Thursday, February 2, 2012

Jersey City's oldest house... in Westfield?

True New Jersey scholars know that the first Europeans to settle here were the Dutch, who built the community of Bergen on the site of present day Jersey City.

If that's the case, why does the second oldest structure in New Jersey, a 346-year old Dutch colonial house, stand in Westfield, a community that was settled in 1720? And how did that house, known now as Sip Manor, become the centerpiece of a housing development?

First, a few words on the history of Sip Manor. Some say that the first owner was a man named Nicholas Varleth, who came to the New World in 1652. He built the house soon after the English took over the original New Netherland settlement from the Dutch in 1666, and it was sold to the Sip family by one of his heirs in 1699. They held the house for 225 years, allegedly even playing host to British General Lord Cornwallis during the Revolutionary War. The garden of the Sip house took on notable proportions, too: Peter Stuyvesant was said to have relaxed under one of its willow trees, years before Cornwallis allegedly hanged three spies from one of its boughs. The Marquis de Lafayette reportedly planted a pair of elm trees on the property during a visit in 1824.

As Jersey City grew within and beyond the boundaries of the original Bergen settlement, the Sip property at the corner of Bergen Avenue and Academy Street was overshadowed by commerce and larger buildings. When city announced plans to expand Bergen Avenue, the house's days appeared to be numbered. Richard Garret Sip, the last of the family to live in the house, put it on the market in the hopes it would be preserved for its historic value, and in fact, there were calls to move it to a city park. Unfortunately, though, the house was too wide to pass along the narrow streets, and Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague brushed aside all calls for alternate plans that would save the house. Sip Manor seemed condemned to suffer the fate of so many other historic structures in the name of progress.

Arthur Rule, however, had different ideas. A businessman primarily working in fruit distribution, he envisioned a picturesque cluster of homes on the northeastern side of Westfield, just a few miles from downtown. Sip Manor would make a wonderful addition for both its historical value and as an attraction for buyers. Who wouldn't want to live in a community that boasted the oldest house in northern New Jersey?

Preservationists had already determined that the house couldn't be moved through the streets of Jersey City, so how could Rule get the manor all the way to Westfield? The trip is 19.3 miles using today's roads, and the Pulaski Skyway hadn't even been built when he wanted to make the move in 1926. Anyone who's tried to move a huge piece of furniture to another home knows the answer: you take it apart.

Rule hired a demolition firm to disassemble Sip Manor, carefully cataloging each piece and where it fit into the house puzzle. Meanwhile, someone had planted an erroneous story that the house was being razed and its beams would be crafted into gavels for local historical societies. Why the subterfuge? It's not clear whether local historians were in favor of the move, or whether they approved of the house's intended use as a sales attraction. One would wonder why, if it was so easy to take it apart and reassemble it elsewhere, the Sip home wasn't being rebuilt in Jersey City.

Regardless of his commercial intent, Rule clearly had the motivation to preserve the building's integrity and history as accurately as possible. Architect Bernard Miller had already made a painstaking study of the house and grounds to guide its reconstruction in Westfield, ensuring it would be faithfully represented in Rule's new Wychwood development. Authenticity was likely a big part of his selling strategy, virtually guaranteeing he would do whatever was necessary for the house's historic integrity.

Sip Manor still stands on a cozy side street in Westfield, proudly and lovingly maintained by the family who lives in it today. While the surrounding homes stand much closer than neighbors would have been in Sip's day, visitors can still get a good sense of what it must have looked like in old Bergen. It's got to be a lot more accurate in Westfield than it would have been on a busy city street.


4 comments:

  1. I really enjoy your stories Sue. :)

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  2. Thanks, John. Glad you're stopping by!

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  3. Arthur Rule is my great grandfather, and the love of historical preservation continues today through his family and our architectural work and fruit and juice distribution. Lido Juice, Cohasset MA. -Stephen Dwight Johnson

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    1. That's wonderful! Thanks for stopping by.

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