Friday, October 21, 2011

Liberty Hall - the crossroads of American history

When I was growing up in Union, we all knew of a mysterious house on Morris Avenue across the street from Kean College. You couldn't see it because it was obscured by trees and shrubbery, but we knew that it was historically significant and that the woman who lived there was very important in Republican politics. Any time a Republican president came to town (and there were more than a few visits like that), there would be a private reception at the home. The rest of us, however, were left to wonder what was back there, behind the greenery.

I was sure to tell Ivan that story before we visited the house, Liberty Hall, during Union County's Four Centuries Weekend. Vacant since the death of its last resident, Mary Alice Barney Kean, the home is now a museum and a fascinating look into the history of one of New Jersey's most influential families. For all but about a decade in the early 1800s, the house was owned by the Livingston/Kean family until it was taken over by the Liberty Hall foundation. I toured the house not long after it became a museum, and on that and subsequent visits, I enjoyed talking with docents about the house itself, the family and the belongings they left behind to represent almost two centuries of living there. Maybe it comes from that initial fascination I had as a kid, but I've always been drawn to learn more.

The Four Centuries tour gave us an abbreviated view of the home and the family's history, which is kind of like telling a wine connoisseur that she can sample just one bottle from an extensive cellar. Built in the 1770s by Governor William Livingston as a country estate and family home, the home was setting to quite a number of distinguished Americans. Yes, George Washington visited, and Alexander Hamilton roomed there when he was a student in Elizabethtown. Livingston's daughter Sarah married the first U.S. Chief Justice, John Jay in the home. Other Livingston daughters married equally as well, cementing a family history that's sprinkled liberally with notables, even to current day. The Kean name, of course, is familiar to those who remember Governor Thomas Kean's two terms in the 1980's, but other Keans served in Congress and Trenton before him. The family also had controlling interest in the Elizabethtown Gas and Elizabethtown Water utility companies.

One of the many things I enjoy about a visit to Liberty Hall is seeing some of the less-grand family possessions. These people threw virtually nothing away, and since they occupied the house without any gaps from 1811 on, they didn't have the opportunity most of us do to cull out useless belongings before a move to another home. As a result, a great deal of stuff accumulated over the years. For example, the dining room is currently decorated for a Halloween party, using authentic decorations and costumes found in the attic. Researchers have also found century-old receipts for coal deliveries. 

The rest of the grounds contain a lovely garden behind the house, as well as an orchard, carriage house and even a museum which holds a fire engine and firefighting memorabilia collected by one of the Keans. Much of the land adjacent to the Liberty Hall estate land has been developed as part of the Kean University campus, but you can still get a sense of what a lovely expanse it was when the family lived there.

Liberty Hall is one of my favorite historical sites in New Jersey; I've only scratched the surface with this entry. Ivan and I will definitely be returning for the full tour, and I'll be sure to update you on more of what we learn.

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