Thursday, July 7, 2022

A New Idea of Home: Closter's Lustron House

Here at Hidden New Jersey, we’re big fans of lemonade makers – entrepreneurial spirits who make the most of what some less creative folks might find to be a problem. Edison’s Portland cement business, for example, capitalized on crushing technology that had been used in the inventor’s ill-fated iron ore mining venture, eventually leading to an outstanding, durable concrete product. As you’ll recall from our previous travels, Edison extolled the virtues of the product for use in everything from road surfaces to inexpensive and quickly-erected housing developments.

Another example of ingenuity stands at 421 Durie Avenue in Closter. The one-story enamel-clad home and garage is one of a handful of still-extant examples of a company’s efforts to overcome one post-World War II crisis by attempting to solve another. Originally owned by the Hess family, the house is one of the 2680 prefabricated housing units made by the Lustron Corporation, a division of Chicago Vitreous Enamel Company. It would be no surprise if it puts you in the mind of mid-20th century prefabricated structures like gas stations – Chicago Vit made those, too. Expanding into the post-World War II housing business was one executive’s means of keeping the company in business when the supply of steel was scarce and regulated by the federal government.

Before we get to the business end, though, let’s take a look at the Lustron House that’s been lovingly restored by dedicated friends and the Closter Historical Society. I checked it our on a pre-COVID weekend afternoon during one of its monthly open houses, announced on the Friends of the Hess Lustron House Facebook page.   

The Lustron’s enamel-clad panels and boxy form make it easy to spot among the other homes in the neighborhood. A distinctive zig-zag metal pillar holds up the corner of the roof over a small concrete porch that leads to the front door. Walk through that door, and you’re already in a small living room, tastefully decorated with 1950’s era furnishings. You’d expect that a metal house would feel antiseptic, but it felt cozy despite the metal walls and ceiling, and the linoleum flooring underfoot. As manufactured, the house was equipped with radiant heat, which oddly worked through the ceiling panels, rather than the floor.

Just to the left of the living room, there’s a dining area with a pass-through opening in the adjacent wall.

Step through the doorway and you’re in a small but well-appointed kitchen whose cupboards are stacked with Boontonware tableware and 50’s era grocery items. A mid-century range/oven and refrigerator stand ready for use.

An adjacent laundry room still holds a rotary clothes press on a desk with matching chair – the perfect setting for a mid-century homemaker to continue with her chores even as she rested her feet. The only thing missing from the Hess domestic executive’s original domain was the Thor Automagic, a space-saving combination clothes washing machine, dishwasher and kitchen sink. Yes, you read that right! The same innovative device could wash your clothes and your dinner plates, though not at the same time. Like many other Lustron homeowners, the Hess family eventually discovered that the Thor left much to be desired. Perhaps they grew weary of having to change out the machine’s drums; in any case, they replaced Thor with a standard sink that remains today.

Two bedrooms and a full bath make up the remainder of the house, each with a space-saving pocket door to afford privacy.

The master bedroom feels fairly spacious, with plenty of built-in storage that brought to mind an oversized office cubicle, but without the cloth wall panels. Metal-doored closets stood on either side of a long, built-in vanity backed by counter to ceiling mirrors that lend depth to the room. The second bedroom, decorated with vintage toys, games and a typewriter, probably would have been cramped living quarters for siblings to share. A Fort Lee High School banner was stuck to the wall with magnets, a reminder that interior d├ęcor in a Lustron couldn’t rely on the typical hammer and nails to hang pictures or keepsakes. You could, however, decorate your bedroom wall with refrigerator magnets!

Apart from the large enamel tiles lining the walls, the sole bathroom in the house is pretty typical for a mid-century house. The only replacement seems to be the sink and vanity combo, which ironically seems the most worn of anything in the home.

The entire house is less than 1100 square feet: tight quarters for today’s McMansion families but pretty much the standard for starter housing in postwar America. A Lustron would have felt spacious for young couples relegated to living with their parents and in-laws due to post-war housing shortages.

It might have been just the ticket for recently-married Harold Hess. Lustron caught his eye during a 1949 visit to Palisades Amusement Park, where a model was displayed by the company's local dealer, Better Living Homes of Maplewood. For less than $10,000, the dealer promised that a team of his workers could build the house in less than 360 man hours.

The house purchased, Hess needed a place to put it. He originally hoped to build in Fort Lee but found local planning and zoning boards less than receptive to an enamel-clad house. After a six-month ordeal, he found building codes to be more lenient in Closter, where he got clearance to build at the corner lot at Durie Avenue and Legion Place. The company delivered all the parts for its Westchester model home to the site in one of its trademark tractor trailers, ready for assembly, complete with an optional garage and enclosed connector corridor.

The Lustron Corporation promised a low-maintenance house, and apparently that’s what they delivered. Aside from the problematic Thor Automagic and some predictable wear on light switches and some of the cabinetry, the place looks pretty darn good. The walls and ceilings could be rubbed down with a little wax when they needed touching up.

With all of these advantages, why isn’t Lustron still in business today? A litany of issues arose fairly quickly, due to poor planning that couldn't be overcome by the extensive sales campaign that had gotten so many people excited about the future of prefab steel homes. In fact, Hess reportedly felt fortunate to get his house at all, given that the company was headed into bankruptcy.

In creating a national sales network, the Lustron folks apparently didn’t consider the expense and complications of shipping their product from their Ohio factory to building sites throughout the country. The interstate highway system was yet to be built, and shipping by train would still require transport from railyard to the ultimate destination. The Lustron Corporation was left to create its own shipping infrastructure, using specially-designed trucks that could accommodate the full weight of an entire house. Needless to say, it was neither easy nor inexpensive to ship individual homes. Tract homes could be built much less expensively and were.

Then there were the financial issues. Lustron executives had relied on substantial government assistance to get the business going, securing a $37 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a Depression-era federal entity that made loans to banks, railroads and other businesses. Delays in getting the business up and running, however, meant that the company had missed the peak of the housing crisis. After 20 months of production, Lustron was still losing money on every house it produced, leaving it unable to repay its loan. The RFC foreclosed, and Lustron declared bankruptcy, leaving 8000 contracts unfulfilled.

Still, with luck and love, some of the homes the Lustron Corporation did manage to build are still standing today. One has even been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art. Harold Hess lived in the Closter house for half a century, satisfied with his purchase but for the occasional need to find handymen with the creativity to repair things in a metal house.  

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Conquered by mosquitoes: New Sweden's Fort Elfsborg

Not a cloud in the sky, and temperatures were expected to hit the mid 80s -- perfect beach weather. No doubt, the sandy expanses of Long Beach Island, Wildwood, Asbury Park and Sandy Hook were already reaching peak capacity.

Yet here I was, standing all alone on the beach, my only companion being a grounded turkey vulture. According to an aged New Jersey historic marker I'd seen before I made the turn down a long, narrow road, I wasn't far from the site of Fort Elfsborg. But as far as the 21st century was concerned, I was at Oakwood Beach in the Elsinboro Point Parking area of PSEG Nuclear's Estuary Enhancement Program. On the way, I'd passed several residential garages and driveways, evidence of a shore community whose more photogenic side was pointed toward the lovely bay view.

New Jersey has its share of forts that don't exist anymore (we've shared the stories of the Revolutionary-era forts Billings and Mercer along the Delaware River), but Elfsborg is the granddaddy of 'em all. Not only is it not there anymore; it was the product of a colony that most New Jerseyans are unaware ever existed.

I first discovered the existence (or maybe the concept) of Fort Elfsborg many years ago on an aimless drive through Salem County, where there are still reliable signs at crossroads to tell you which towns are in which direction. One, somewhere, pointed to Fort Elfsborg. My trusty WPA Guide to 1930's New Jersey noted that Elsinboro Point was the site of the first Swedish settlement in the state. The colonists built a fort there in 1643 "to force Dutch trading ships to haul down their flags."

Colonizing Swedes came to the Delaware Valley in 1638, with hopes of getting their share of the lucrative New World fur trade, despite the fact that the Dutch had already claimed the area and built Fort Nassau near current day Gloucester City along the Delaware, then known as the South River. The Swedes chose to build their fort closer to the mouth of the river, figuring they'd force the Dutch and English to get their permission to sail past, rather than having unfettered access to their own territory.

It was a perfect case of "looks good on paper" - an idea that probably seemed so logical that the Swedes might have wondered why the Dutch hadn't already secured the area. Reality proved different. The true adversary did not reach the Swedish settlement by ship, but by air, as evidenced by the name the colonists gave their fort: Myggenborg, or Mosquito Castle. The marshy land on which the fort was built was so rich with the pesky skeeters and gnats and their stinging so relentless that it was said the garrisoned soldiers appeared to have been afflicted with a horrible disease. It's small wonder that the fort was abandoned not long after.

Historians suspect that the actual fort site is underwater, somewhere off the Salem County coastline. In fact, PSE&G, the Swedish Colonial Society and the New Sweden Centre funded a 2012 expedition that explored both the Delaware Bay and the phragmites-infested coastline for evidence of human habitation. While they discovered portions of smoking pipes and arrowheads, none could be linked to the Swedish settlement. Given changes in sea level, the inevitable depositing of silt and whatnot over the years, impact of storms, what was close to the surface in the 1600s is likely well buried at this point, and the complex root systems of the phragmites are unlikely to give up any secrets.

As for the beach itself, the public portion is relatively small, but serviced by a gated 10-stall paved parking lot courtesy of PSEG Nuclear (that's right - free beach parking brought to you by the wonders of nuclear power!). Fans of natural beachscapes will appreciate the rustling phragmites and the dried-out bay vegetation along the high tide line, but that's about it. It's beautiful and somewhat secluded, but best left to the locals.

The WPA guide notes that Oakwood Beach was a summer colony, named for large oaks that once stood there and were taken down to build ships before the Civil War. Given the tidy upkeep of the homes there today, one has to believe that folks still enjoy living the shore life on Delaware Bay, hopefully without the relentless pesky insects.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Route 278: the Expressway through my house

Readers of a certain age might remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoon where our hero wakes up in the morning to find an interstate highway being built around his rabbit hole. He spends the rest of the cartoon outwitting the construction workers to such an extent that they build the highway around his modest home.

Bugs' victory became real to me many years ago when my mom told me the story of how Interstate 278 was almost built through our living room in the late '60s. Apparently, my parents had bought my childhood home in Union without knowing that the neighborhood was on a Department of Transportation map of the planned highway extension linking Staten Island with the then-yet-to-be-built Route 78 near the Union-Millburn border.

Earlier commercially-sold maps show a route that would have preserved our immediate neighborhood, but the impact on the town would have been immense with that route, too. Already criss-crossed by the Garden State Parkway and U.S. Route 22, Union would have changed dramatically, with an entire section of town cut off from the rest.

Plans for I-278 had been announced in the mid 1950s as part of a Federal government program to replace existing U.S. highways. According to a 1958 New York Times article, U.S. 1 would be replaced by Interstate 95, U.S. 46 replaced by 80, U.S. 22 replaced by 78, and so on. Planned as a secondary, or spur road, 278 would also be called the Union Freeway and was expected to divert Union County-bound traffic off Route 78 while relieving pressure on State Highway 28.

Protest letters are a little more convincing
these days.
As we know today, the interstates didn't replace the older New Jersey highways as much as they provided a less commercial, limited-access alternative that eventually got equally as congested as populations grew. And unlike a lot of the construction done in less populated areas of the country, parts of some of these highways would be built through thriving, densely built-up communities. The notorious urban planner Robert Moses had already pushed the construction of the New York portion of 278 in the 1960s by force of will, tearing up neighborhoods as it meandered through four of New York City's five boroughs.

Fortunately, New Jersey lacked a personality of Moses' stature to force the road through. That's where my family's story comes in. By the mid 1960s, Union, Roselle Park and Kenilworth residents living in the path of 278 were up in arms over the potential of losing their homes to a six-lane expressway. The Committee to Eliminate Highway I-278 was formed to organize Union residents in protest to state and Federal elected officials. I haven't been able to find much yet about the committee but discovered a letter sent to residents with office holders' names and contact information. Organizers claimed that more than 550 homes and 24 commercial properties would be claimed by eminent domain, pulling as much as $15 million in rateables off the tax rolls.

Local outrage eventually prevailed, and all that was built of 278 in New Jersey was a stub of a highway that opened in 1969, linking Route 1 in Linden to the Goethals Bridge in Elizabeth. Once the rest was effectively killed, the allocated funding went toward the Central Jersey Expressway, now known as Interstate 195.

And, of course, my family and I were able to continue to enjoy our home, unbothered by the inconvenience of being relocated by a six-lane interstate.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Statue of Liberty in Butler: the story evolves

Longtime readers may recall our surprising discovery of the Statue of Liberty on the balcony of the Butler Police station. To sum up, this eight foot-high replica - which looks pretty accurate at a distance - stands proudly in a prominent part of town, with no apparent connection to the community besides a general air of patriotism. A street in town is named for the statue's sculptor, Frederic Bartholdi, whom we later discovered was a friend of Richard Butler, the community's namesake whose rubber factory was once the largest employer in town. However, there's no prominent signage to describe the link to curious passers-by.

A bit more digging led us to discover that Mr. Butler had his own connection to Liberty Enlightening the World, as the statue is more officially known. The rubber magnate was the Lee Iacocca of his time, playing a major role in raising funds for the construction of the Statue's pedestal. As secretary of the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty, he donated the services of his rubber factory to ship miniature Statues to contributors. In recognition of his service, the French government named him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

That solved one mystery, but we were still left to wonder about the origin of the police station Liberty. We figured she probably wasn't actually manufactured in Butler, since the statuettes the rubber company shipped were made by the Newton Bottle Stopper Company of New York. Still, she looks too accurate to have been crafted by a well-meaning fan.

It took us a while, but we got the answer during a visit to the Butler Museum during Morris County's recent Pathways to History weekend. According to the Butler Historical Society folks, their Liberty was one of several that were used as decoration on Liberty Island for the Statue's rededication celebration in 1986. How it got from the celebration to Butler is another question for another day; our friends at the Historical Society invited us to come back to review their substantial collection of Statue-related documents, ephemera and artifacts.

We kind of like this mystery and where it's taken us. Sometimes uncovering the story in pieces is even more fun than getting to the bottom of it in one swipe.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Winter birding turns balmy at Barnegat Light

If you're a birder in New Jersey, chances are you make the same trip every winter: you take the walk along the jetty at Barnegat Light to see the Harlequin Ducks.

They're cool little ducks that look like a paint-by-number project, with well-defined blocks of colorful plumage. Big fans of the rough-and-tumble waters next to rocky coastlines, they hang out next to the rip rap that forms the jetty protecting the eastern end of the tip of Long Beach Island from massive erosion.

Brr. This is the usual frigid jetty walk.
That dot to the right is Ivan.
Usually, Ivan and I visit Barnegat in January for a reliable look at the ducks along with Great Cormorants, Common Eiders and Purple Sandpipers. Without fail, the weather is cold and blustery, with gusts coming off the ocean, but Ivan's a man on a mission to see 100 bird species before the end of the month. More often than not, I only walk halfway down the jetty before I give up and climb down to the beach, while Ivan swings his spotting scope on his shoulder and tromps down to the birds' preferred haunt, the end.

This season, we thought we were in luck. On our planned Barnegat Light day, the weather was in the downright balmy 50 degree range, and the predicted rain was holding off for at least a bit. Would this be the year we got the birds without the frostbite? Or would we discover that the desired birds hadn't yet arrived since their more northern territories hadn't frozen up yet?

Our first stop was just outside Barnegat Light State Park, where we discovered a large group of Boat-tailed Grackles perched on the power lines. Hearing a gentle "plop" in their general direction, I warned Ivan that we might be in for a Mel Brooks "High Anxiety" moment, but fortunately the birds played nice. Still, though, their presence was a bit off season, adding a bit of concern about whether the ducks were around.

After Ivan's customary pause to pay homage to Civil War General and lighthouse architect George Meade, we turned to start our way down the concrete platform that wraps around the northern edge of LBI and leads to the jetty on the eastern edge of the park. A few birders were clustered at the bend in the walkway, but nobody was going any further down. In a moment we knew why: waves were crashing against the jetty with such force that buckets of salt water were leaping over the walkway. Neither of us had ever seen puddles on the land side of the jetty, yet here they were.

Oh crap. We weren't seeing any water-borne birds from our vantage point. They all notoriously prefer the area farther south of where normal people would hang out, and the frequency of the breaching waves was enough to nix any thought of making a run for it and hoping for the best. I myself wouldn't feel comfortable risking the walk across the rip-rap jetty.

The view looking north from the beach.
That water to the right is what washed up over the jetty.
Never one to declare defeat easily, Ivan reasoned that we'd just have to walk down the beach. Fine by me. Maybe we'd be able to get on the jetty farther down, or maybe the birds would be someplace we could see them. Either way, we weren't giving up. We'd driven all that way, and the chances of getting back to Barnegat before the end of the month were pretty much nil, so we had to make the best of this visit. Maybe we'd find some unexpected species along the way. You never know.

And indeed we did, hiding in the detritus along the tideline. If I hadn't seen the movement out of the corner of my eye, we would have missed a couple of Ruddy Turnstones foraging for food. Maybe they were a little freaked by the weather, too, as they didn't appear too worked up about us being just steps away.

Our reward for all that walking was a host of ducks braving the rough waves in the waters off the beach just west of the end of the jetty. Difficult as they were to focus on as they bobbed up and down on the surface, we eventually ID'd not only the Harlequin and the Common Eider, but found some Black Scoter and Long-tailed Ducks, too. And a Great Cormorant was perched, as is customary, on one of the towers out in the water.

Satisfied, we made our way back toward the lighthouse, happy to have made the call to walk the beach. Nature wasn't done with us, though. As if on cue, a small bird flew past us to perch on a bush along the dune. A run of the mill sparrow perhaps? No, a Snow Bunting, a bird we thought we'd have to make another long drive to find this month. Maybe the birding gods were smiling on us after all. At least we got our reward for persistence.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The star of Bethlehem? An Edison mystery in Hunterdon.

Once again, it was proven to us: travel around North Jersey and you're bound to find something related to Thomas Edison.

This time, it came when we made a left turn off Route 57 West, passing Earle Eckel's Autogiro Port on our way southward to points unknown. After an enlightening stop in Asbury (more to come on that soon), we found ourselves driving on an undulating road through beautiful farmland. We weren't quite sure where we were, except that we'd left Warren County.

The unusual two-story springhouse next to the sign
that started our mystery.
And then, there it was: a Hunterdon County historic marker. Titled "TOWER HILL FARM," it continued, "Dating back to the 1840s, this farm was purchased for Thomas Edison's storekeeper, Frederick Devonald, in 1932 and remained in the family until 1983. Unusual springhouse consists of two levels."

Devonald was a name I hadn't come across in my reading on Edison's life and career, leading me to believe that he wasn't one of the Muckers, the tight-knit group who worked closely with the Old Man on his experiments. He's not referenced in two of the latest and most comprehensive Edison biographies, nor does Mucker Francis Jehl mention him in his Menlo Park Reminiscences. Who was this mystery man?

Considering that Edison's Stewartsville Portland cement plant is a 12 mile drive away from Tower Hill, I wondered if he'd been one of the many employees who'd never worked in either Menlo Park or West Orange. And who had purchased the land for Devonald a year after Edison's death? Was the gift connected to his work service at all, or was I just reading too much into a sign author's attempt at economical writing?

Back at Hidden New Jersey HQ, we set ourselves to finding out. Checking first with Hunterdon County Parks and Recreation, we discovered that in addition to the stone springhouse we'd seen, the property hosted a farmhouse that had been built in 1848. Interestingly, the Parks and Rec website said that other Devonalds than Fred -- Ira and Margaret -- bought the farm in 1932 as a family weekend retreat, with three of them eventually making it their full time home. Records of the 1920 census list Ira and Margaret as two of the eight children being raised by Fred and his wife Julia in Orange.

There went my supposition that Edison had bought the property for Devonald, but what about Fred's job? His family being from Orange made it doubtful that he worked at the Stewartsville cement plant. Was he, in fact, one of the keepers of the famous storeroom in the Building 5 machine shop at the West Orange lab? The wondrous room that Edison famously claimed to have everything from the hide of a rhinoceros to the eye of a United States Senator, all in order to speed the process of invention?

As it turns out, it's entirely possible. A search of the online archives of Rutgers' Thomas Edison Papers project reveals more than 70 documents referencing or signed by Devonald, mostly related to the procurement of supplies for the storeroom. One even went directly to Edison at his Ogdensburg iron mines, asking for approval to purchase chemicals. (Edison asked for prices and said he'd see Devonald to discuss.) Another source noted that Fred once turned to Julia, herself an Edison employee, to make a motion picture screen.

And that leads us to Fred's brief star turn. While not a key employee, he was accorded a role in the development of one of Edison's most noteworthy inventions -- literally. A small room on the second floor of the West Orange labs was, in effect, the world's first motion picture studio, and the Edison movie making team needed animated subjects to test the kinetoscope technology. Hams like Mucker Fred Ott were more than happy to fake a sneeze for the cameras, and it seems that Devonald was open to participating, too. You have to wonder if he's one of the men in the brief dance scene in this film. We may never know which one of the subjects he was, and he certainly didn't go on to screen stardom. But it does go to show: in the right work environment, you can have a lot of fun if you show a little personality.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Backed up on the road to Sandy Hook

On a warm summer Sunday, we weren't surprised to run into people just trying to make it to Sandy Hook. What surprised us was how long ago they'd started their trip and the massive delay they suffered -- maybe New Jersey's first huge traffic jam. Certainly, it was the biggest hassle anyone has experienced in trying to get to the shore.

We'd started the day avoiding all things beach. In fact, we were at a sod farm in eastern Mercer County, looking for 'grasspipers' - a general description of the shorebirds that hang out in grasslands. The fields weren't quite as productive as we'd hoped, leading us to wander a bit aimlessly until we found ourselves in the western Monmouth County community of Allentown.

Full of Colonial, Georgian and Federal-style buildings dating to the earliest days of the nation, Allentown was built around an old grist mill on Doctors Creek. A picturesque mill pond offers a nice focal point to downtown and, of course, is irresistible to intrepid birders. The part downtown isn't quite so interesting -- it's the part that extends back to the residential areas that's tempting.

Finding the right road wasn't hard -- it's called Lakeview Drive. Before we got to the lake, though, we noticed an old graveyard by the side of the road. The landscape is well tended, the grass is short, but its old stone border wall has seen better days, and its grave markers are well worn. In a lot of ways, it's not much different from any number of other small cemeteries dotting the more remote areas of New Jersey.

Not exactly a rest area, but sufficient for the need.
What got our attention was a shorter stone flanked by two American flags. According to the plaque affixed on top, we'd stumbled on the pit stop for somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 travelers who were just trying to get to the shore during some of the hottest days of June.

This seeming horde of Bennies weren't headed to sun, fun and maybe some debauchery on the Boardwalk. They were members of what was acknowledged to be the best trained fighting force in the world: the British Army of 1778.

Led by General Sir Henry Clinton, the troops had left Philadelphia and were on their way to the British stronghold of New York at Manhattan. Originally, the plan had been to evacuate troops via ship down the Delaware River and around New Jersey northward, but a shortage of transports forced a change of plans to an overland route. Crossing the Delaware, the troops moved in a northeasterly direction through Mount Holly and beyond.

The trip was arduous. Heavily encumbered by a 12-mile long wagon train of equipment and supplies, the Brits and had been struggling to make their way despite demolished bridges and harassment by local Patriots. Even nature seemed to be conspiring against them: thunderstorms, mosquitoes and oppressive humidity made the trek especially onerous.

After encamping at Allentown overnight, Clinton decided to direct his troops toward Sandy Hook. It was a logical move: the British had captured the peninsula over a year before and fortified it against attack, though Patriots occasionally attempted raids to disable Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Several British naval vessels were usually stationed offshore as further protection, and from there, safety in Manhattan was just a reasonably short sail away.

Clinton and many of his troops eventually made it to Manhattan, but not without a serious fight, and that's an understatement. General George Washington, seeing an opportunity to strike, advanced the Continental Army to confront the British at Monmouth Court House - present day Freehold. The battle that ensued on June 28, 1778 was the largest artillery battle of the American Revolution and one of the longest engagements of the entire war.

Consider that the next time you're stuck in shore traffic.