Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Little house on the move in Mountainside

So often we find interesting stories because of a proposed, epic change to a historic property. Earlier this year, we learned about a groundbreaking African-American journalist through the campaign to save Red Bank's Thomas Fortune House. And just recently, we were introduced to the surprising, lifesaving history of the Levi Cory house, which now stands on pilings on its longtime lot in Mountainside.

I'll admit to having driven through the intersection of Mountain Avenue and New Providence Road countless times without giving much thought to the small brown house on the northwest corner. Sure, it looked old -- perhaps Colonial vintage, but so do a lot of other houses in New Jersey whose only claim to distinction are their ages.

Thus, I was a bit surprised to pass by recently and find the house elevated and festooned with several banners. One, in particular, caught my eye: a sign proclaiming the simple structure to be the original home of the Children's Country Home, now better known as the Children's Specialized Hospital which operates just down the road.

Now that's pretty distinctive.

A bit of research found that the house was built in 1810 by a prominent Elizabeth resident, Jonathan Woodruff. His family lived there until 1851, when the property was sold to Levi Cory, who also owned a farm about a mile down Mountain Avenue. Influential in his own right, he became the first mayor of Mountainside when the community separated from Westfield in 1895.

Before that separation, though, Cory played a supporting role in improving the lives of countless children. Moved by the plight of poverty-stricken boys and girls living in the slums of New York City and Newark, several Westfield residents organized to offer them a summer respite. Cory rented the house to the group, and by 1892, the Children's Country Home was welcoming needy kids for two weeks of fresh air, sunshine, nature and plenty of room to play. Nearly 60 youngsters stayed at the home that first summer, and when they went home, they brought new clothes and shoes back to the city along with their memories.

It didn't take long before the home's managers realized that many of their guests needed more than a break from city stress. Coming from poverty, many of the kids required medical attention, and several local doctors and nurses volunteered their services. The need was so pronounced, in fact, that when the home was incorporated in 1893, its leaders defined its purpose as "the care, nurturance, and maintenance of sick, injured, infirm, indigent, orphaned, and destitute children and the training and education of persons, both male and female, to act as nurse."

The need for medical care among these children soon outgrew the Cory house, prompting the Home organization to buy property a few hundred yards down New Providence Road and build a proper hospital. Known as the Children's Specialized Hospital since 1962, it's still changing the lives of boys and girls for the better.

As for the house, it's changed several times since Cory's widow Harriet died in 1905, most recently housing a realtor and an interior decorator. The desirable corner property was sold to a developer who fortunately agreed to give the house to the Mountainside Historic Restoration Committee, provided they could raise the funds to move it.

Mountainside is no stranger to historical structures on the move, having witnessed the relocation of the 1760's era Deacon Andrew Hetfield house in 1985. When the Cory house leaves its longtime lot, it will cross Route 22 to join the Hetfield house and the Borough Library on Constitution Plaza. Once it's there, the Historic Restoration Committee plans to honor the spirit of the Cory house's most notable contribution to the community: serving children. Instead of providing medical care, though, it will be home to a museum dedicated to telling the story of the town's kids, from scouting and sports to education and, yes, the role of the Children's Country Home.

If you've ever been interested in seeing a house travel down a road, you still have a chance. The house's planned October 5 move was delayed due to structural issues that came to light less than a day before it was to happen, and the Committee will be announcing the new date on its website. In the meantime, you still have a chance to contribute to the move and the eventual restoration.

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