well-to-do, and it seems his children were, as well. After his death at age 84 in 1896, the house passed to Campbell's daughter, Anna Trusdell, and her husband Warren N. Trusdell, who lived in Newark. It seems that around this time, the Trusdells began using the house as their "summer place," spending the rest of the year in Newark. It was presumably in these years that the large rear addition to the house was built.
During the years that the house was used as a summer home, a number of elegant, rustic outbuildings were constructed on the property--pergolas, summer houses, and log cabins. One log cabin with chimney was built atop a hill that formerly existed where the Mountain Creek lower parking lot is now. Though the cabin burned decades ago, longtime Vernon residents will well recall the beautiful hill with the lone chimney atop it. Former Township tax assessor Cliff Ryerson Jr., who grew up nearby, recalled the cabin as a romantic, rustic thing: "the kind of a place where you would sit and write poetry."
Anna and Warren Trusdell deeded the property to Anna T. Stewart (apparently their daughter) in 1909; she was to hold the property in trust for the Trusdell's grandson, Warren Trusdell Stewart, a child. In 1919, Warren T. Stewart reached adulthood and took possession of the house. It was in these years that the handsome old white farmhouse with pretty green trim and immaculately kept grounds became known simply as "The Stewart House."
Warren T. Stewart lived on the property until his death in 1978, when it was inherited by his grandchildren. In the intervening years, the former agricultural landscape around the property had been developed into the Vernon Valley Ski Area, and later, Action Park. The Stewart House stood out as an oasis of historic charm in the commercial bustle of this major resort. Finally, in 1981, the Trusdell heirs sold the house and grounds to Vernon Valley Recreation Association. It had been in their family for 108 years.
Vernon Valley Recreation Association converted the old house to office space, and while new wood siding was put on the structure, other interior alterations somewhat diminished the historic flavor of the structure, and maintenance was poor. By the time the former Vernon Valley/Action Park was acquired by the Intrawest Corporation several years ago, the Stewart House, once a showplace, had become seriously dilapidated. With Intrawest's plans for a multi-million dollar historic-themed village at the base of the mountain, one had to wonder: was the Stewart House going to join the list of lost Vernon landmarks?
Happily, the answer is no. Intrawest resort planners decided that the historic associations of the building fit right in with their theme of a resort evoking traditional architecture. Says Don Ross, Intrawest Vice President and chief executive of the development of Mountain Creek, "The accurate restoration of Stewart House is not just a voluntary contribution to the community's historic and cultural resources; the project is also emblematic of our company's ethic to preserve and feature the more distinctive examples of the community's history as an important component of our vision of authenticity for The Village at Mountain Creek."
The building has served as the Accounting Office for the resort, and for at least a while it will continue in that capacity. The old porch, too deteriorated to repair, has been torn off and will be rebuilt to replicate the original as nearly as possible. The color scheme will be returned to the original, white, with green trim and shutters. Air conditioners jutting from windows, something which has long marred the building's looks, will be eliminated with the installation of central air conditioning in the structure.
The restoration of the Stewart House is being undertaken by Mountain Creek with the assistance of their architects, Minno & Wasko of Lambertville, N.J., who also designed their nearby Discovery Center. Mountain Creek Director of Planning Jay Wilmoth is supervising the project, and project manager is Jim McGraw. The cost of both restoring the structure with historical accuracy AND making it modern, code-compliant office space is estimated at between $175,000 and $200,000.
As the Mountain Creek resort grows, it is envisioned that the Stewart House will partly serve as an interim lodging/check-in/reception area. The rustic arbor and gardens around the house are scheduled for restoration in the Spring.
Mountain Creek has consulted with the Township Historic Preservation Commission regarding the restoration of the Stewart House. The Commission is considering the possibility of adding the Stewart House to the town's official list of landmark structures.
Growth and development have sometimes meant the loss of historic structures in Vernon. In the case of the Stewart House, Intrawest's appreciation of local history and its ability to envision an adaptive re-use for the structure represent a major win-win for both economic development and local history. We can only hope this wonderful example is emulated elsewhere in Vernon.
- Jacobus Van Brug
A Vernon Vampire (or rather, VAMPYR) Story
One of the more interesting personalities to reside in Vernon in the last fifty years was Nicolas de Gunzburg--or rather, as he was almost universally known, "the Baron." This was no nickname, but a true title--albeit to long-gone Russian nobility. The Gunzburgs were an old Russian noble family (see the attached story, a fuller account of Nicolas de Gunzburg's life). The Baron, however, earned his title quite independently of heredity: he was a true aristocrat of sociability, style and taste. He LOOKED like a Baron: slim, impeccably dressed, always elegant.
His sometimes imposing demeanor--somber and dignified--belied a man who had lots of irreverent and fascinating stories to tell, and had lived a life full of interest. A scion of nobility, he had been a Parisian playboy, an accomplished athlete, a friend of such luminaries as Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Lauren Bacall, Diana Vreeland, Coco Channel, Bill Blass, and Calvin Klein, and lastly an editor at "Harper's Bazaar," "Town & Country," and "Vogue," where he made his name as the man with an impeccable eye for fashion. In the June 2001 issue of "Vogue" magazine, Calvin Klein wrote an essay on de Gunzburg, calling him his greatest mentor.
What sometimes went unnoticed in the recital of his long life's accomplishments was the following: movie actor and producer.
My family became friendly with the Baron through our business in Highland Lakes, where he resided from the early 1960s until his death in 1981 at age 76. We heard lots of his stories--all interesting, often very funny. One thing he mentioned occasionally, but never in much detail, was that in his younger days in Paris he had acted in a film about a vampire.
"Well," (I remember thinking to myself at the time), "I guess a lot of weird stuff went on in Paris in the 1920s and 30s!" For us, the Baron's brief fling with movies was an apocryphal footnote, a story we'd probably never know in full. Probably it was some glorified home movie. Probably it didn't even exist any more.
We could not have been more wrong. But we didn't discover the whole story until--alas--after the Baron had died.
My parents became involved in settling the estate in the years after the Baron's death, and among his possessions to be sorted through were lots of dusty books. They were mostly of recent vintage, and the appraiser declared them of no value. Chuck 'em, he said. An inveterate book lover, I could not abide this, and rescued the collection, finding homes for most books, keeping a few myself. They were mostly biographies of European nobility, famous fashion figures, popular histories, travelogues, and some romances and novels. Among them one book stood out like a sore thumb: "AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM," by Carlos Clarens, published in 1967. A devotee of Channel 5's "Creature Feature" since I was old enough to stay up and watch it, I grabbed that one for myself. Examining it, it fell open to a yellowed clipping placed at Chapter 5, "The Dead Next Door."
With that, the story of the Baron's vampire movie finally, and fully, came to light.
The Chapter starts: "Among the masterpieces (all too few, unfortunately) of the horror film, there is one that belongs to no industry or school or, for that matter, to no country at all. It was privately financed in France, had a Danish director, and was based on a story by an Irish writer dead for half a century. Yet in the thirty-odd years since its first showing in 1932, VAMPYR or THE STRANGE ADVENTURE OF DAVID GRAY has outgrown its subterranean reputation and become a pillar of the genre." Clarens then notes that the financial producer of this "pillar of the genre" was a film enthusiast who also played the lead role of David Gray: a young Parisian nobleman named Nicolas de Gunzburg.
A quick review of a few basic movie reference books brought the amazing truth home to me: the Baron's long-ago vampire movie was not some bohemian whim, some old home movie. VAMPYR is one of the most critically respected early European horror films--"landmark" and "masterpiece" are words frequently invoked. The Baron had been a part of cinema history--nothing less.
How the Baron got involved in the film project seems unclear. The director, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968), was an cinema auteur whose most famous film was 1928's THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. Dreyer's films were exquisitely photographed, but had a unique, highly idiosyncratic style--deliberately paced, sometimes acted by unknowns or non-professionals, and eschewing melodramatics for slow development of atmosphere. He was a true "Indie" filmaker. He had quarrelled with the studio that produced JOAN OF ARC, and resolved to work independently. That required someone with money and an interest in film to provide backing. In 1931, Dreyer found that somebody in de Gunzburg.
The Baron was a wealthy young socialite who, perhaps, thought he could make a future for himself in the cinema. He certainly had darkly handsome good looks and a refined manner--one can imagine him playing all sorts of character roles. Dreyer often favored non-professional actors in his films, and his conception of David Gray seems to have been built around the Baron (in the original script, the David Gray character is even called "Nicolas," rather suggesting the part was written with him in mind.)
The story of the film was taken, at least nominally, from a short horror story, "Carmilla," by the Irish writer Sheridan LeFanu. The only element that survived untouched from LeFanu's story was the fact that the vampire was, for a change, female. The plot is simple enough: David Gray is a student of the supernatural. While on vacation, he stumbles upon the village of Courtempierre at dusk. Arriving at a eerie old inn, he settles into his room. What he gets is not a good nights' sleep, but a long, moonlit night that is half dream, half nightmare.
David Gray finds this rather mysterious old village has long been the prey of a vampire--an old, blind woman who rises nightly from a nearby cemetery to feed on the populace. She is aided by two mortal servants: a sinister old doctor, and a peg-legged man (whose shadow has a tendency to walk off on its own). Now nearly uninhabited, the village is primarily home to the shadows--literally--of its former inhabitants, now the supernatural serfs of the old vampire.
Awoken by a mysterious visitor to his room who leaves a small package, David Gray is startled deeply. The package contains a book about vampires. Instead of sleeping, he begins to explore the village by moonlight. He sees moonlit shadows of people and dogs walking down the road--no people and dogs, just their shadows. In a nearby house and an abandoned factory, he finds the doctor's sinister office, filled with evil-looking potions and talismans. He hears children crying and dogs barking, but neither children nor dogs to be found. He sees the shadows of merry dancers and a fiddle band, only to discover that these, too, are incorporeal phantoms.
David Gray comes to an old chateau nearby whose inhabitants are likewise falling prey to the vampire and her servants. The owner of the chateau--the mysterious visitor to his room earlier-- is murdered by a phantom shadow armed with a rifle; his daughter, Leone, is being nightly fed upon by the old vampire. David Gray comes to the chateau to help, and meets the owner's other daughter, Gisele, who is deeply fearful. David Gray and Gisele soon find comfort in each other. Asked to give a blood transfusion to help save Leone, David Gray falls into a dream about his own death, and sees himself in a coffin. In the sequence, we see--from his perspective inside the coffin looking through the glass pane in its lid--the lid being fastened, and the coffin being taken outside, down the street, to the churchyard.
Awakening from this nightmare, Gray and the manservant of the chateau read the book about vampires, which informs them how a vampire can be laid to rest--by driving a stake through its heart. Gray and the manservant set about to do this. At dawn, they find the old, blind woman in her coffin, and drive an iron stake through her--she immediately becomes a skeleton. Her ghostly shadow-servants, freed from the old vampire's power, seek their revenge on the old doctor and the peg-legged man. The doctor, trapped in a mill, suffocates under a deluge of flour, and the peg-legged man is pushed down a set of stairs by invisible hands, and breaks his neck.
David Gray and Gisele, fleeing the godforsaken village in a small boat, cross a nearby river to safety. Lost briefly in a fog, they arrive safely on the opposite shore, and emerge into the clearing mists and sunlight of a new, happy day. They all live happily ever after--at least those that are still alive.
The plot of the film is substantially more opaque when viewing it, at least for the first time, because Dreyer was interested more in interesting camera work and atmosphere than in crisp storytelling. Indeed, the film, from beginning to end, is intentionally dreamlike and mysterious. The viewer is never entirely sure what is happening--just like the characters in the story. Scenes are misty and dim (some where shot through sheer muslin to create the effect); dialogue (in German) is muffled or quiet; characters enter and leave with little explanation of who they are. Symbols of death are everywhere--a old ferry (the river Styx?), a farmer with a scythe (death?), skulls, decay, and abandonment.
Rich in eerie atmosphere and innovative camera work, with a dreamlike, incoherent style and a meagre plot: this is the essence of VAMPYR. And from the beginning, it established the movie as a hit with the critics, and a flop with the public. In a day and age when suspense, makeup, melodrama, Romance, and a bit of gore where the essence of a popular horror movie (think FRANKENSTEIN or DRACULA, both of which came out soon after), VAMPYR failed to catch popular appeal. It was released in America under the title CASTLE OF DOOM, but was found too offbeat by Hollywood standards. Bits of it were later edited into a compilation film, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS.
In short, it was not a financial success. Dreyer did not make another movie for a decade (some of his best work was yet to come).
Nor, obviously, did VAMPYR propel the young Baron de Gunzburg (he appeared under the screen name Julian West) to film fame. Hard times were soon to come his way, too: his father died, and the family fortune proved to be mostly unpaid bills. The Baron sailed for Southern California--to try to make a start in Hollywood? If so, it failed, and by the late 1930s he was in New York and on the way to fame in the fashion world.
Though it did little (at the time) for either Dreyer's or de Gunzburg's careers, VAMPYR always garnered critical respect. As the years have passed, that respect has actually grown greater, and it is not hard to find laudatory comments about the film, which is typically rated a classic. The late Pauline Kael, writing in "The New Yorker" magazine, claimed that "most vampire movies are so silly that this film by Carl Dreyer--a great vampire film--hardly belongs to the genre. Dreyer preys on our subconscious fears. Dread and obsession are the film's substance, and its mood is evocative, dreamy, spectral. Death hovers over everyone."
Forward in time fifty years: 1981, and a young local historian has finally gotten to the root of an old story. Knowing that the Baron had starred in VAMPYR, a landmark early horror film, was one thing. Seeing it was another. And in 1981, unless you were an habitue of film revival houses, and around Halloween at that, the chances of seeing VAMPYR were nil. Remember those distant days before VCR players, before you could order up most any film in existence from Amazon or its ilk? I reconciled myself to the fact that it would be a distant day before I ever saw VAMPYR.
That day did come--about ten years later. KINO VIDEO, a distributor of a wide variety of early films, came out with a remastered version on VHS; I couldn't get one fast enough.
And a strange film it is. Not scary--not edge-of-your-seat stuff. It is a misty, muffled meditation on death, a nightmarish foray into the supernatural. By our standards of film storytelling today, the plot is hard to follow. But Dreyer and his cast and crew put on film images that haunt you for days thereafter. It is both gripping and confusing: think David Lynch--TWIN PEAKS, or ERASERHEAD. I found I had to watch it several times before some of it started to sink in. And interestingly, it becomes more powerful with each viewing (most films today just become more boring).
After (at long last) seeing VAMPYR, I remembered a story the Baron had told me once--typically wry and funny. Seeing the scene where David Gray lays in the coffin with his eyes staring upward, dreaming his own funeral, I remembered the time when someone had dropped a lightbulb--KA-POOM!--, and the Baron had been greatly startled. "Do you know, Ronnie," he began to tell me, "when I was young and lived in Paris, I was in a movie about a vampire. Now in this movie, I was supposed to lay in a coffin, like this" (he laid his arms straight by his sides and stared straight ahead, just as in the scene). "Well, while we were filming this scene, one of these big lights they use in making movies--what is their name? I forget--the bulbs from one of these big lights just popped out, fell right into the coffin I was in, and EXPLODED" (Wide-eyed expression). "And do you know," he finished dryly, "ever since that time, I have been simply TERRIFIED of light bulbs."
I wish, in retrospect, that I had known about VAMPYR while the Baron was still alive--it would have been immensely interesting to talk to him about the making of the film. Such was not to be.
However, even from beyond the grave, the Baron left a clue that his short film career was something he cherished. Twenty years ago, when I opened that dusty old book of his on horror films, a yellowed clipping fell out. It was from "The Times" (of London), dated June 18, 1976. VAMPYR was playing at a revival theater, and writer David Robinson used the opportunity to reflect on the film, which he had last seen in the 1950s. He wrote "the hero, "Julian West," a weird, slinky young man with full lips and huge eyes, was no less that the film's backer, Baron Nicholas de Gunzburg. It is an elusive yet haunting film. Seeing it again, 20 years on, I discovered that all its images --the fluid shadows, the obsessive, dream-like movements, the bizarre death of the doctor by drowning in flour, as the hero and heroine escape into the mists--had stayed intact in the memory."
In black pen at the head of the clipping, the Baron had written, wryly, "FAME AT LAST!"
- Jacobus Van Brug
To see the original movie poster for VAMYR, showing David Gray in the coffin, go to: www.nyfavideo.com/images/vampyr.jpg
To see the closeup of David Gray (Baron de Gunzburg) in a coffin during the dream sequence, go to: people.ne.mediaone.net/sideshowmike/vampyr.jpg
To see Leone on the sofa, after having been attacked by the vampire (note the shadow of the scythe (death!), go to: filmsociety.wellington.net.nz/graphics/Vampyr.jpg
To see David Gray looking at himself in the coffin during the dream sequence, go to: www.sea.fi/foto/vampyr.jpg
[Any readers interested in seeing VAMPYR should please e-mail Jacobus--if enough people are interested, we will arrange for a screening.]
BARON NICOLAS DE GUNZBURG
by Ronald J. Dupont, Jr.
Ten years ago, in the Spring of 1981, a small group of mourners gathered in Vernon Township's Glenwood Cemetery to pay final respects to a man they called friend and mentor. Glenwood Cemetery is a pleasant old Victorian cemetery in the northern part of Vernon Township. Established in 1876, it is final resting to place to many of Glenwood's older families. Amidst the burial plots of farmers, millers, wives, and other ordinary folk is one most unusual one.
The ceremony on this early Spring day ten years ago was small and private. It was unusual in only one respect: among the handful of people gathered that day in the old cemetery in the Vernon countryside were Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Calvin Klein.
These three luminaries of the fashion industry had come to remember a man no less remarkable himself, a man who was (they all proudly admit) their mentor, and a source of inspiration when they were unknowns. They came to say goodbye to their spiritual father in the world of fashion: Baron Nicolas Louis Alexandre de Gunzburg-- to his friends, Nicky (he himself spelled it Niki).
This most unusual resident of Glenwood Cemetery was born in Paris on December 12, 1904, to a wealthy Russian banking family with close connections to the Czar. Baron Joseph Günzburg (1812-1878) was a philanthropist, banker, and financier, who helped bankroll the the first railroads in Russia (his efforts earned him the title Baron in the 1870's).
His son, Baron Horace Günzburg (1833-1909) continued in the family tradition as an important Russian businessman and philanthropist. As Jews in a country where Jews were and still are a persecuted minority, Baron Günzburg fought for the rights of Russian Jews, and promoted Jewish cultural traditions. His son, Baron David Günzburg (1857-1910), was a noted scholar of Oriental literature and culture.
Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (apparently either he or his family added the de and omitted the umlaut in the name) was a grandson of the second Baron Günzburg. Though his father was Russian, his mother was Polish-Brazilian, giving him rather exotic good looks. Baron de Gunzburg's family were, among other things, financial patrons of Russian dance impresario Sergey Diaghilev and his famed Ballet Russes in Paris during the first decades of the century.
In 1917, when Nicolas de Gunzburg was thirteen, the Bolshevik Revolution in the Günzburg's native land of Russia swept the Czar from power, and put an end to banking, finance, and all the other things which had made the Günzburg name and fortune there. The young de Gunzburg surely knew that his fortune and future did not lay in Russia. Indeed, his upbringing seems to have had little to do with Russia at all. He was raised in England (a favorite supper was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding), and spent his later youth in France. English and French seem to have been native languages to him.
De Gunzburg spent his early years as a bon vivant in the Paris of the 1920's and 1930's. Alexander Liberman, editorial director of Condé Nast publications, called him "One of the most civilized men in Paris." He was young, elegant, handsome, wealthy, and always in the avante-garde of society. He was a highly proficient skier and golfer, and was well-known for his slim, dark panache, his humor (dry and sparkling as brut champagne), and his famous masked costume balls, which attracted the artistic and social elite of Paris. He spent money lavishly, and the parties he gave included grand sets designed by architects and artists. Fortunately, Baron de Gunzburg had a talent which in later years earned him the best of livings: an unerring eye for fashion.
Baron de Gunzburg gave one party which gained particular renown. In the summer of 1934 he co-hosted a costume ball with his close friends the Prince and Princess Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge. It went down as one of the best-remembered balls in pre-war Paris. Called "Le Bal de Valses", or "A Night at Schoenbrunn", the theme was the Imperial Court at Vienna in the late 19th century1. Guests came dressed as characters from the Court. Baron de Gunzburg had special sets and costumes designed, and all the guests came in their own costumes designed just for the occasion. This and other de Gunzburg costume balls and parties of Paris before the war were discussed for not for the next week, but the next forty years.
Even before Baron de Gunzburg gained his reputation with the fashion elite, he earned some fame as a movie actor and producer. The young Baron was an avid film enthusiast, and in 1931 financed and starred in a film directed by famed Danish film maker Carl Theodor Dreyer. People remember Baron de Gunzburg speaking in later years of his brief career in cinema, but few guessed that his starring role (under the screen name Julian West) was as the hero in Dreyer's acclaimed horror film Vampyr , filmed in Berlin, and generally regarded by film historians as one of the greatest early horror films.
The plot of Vampyr was secondary to the eerie atmosphere created by Dreyer's cinematography. A reviewer today calls the film "one of the few serious films of the macabre". Horror film historian William K. Everson in his 1974 work Classics of Horror Film claims that "If one is to judge the effectiveness of the horror film solely by the degree to which it convinces the audience- and thereby frightens it- then Vampyr must surely be the greatest horror film of all. Certainly, it is an undisputed masterpiece of the genre."
It could be that de Gunzburg's choice of a movie dealing with death and the macabre revealed something basic of his own nature. One critic noted, half-jokingly, that in later years the Baron carried himself about the streets of New York with a somber, gloomy, almost supernatural air, not unlike a character from his movie. Funereal black was often the Baron's color of choice for his own garments.
To be sure, Baron de Gunzburg remained fascinated with death long after his movie career ended. His New York apartment was noted for it's fine collection of memento mori. Literally meaning, "remember you will die", memento mori are objects, artwork, or paintings that emphasize the graphic and corruptive side of death: skulls, bones, withered leaves, and so forth.
Nicolas de Gunzburg never went far in his film career, however. Instead, he focused on his talent for fashion and design, where he made his true and lasting fame. Yet the taste for cinema seems never to have quite left him. After his death, among his papers was found a 1970's clipping from TheTimes , in which the movie critic lauded some early, neglected masterpieces of silent horror films -- Vampyr in particular. In the margin of the clipping, in the Baron's handwriting, was a typically wry comment: "Fame at last!".
Unfortunately for Baron de Gunzburg, upon his father's death the family fortune proved to be largely illusory, and he was left only with the money he had in a checking account and the title "Baron" as an inheritance. Baron de Gunzburg bought a passage to America, and used what was left of his fortune to throw one last, great party in Paris- "Le Bal de Valses", the party that went down in legend - and then set off for America.
Arriving in America in 1934, Baron de Gunzburg settled first in Southern California. He was one of many European emigrés who sought refuge in the blossoming colony of artists in Hollywood. Perhaps Baron de Gunzburg tried and failed to further his career in motion pictures in Hollywood, or perhaps he didn't care for the climate. In any event, de Gunzburg soon headed back east, this time to New York City, which was his home for the remainder of his life.
Thirty-two year old Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg arrived in New York on November 10, 1936. True to his aristocratic and somewhat bohemian lifestyle, his Certificate of Immigration from the French Consulate General in New York listed him as "sans profession", without profession. It was not long before he gained a profession: fashion. He was a fixture of the American fashion industry since 1940, and of Vogue magazine in particular since 1950. One Vogue writer described Baron de Gunzburg as "A slender, attractive man with a really dry wit, a gift for mimicry, and a sharply developed taste for the simple but cultivated amenities of living."
In the early 1940's, de Gunzburg was appointed editor-in-chief of Condé Nast's publication Town and Country (publisher Condé Nast being the son of famous 19th century American political cartoonist Thomas Nast), and was later fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar. For many years Baron de Gunzburg was all-important senior fashion editor of Vogue (he remained with Vogue over two decades). The styles he favored were simple, sometimes austere.
For many years, the elegant, pencil-slim baron (who dressed regularly in impeccable black and gray) was regarded as having the keenest eye in the fashion industry. Keen enough, at least, to have spotted and groomed three young fashion designers who would go on to dominate the industry.
Calvin Klein, perhaps de Gunzburg's most famous protegé (whom he met in the mid - 1960's) spoke of him in an interview with Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol in INTERVIEW magazine, published not long after the Baron's death. Klein said of de Gunzburg: "He was truly the greatest inspiration of my life... he was my mentor, I was his protegé..If you talk about a person with style and true elegance-- maybe I'm being a snob, but I'll tell you, there was no one like him. I used to think, boy, did he put me through hell sometimes, but boy, was I lucky. I was so lucky to have known him so well for so long."
In later years Baron de Gunzburg recalled one of Calvin Klein's first major fashion shows. Immediately after the show, the nervous Klein sought out his mentor's opinions on his new designs, and on whether the event had been a success or failure. The unimpressed de Gunzburg delivered to his protegé a wry assessment -- chilly, but supportive and polite: "You showed great courage."
Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta, de Gunzburg's two most famous other protegés, have expressed similar sentiments. He maintained close friendships with Klein, Blass and de la Renta until his death. Eventually, their fame came to far eclipse his own -- indeed, they became household names, while Baron de Gunzburg was famous mainly within the circles of the fashion, literary, and social worlds of New York, London, and Paris. Baron de Gunzburg counted many famous people among his friends: Coco Chanel, Noël Coward, Billy Baldwin, Cole Porter, Lauren Bacall, photographer Cecil Beaton, Diana Vreeland, and many others.
Although he maintained a New York apartment until his death, Baron de Gunzburg was a summer resident of Highland Lakes, in Vernon Township, for the last twenty years of his life . Having searched a wide area for just the right lake, in December 1959, de Gunzburg bought an island in Highland Lake , called "Hemlock Island", from Highland Lakes, Inc3. Even the name of the island was somewhat ironic-- there was only one Hemlock tree on it. He then constructed a causeway to the island, and built a summer house. The extreme care which went into every element of the house showcased Baron de Gunzburg's eye for the simple and elegant.
The house, now the home of Dr. David Susman and family, is still much as he designed it. Although essentially a small, traditional summer lake house, it was designed and decorated to evoke an Austrian peasant's cottage (though few peasants ever lived so nicely). The doors of the house are all antique (18th century Tyrolean), imported from Austria, as are the armoires in every room. Typical Tyrolean doors and furnishings would be brightly painted and embellished, but this was banned from the Baron's house-creation. Instead, all were given a plain, weathered-bare look.
Above the fireplace is mounted a huge, cast iron stag's head, and antlers and other rustic accoutrements accent the home. The stag's head was a particular prize of Baron de Gunzburg's. In Austria these are great family heirlooms, and only rarely can a family be induced to part with one. On the wall opposite was mounted a large collection of antlers, collected in both Austria and Wyoming. The stag's head, the array of antlers, and the weathered - bare Tyrolean atmosphere might be called another manifestation of Baron de Gunzburg's fascination with memento mori .
The bedrooms were done in cedar, wool, and fur, with Spanish chests. The benches around the house were the kind used in parks in Paris, and were ordered from there. Everything about and in the summer house uniquely reflected Baron de Gunzburg's taste for that which was elegant by it's simplicity and quality.
Many people in Highland Lakes still recall Baron de Gunzburg. Kristina Aro, housekeeper at Hemlock Island for ten years, recalls Baron de Gunzburg well: "You always learned a lot talking with him. He was a fascinating person." Aro recalls that for a person descended of Russian nobility, Baron de Gunzburg was egalitarian and without pretension: ""He treated everybody the same, whoever you were. And if he liked you, he always liked you, no matter what. But if he didn't like you, it didn't matter if you were a Princess -- he didn't like you."
Pencil-slim, Baron de Gunzburg had a solemn demeanor and a poker face which belied an excellent sense of humor (he was a master of deadpan wisecracks). Only those who knew him knew that lurking beneath that somber surface was man of both humor and humility; a man who was an excellent skater and a crossword puzzle whiz. At the head of the causeway leading to Hemlock Island was a sign which simply said "N de G". A hallmark of winter weekends at Hemlock Island were Baron de Gunzburg's skating parties.
Baron de Gunzburg's seems always to have felt that the value of money was in what things of beauty and joy it could create. Consequently, after he retired and saw less income, he lived in a kind of down-at-the-heels elegance. The now-elderly Baron's health became frail, and he suffered a series of strokes, which resulted in long periods of hospitalization. While hospitalized once, Baron de Gunzburg complained of having to make daily trips upstairs to be weighed. The nurses apologized that the hospital couldn't afford a scale on every floor. De Gunzburg wryly suggested that he could arrange for more scales to be donated "if you don't mind Bill Blass' label on them'.
Towards the end of his life, Baron de Gunzburg began to write his memoirs -- this mainly at the insistence of Calvin Klein. However, Baron de Gunzburg abandoned the effort after only a few handwritten pages of memories about Paris in the 1930's, a sad literary loss given the many stories this man of keen wit and sharp eye could have told.
Although never religious, later in life Baron de Gunzburg did find an affinity for his mother's Roman Catholicism. Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg died on Friday, February 20, 1981 at New York Hospital, aged 76. It seems that his sense of dark irony remained with him to the end: in his final moments, he asked that his black boots be put on, because he had to leave now.
The following Spring, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg was interred in Glenwood Cemetery, where he had purchased a plot previously. His only survivor was Paul Sherman, also of Highland Lakes, an artist and companion of many years who died in 1985. The balance of the Baron's estate was ultimately inherited by two distant nephews in England.
It is remarkable that such a urbane, cosmopolitan figure as Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg should have chosen to be buried in a quiet country cemetery surrounded by woods and fields, so unlike the glittering world of society and fashion of which he was part. Of course, simple, basic beauty characterized his taste, and in that regard it is no surprise that he liked Glenwood Cemetery. People often remark that Glenwood Cemetery, with its pines and hills, is quite beautiful and charming in a simple way. In choosing to be buried there, perhaps Baron de Gunzburg validated this opinion beyond question.
It is interesting to wonder: what if the spirits of Glenwood hold conversations? Among the farm wives and country ladies of the 1800's stands a tall, slim figure in black, aristocratic but friendly. They want to know : does he likes their calico frocks and muslin skirts? And he tells them: they show great courage.
-Jacobus Van Brug
This scribe Van Brug,
Who can he be?
From Dutch do go
to French, and so
The answer will
Be plain to see.
Jacobus Van Brug is the nom de plume of historian, author, and lifelong Vernon resident Ronald J. Dupont, Jr.
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GREAT LOCAL HISTORY LINKS!
Nancy Pascal's Genealogy Page
dedicated to Sussex County genealogy. Not to be missed for regional genealogical research.
New Jersey Historical Maps
from Rutgers Cartography--terrific online maps of New Jersey.
Warwick Valley History
from the Albert Wisner Public Library--lots and lots of good stuff about nearby Warwick, NY.
North Jersey Highlands Historical Society
helping preserve North Jersey history for decades.
Friends of Long Pond Ironworks
working to restore this National Historic District.
Sussex County Historical Society