Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Exploring the Joyce Kilmer house

To many people, the name Joyce Kilmer means one of three things: the poet who wrote Trees, a rest area on the New Jersey Turnpike, or an army base that once operated in Edison. If you've lived or gone to school in New Brunswick, a certain street might come to mind, too. And if you've walked down Joyce Kilmer Avenue, you might have noticed a small cream-colored house with a plaque saying, simply, "Kilmer House." Its first floor now the home of the city's Dial-a-Ride program, the upper portion of the house quietly remains a shrine to the poet and World War I hero.

The Kilmer birthplace
The facade of the house is a puzzle, with no indication of whether any aspects of the family's life there have been preserved, or when one might be able to return to learn more. A bit of sleuthing revealed contact data for New Brunswick Historian George Dawson, who kindly agreed to meet me there and share some insights on the family and the house.

As advertised, the entire first floor is the domain of city employees, yet there are still nice touches befitting a 19th century home. I climbed the narrow stairs to the second floor, walked down a slightly wider corridor and found myself in the room where Kilmer was born. It's uncertain whether any of the furnishings in the room belonged to the family, but the bed, rattan chaise, mantlepiece decorations and wallpaper were all reminiscent of the era when the Kilmers lived there. The rooms farther back contain memorabilia like a chunk of the aged Kilmer tree, the mighty oak on Rutgers' Douglass/Cook campus that was considered by some to be the inspiration for his famed poem. (The tree succumbed to age and disease and was cut down in 1963.)

Alfred Joyce Kilmer was born in the front bedroom of the house in 1886 and was baptized at Christ Church, his first name taken in honor of the parish curate and his middle name from the Episcopal rector, Rev. Elisha Brooks Joyce. His parents, Frederick and Annie, had moved to the house at 17 Codwise Avenue a few years earlier, and Fred operated a pharmacy downtown until 1889, when he joined a new company called Johnson & Johnson as its first scientific director.

Taking the job at J&J appears to have been a wise move for Fred; when Joyce was just five years old, the family moved to a larger house on College Avenue. (Regrettably, that house was demolished in 1960 to make room for the uninspired architecture of Brower Commons.) Fred went on to develop the company's iconic baby powder and contribute to several other advancements; check out J&J's informative Kilmer House blog for more on his fascinating career.

After completing his primary and secondary studies at Rutgers Preparatory School, the younger Kilmer attended Rutgers College, where he was an associate editor of the Daily Targum and a member of Delta Upsilon. Writing came easily to him, math not so much. At the time, college regulations required that students pass all of their subjects before being allowed to move to the next year's studies, and poor grades in sophomore mathematics meant he'd have to retake all of that year's classes before advancing. Instead, he chose to complete his studies at Columbia University, where, it might be presumed, the policies were a little less rigorous.

From his earliest years, Kilmer was deeply spiritual and eventually converted to Catholicism, prompted by his interest in Irish heritage and nationalism. He's also said to have told friends that Catholics write the best poetry. He married Aline Murray in her home Episcopal parish in Metuchen in 1908, but by 1913, the couple were members of New York's Roman Catholic Church of St. Paul the Apostle.

Kilmer graduated from Columbia in 1908 and taught English and Latin at Morristown High School while working to make his mark in New York's literary community as a reviewer. Stints at publishers eventually brought him to the New York Times Sunday magazine, even as he published several volumes of poetry. He and Aline moved to Mahwah, where they welcomed a son and daughter, and where he's said to have written Trees.

This representation of Kilmer
hangs on the wall in the room
where he was born.

Having joined the New York National Guard's 69th Regiment in 1914, Kilmer became part of the regular army after the United States entered World War I. His feelings about war were evident in his poem The White Ships and The Red, published by the Times after the sinking of the Lusitania. Despite his college education, he chose not to pursue an officers' commission and went in as a private. He shipped out to France in October 1917 and was promoted to sergeant five months later. On July 30, 1918, he was killed in action, shot in the head by a sniper. Only 31 years old at the time of his death, he was buried in a military cemetery at Fere-en-Tardenois and remembered by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Donovan, as "a cool-headed solider... full of eagerness at all time to give his full measure of service." The French awarded him the Croix de Guerre posthumously in recognition of his valor.

Back in New Brunswick, the local American Legion post wanted to honor Kilmer, the local enlisted man who'd served so honorably. The Codwise Avenue house had passed through several owners since Fred and Annie sold it in 1903, and the Legionnaires felt it would be an ideal home for their post. They bought the property in 1929, dedicating it the next year with a blessing on the birthplace room from a Christ Church rector. It was henceforth known as the Joyce Kilmer Shrine.

Declining membership, vandalism and rising maintenance costs forced the Joyce Kilmer Post 25 to sell the building to the state as a historic site in 1969, and local historians created the Joyce Kilmer Birthplace Association to drive restoration. The city of New Brunswick took possession in 1983, with the stipulation that the second floor shrine be maintained.

Few people visit the house, as evidenced by the number of signatures in the guest book. You'd hope that local schools would arrange field trips so kids could learn a bit about a local writer and war hero, or that Rutgers might encourage English or Journalism students to stop by. In any case, if your curiosity is piqued, mark December 6 on your calendar. The house is open every year on Kilmer's birthday, and you're more than welcome to stop by and learn more about this hidden but not really hidden New Jersey notable.

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