Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Huntsman mansion: A jewel in the Queen City

920 Cedar Brook Road as it looks today
I now have answers to all my questions about the house, thanks to some very kind and supportive people in the Planning Division of Plainfield's Public Works Department, as well as in the Plainfield Public Library.

I will start at the beginning...

The elegant house to which this blog is dedicated (and which now sits empty, waiting for its next owner) is in Plainfield, New Jersey.  It was built in 1914 on Cedar Brook Terrace, later renamed Cedar Brook Road.  The entire acre-plus property was once part of a large farm that was settled in the 18th century by the Webster and Martine families. The Martine house (or 1717 house, as it's often called), is still there, just down the street on Brook Lane. It is one of Plainfield's most famous early homes.  

The architects
I have always wanted to know the name of the architect who designed this house. Now I do. In fact, there were two: August Marsh and Otto Gette. Based in New York, the architectural firm of Marsh & Gette built homes for many wealthy Plainfield families between the years of about 1905 to 1920. The online Detwiller Blueprint Collection at the Plainfield Library includes complete blueprints for many of them. I've also found a 9-page article in an issue of the The Architectural Record from 1917 that showcased three of Marsh & Gette's Plainfield projects: two private homes and a rectory. (One of those homes, I was surprised to discover, is the beautiful gray stone mansion that sits almost directly across the street from my house, at the corner of Watchung Avenue and Cedar Brook Road.)

I couldn't help wanting to know more about both men.

Augustus L.C. Marsh was a Plainfield resident. Independent of his collaboration with Mr. Gette, he designed "many fine residences in Plainfield," according to John Grady and Dorothea Pollard's book on Plainfield history and architecture. He is also credited with building the original Plainfield YMCA and the Elks Club.

Otto J. Gette lived in the New York area. I've found examples of his work  in multiple resources, including a Ladies Home Journal annual book of house plans (Journal Houses, circa 1916). I suspect I've only scratched the surface, but I do know that in addition to elegant homes in Plainfield, he also designed some remarkable brownstones in Brooklyn and the magnificent Yonkers Bath House #4.

The owners
920 Cedar Brook Road as it looked in 1926
The house was originally built for John F. Huntsman and his wife Maud. It is referred to on the blueprints as "The Huntsman Mansion." (If the 1930 New York Social Blue Book listing I've dug up is correct, Mr. and Mrs. Huntsman also raised four children there.)  Mrs. Huntsman eventually sold the house to the Murchison family in 1943, who in turn sold it to my parents in 1968. This means that over the course of nearly a hundred years, the house has only had four owners. Its next owners will be the fifth.




The Head Archivist at the Plainfield Library sent me a link to the entire set of original blueprints. Although it's difficult to see the smaller details, there are 9 complete drawings, representing both exterior elevations and interior floor plans. Interestingly, there was apparently once a very elaborate scheme for the back of the house (a dramatic two-story porch with grand pillars) that, for reasons I will never know, was scaled back to the much simpler arrangement that exists today.

A quick footnote about the Plainfield Library: they have an amazing local history collection that includes everything from documents and photographs to books, blueprints, maps, newspapers, personal papers, and other important records for Plainfield and some of its surrounding communities.

The town
1927 ad (Credit: Grady & Pollard)
Plainfield's architectural history is its own fascinating story, and I can't do it full justice here. But by the early 20th century, The Queen City had grown from its simple 18th century farm origins into a flourishing bedroom community for wealthy New York commuters. Since then, the city has seen its share of achievements and challenges, but it remains unique and beautiful...with wide, tree-lined streets and an amazing diversity of architecture. Fortunately, it also has an active Historic Preservation Commission, and several of Plainfield's mansion-era neighborhoods are now designated historic districts, including parts of Hillside Avenue and West Eighth Street.

All of Cedar Brook Road, which spans a long block on either side of the 1717 Martine farm house, has also been recommended for inclusion as a historic district. I hope this happens. Even in a city full of architectural treasures, Cedar Brook Road is special, and this particular house is one of its sparkling jewels.

The library...waiting for new books
My dream is to help 920 Cedar Brook find a new owner who will treasure its legacy and help it shine long into the 21st century.   

Next up...the house has a long Christmas wish list, which will help me put some of its strengths and needs into perspective. For now, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks once again to everyone who made time to fill in the blanks and share the names and dates that define the house's early history.

Credits:

The City of Plainfield, Department of Public Works and Urban Development
Plainfield Public Library, Local History Department
Plainfield, New Jersey's History & Architecture. John Grady and Dorothe Pollard,  Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, PA 2008.
1930 New York Social Blue Book
Journal Houses, Issued by the Ladies Home Journal. Curtis Publishing Co., Philadelphia, PA 1916
The Architectural Record, Vol. 41, 349-358 (courtesy of Google Books)
Plainfield Garden Club, Member Page for Mrs. Frederick Washburn Yates (http://andyswebtools.com/cgi-bin/p/awtp-pa.cgi?d=plainfield-garden-club&type=4413)
Building of the day: 849-855 Jefferson Avenue Web site (http://www.brownstoner.com/blog/2010/06/building-of-the-85/#849-jeff2-2)
Rob Yasinsac's Yonkers Public Bath #4 online photo essay (http://www.hudsonvalleyruins.org/yasinsac/yonkers/bath4-1.html)

1 comment:

  1. I peered in it's windows yesterday. Wish I weren't poor. It should be a delight to restore this elegant gem. Gorgeous Georgian interior with a large foyer (lovely wainscoting beneath the staircase), huge fireplace in the living room, parquet floors, well maintained trim and wainscoting. I'm in love.

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