Friday, December 14, 2012

The opera house built on medicine: Woodbury's G.G. Green Block

Ever since we found the curious meridian markers in Flemington earlier this year, I've made it a point to visit a county seat if I'm nearby, just to see if the obelisks are still near the courthouse. I've only found them in Somerville and Mount Holly, but I'm hopeful for the rest. Even if I don't find them, the quest gives me reason to get to all 21 of New Jersey's county courthouses eventually.

I made the trek to Woodbury the other day while I was in Gloucester County, and unfortunately I came up dry. The 1885 Romanesque courthouse replaced the original 1790s structure and may have also eaten up the space where the obelisks were stationed in the 1860s. The mystery continues!

County seats usually have an interesting story or two lurking about; in older times, they were often the largest and wealthiest communities in their respective areas. While some of them are a bit down on the heels these days, there's always a sign of past glories to be found.

Woodbury didn't disappoint. Along with some lovely looking older homes and commercial buildings, I came across what looks like a massive rebuilding effort behind the facade of the G.G. Green Block building downtown. What I didn't know was that the structure was essentially built on patent medicine, and it's a symbol of the city's prosperity in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Born in nearby Clarksboro, George Gill Green left the University of Pennsylvania medical school in 1864 to fight in the Civil War with the 142nd Illinois Regiment. Following the war, he used his medical training to start three medicine companies - first in Baltimore and then in Ohio. He returned to New Jersey in 1872 with his young family, but rather than starting fresh, he bought the rights to manufacture and market two patent medicines his father had been making and distributing. The business grew thanks to aggressive advertising, and Green became Woodbury's first multimillionaire as the city grew in prominence within the medicine industry.

Using some of his wealth, Green built a substantial building on Broad Street, in the city's business district. The G.G. Green Block reportedly held an opera house and an upstairs ballroom, an arrangement that was repeated in several prosperous towns around New Jersey. A few years later, he purchased a hotel in Pasadena, California, which was then a popular recuperation resort for tuberculosis patients. Renaming the property Hotel Green, he later built an addition called Castle Green for extended stay guests.

Green's patent medicine empire dwindled with the passage of the federal Food and Drug Act in 1906, which required that manufacturers had to be truthful in their advertising claims. Perhaps his products made users feel better, it was more likely that they were affected by the laudanum (or as it's known now, tincture of opium) in them than by any ingredient that actually cured what ailed them.

The opera house within the G.G. Green Block was eventually converted to a movie house, the Rialto, and other parts of the building were used for a variety of purposes until the building was shut down in 2002. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, the building's future was in doubt as it continued to deteriorate and one development plan after another stalled. The final blow appeared to be the 2011 Virginia earthquake, believe it or not; parts of the facade crumbled to the sidewalk, bringing the building's structural integrity into question.

In an interesting turn of events, a real estate developer experienced in historic properties purchased the Green building earlier this year. They plan to convert the building for combined retail and residential use while  restoring the exterior, and historic preservation organizations are optimistic about the outcome. It may not revert back to its opera house past, but it appears that the G.G. Green block will regain its status as one of the grandest facades in town.

And who knows? Maybe there will be a drug store at street level.


4 comments:

  1. G.G. Green was truly a remarkable gentleman. Not only did he build the opera house, he also constructed beautiful residences including his own palatial mansion (http://preservewoodbury.blogspot.com/search?q=gray+towers), factory buildings, Merritt's drugstore block, a horse and bicycle racing tracks, and more. He is also responsible for the building of Green Avenue in Pennington which at the time linked Pennington Seminary to the railroad station. (http://preservewoodbury.blogspot.com/2012/12/g-g-green-avenue-pennington-seminary.html)

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    1. Thank you for the additional information!

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  2. What a magnificent building. I grew up in Woodbury in the 50's & 60's and often wondered why they covered the beautiful facade. Happy to see that people still appreciate quality design and construction.

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