Thursday, February 13, 2014

Would Peter Stuyvesant live here? Discovering Teaneck's Warner District

Take a drive around Bergen County, and you're likely to pass a few Dutch Colonial houses that predate the founding of the United States. Built of sturdy stone, many are still occupied as private homes, maybe even surrounded by a development of houses of more recent vintage.

That said, we were kind of surprised to see a small enclave of them on busy Cedar Lane in Teaneck, near the corner of River Road. Had they been moved there in some sort of preservation effort like East Jersey Olde Towne in Piscataway or maybe as a real estate scheme like Wychwood in Westfield?

Actually, no. Despite their aged appearances, the structures are less than 100 years old. And when you study the development a little more closely, you start noticing similarities in construction, reminiscent of 20th century tract housing.

We'd stumbled on the Fred T. Warner Historic District, an early 20th century attempt to recreate the charm of Teaneck's rural Colonial past while meeting the community's evolving housing and commercial real estate needs. Between 1926 and 1938, architect and Teaneck resident Warner constructed a miniature village of homes, garden apartments and even office space for a rapidly growing town. It might not have been as expansive or ideologically-driven as Radburn, but it was unique in its own way.

The Cedar Lane boundary of the 40 building development includes several Dutch Colonial structures, including an office building that the casual observer might think was converted from a large old house. Garden apartments are nestled off the main road, arranged to create a cozy courtyard. Houses in a variety of sizes, some wood or brick, line narrow, winding side streets to create what looked like a storybook setting in the snow.

Like Radburn, the Warner district addresses several housing needs with apartments, small rental houses, duplexes and dwellings for larger families. Proximity to New York was quickly transforming Teaneck to a commuting town, and this mix of housing options provided a necessary stepping stone to support growing population density while retaining the town's intrinsic charm.

Warner bought the land from the estate of William Phelps, which generously agreed to a repurchase and rent-back arrangement when the onset of the Great Depression threatened the project's completion. And as it turns out, his choice of building materials was based on thrift as much as on a dedication to authenticity. He'd bought more than $35,000 worth of stone ahead of another venture he'd been commissioned for, and when that project failed to materialize, he found himself with tons of construction material crying for a use.

Absent the blue historic marker or local knowledge, the average passer-by would have a hard time differentiating the Warner District from its much older, more storied stone brethren, and perhaps that's a good thing. In a time when McMansions and cookie-cutter construction seem the norm, it's nice to run into more authentic-looking replicas of our past. Even if some of them might be a little cookie-cutter themselves.

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