Thursday, June 4, 2015

Summer with the merchant class at the Strauss Mansion

When summer finally gets its grip on New Jersey, the idea of whiling away a warm afternoon on the expansive porch of a rambling shoreside Victorian home starts to sound pretty good.

That was the thought that came to mind a few weeks ago, during the Weekend in Old Monmouth when I found my way up a steep hill to the Strauss Mansion, home of the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society. I'm a sucker for Queen Anne-style Victorian homes, and this one is the only mansion of its kind in Monmouth County that's open to the public. The closer I got, the more I could see the wear and tear on the house, but its pleasantly jumbled arrangement of turrets and gables drew me up onto the broad wrap-around porch and inside. The prospect of walking into one of these homes brings out the little kid in me: how awesome would it be to play hide and seek there?

I was just as awed when I got inside as I was when I saw the house on the drive up. Welcoming me into the expansive entry hall, a Historical Society member shared a brief history of the home, which was just one of several "cottages" built in the neighborhood by prominent New Yorkers seeking a respite from steamy Manhattan summers. Built in 1893 for the family of importer and merchant Adolph Strauss, the 21-room mansion was designed by Solomon Cohen and built by Adolph Hutera. Strauss himself would stay in the home only on the weekends, returning to the city by ferry during the week for work while his wife Jeannette and seven children would remain in Atlantic Highlands. They were part of a Monmouth County summer enclave known to some as the Jewish Newport on the Jersey Shore, with their specific group known as the "49ers" after their 49th Street neighborhood in New York. Other homes in the neighborhood of similar vintage are still well maintained, and a nice drive around Prospect Circle will give you a good idea of the community where the Strausses relaxed during the warmer months.

Following Mr. Strauss' death in 1905, the house was sold, eventually becoming a rooming house in the 1960s. By 1980 conditions in the building had become so dire that the town condemned it for code violations, leading the Historical Society to wage a campaign to raise funds to purchase and save it. The house by that point was a shadow of its former self: asbestos shingles covered the original cedar shakes on the exterior, the roof was in serious need of repair, wall-to-wall carpet covered its floors.

Some of the original flooring. Wow!
The house's current stewards are candid about the limitations of their preservation work to date, and as you walk through the rooms on the first and second floor the need for new plaster work and paint are evident. That said, the potential is enormous. You can't help but be impressed by the craftsmanship of the Victorian-era builders, hidden for many years. The hardwood floors are laid in intricate patterns not seen in homes built these days, and the original stained glass has been returned to its rightful place after having been sold by a previous owner.

Much of the house is curated to reflect the Strauss era of ownership, with beautiful furnishings and clothes representing the 1890s and early 1900s, but a good portion of the second floor is dedicated to local history. Everything from Sandy Hook's lifesaving history to 19th century tools and hardware to the old 20th century White Crystal diner is represented in the Historical Society's varied collection. They've also assembled an impressive reference library and archive that's open for those interested in researching aspects of the town's history (yearbooks and maps are always fun to peruse!).

And for those like me who'd love to while away a summer evening on the porch, the Historical Society hosts a series of concerts, suppers and other gatherings. With such an amazing asset to help them raise restoration funds, they're taking a creative - and fun - approach to bring people to the house.

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