Saturday, February 28, 2015

New Brunswick's Guest House: maybe, maybe not.

When is a guest house not a guest house? When it’s the Guest House next to the New Brunswick Public Library.

You may have already guessed (no pun intended) that the house in question actually belonged to someone whose name was Guest. In this case, it was Henry Guest, one of the Hub City’s early prominent citizens.

The Guest House as it looked in 1938,
courtesy Historic American Buildings Survey.
Built in 1760, the 2.5 story, finely-cut stone house originally stood at the corner of Livingston Avenue and Carroll Place (now New Street). A city alderman, Guest seems to have been a very busy man with his hand in diverse industries. The stone for his house is said to have come from his quarry on Burnet Street, and he was also a whaler and tanner who developed new processes for treating leather. In fact, he claimed before the New York Society of the Arts that his specially-treated hides could be used for roofing in place of copper. Records of his claims against British raids show that he lost a substantial amount of hides and leather shoes to looting or burning in late 1776 or early 1777.

The Guest House, however, gets its greatest acclaim, ironically enough, from a guest who may or may not have stayed there for a short period during some of the darkest hours in early American history. Ardent patriots, the Guest family was friendly with notables including future President John Adams and pamphleteer Thomas Paine, and it’s said that Paine hid in the house for a short time in December 1776, as the British were making their charge across New Jersey. You might recall from a previous Hidden New Jersey entry that Paine was, at that point, writing The American Crisis, which inspired patriots when the Revolution seemed all but lost. No existing records indicate the exact dates when Paine was there, but a 1951 New Brunswick Sunday Times article theorizes it may have been early December, just before the city fell to the British.

Regardless of whether Paine took refuge there or not, the Guest House can claim some glory as home to Captain Moses Guest, who led the 1779 ambush and capture of Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe, Loyalist commander of the Queen’s Rangers.

Henry Guest reportedly said that if his descendants “would only keep a roof on it, the house would stand till Gabriel blew his trumpet.” However, the house itself very nearly became casualty, not to war, but to 20th century development. In 1925, the Livingston Avenue lot was purchased by the Elks as the site of their New Brunswick lodge. Pharmaceutical titan J. Seward Johnson saved the day, buying the house and offering it to the city, along with $50 in seed money for a fund to finance moving the house to another location and setting it on a new foundation.

Today, the Guest House tells its story in an understated fashion, sitting unobtrusively next to the library. Renovations in 1993 brought a new cedar shake roof, woodwork restorations on porch and portico and a new chimney. Under the care of the library administration, the house now hosts community meetings.

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