Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rethinking What History is Important: The Reinterpretation of the Israel Crane House

Rethinking What History is Important: The Reinterpretation of the Israel Crane House
Written by NJ Historian

Sometimes local historical societies need to take a step back and reassess their interpretation in order to incorporate new research and discoveries into their exhibitions. As the first and second generation of historical societies founded in the second half of the twentieth century pass the baton to the next generation, there is a shift to include women, minorities, and the recent past into museums. In Montclair, New Jersey, the 1796 Israel Crane House was recently reinterpreted to include the structure's twentieth century use as a YWCA. The newly renamed Crane House and Historic YWCA expands the museum's history to more fully encompass the building's usage and its impact on the local community as a gathering place for young women of mainly African American descent.


The Crane House was built in 1796 on eighty-six acres of farmland by Israel Crane and his wife Fanny Pierson. Israel was a descendent of the founding family of Cranetown, now Montclair. The home was originally built on what would later become 159 Glen Ridge Avenue. Israel Crane, born in 1774, was a successful merchant who operated a successful general store next to his residence. He was also involved in the construction of the Newark Pompton Turnpike in 1806 which gained him the nickname "King Crane." His other pursuits included a quarry in Newark which employed 300-400 men, a cider mill near his home, a cotton mill in Paterson, and a number of other mills in the Montclair vicinity. Israel and Fanny had seven children, servants, and at least one slave named Dine.

The home when constructed in 1796, was no doubt one of, if not the largest in Montclair and certainly was not representative of the typical types of homes and farmstead homes constructed during that period. The house is five bays wide and two rooms deep with a wide center hall for entertaining. The first floor contains a dining room and kitchen to the left and double parlors with doors separating them. Originally there was no staircase in the center hall as there is today. The second floor, containing three bedrooms and one children's bedroom, was accessible from a staircase in the kitchen, which still exists. The roof was pitched, unlike today, and contained an attic, possibly where the servants and a slave named Dine resided.

The center hall of the Crane House and Historic YWCA Museum.
James, one of Israel’s sons, was given the house in 1840 and remodeled it with Greek-Revival details. James added a laundry room off the rear of the house and added a portico with Greek Revival columns over the front door. The pitched roof became flat, allowing for a full third floor, with a large frieze board and small windows with wooden grilles over them. In the hallway, an elliptical staircase was added and the moldings were changed throughout the first floor to reflect the Greek Revival style. In 1870, black marble mantels were added to the fireplaces in the three main rooms on the first floor. Before the end of the nineteenth century, a bow window was added over the center bay of the second floor, (directly over the front porch) and a small projecting greenhouse window was added to the front parlor. James and his wife Phebe raised six children in the home. Phebe lived in the home with three of her single adult daughters until her death in 1901. After their mother's death, for unknown reasons, all three daughters moved out.

After serving briefly as a rental property, the then-vacant Crane home was purchased in 1920 by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Montclair-North Essex to be used as their headquarters. The YWCA in Montclair was founded in 1912 by Alice Hooe Foster, the first black woman to graduate from Montclair High School. Outgrowing her living room due to growing popularity, the Crane home would now be able to better serve the young African American girls and women of Montclair. For the first few years after moving into the home, the third floor served as a dormitory for black female students who could not live on Montclair State University’s campus because of their race. Throughout the early twentieth century, there was racism in Montclair and much of the United States that prohibited people of color from purchasing homes in certain neighborhoods, attending the same public schools as their non-colored counterparts, and even shopping in the same stores.

The Crane House/YWCA in 1936 on Glen Ridge Avenue. Photo credit: HABS.
Many young African American women and girls made the YWCA their second home. There were not many other places these women could visit in Montclair other than church and the Y. The club, led by middle-class clubwomen like Hortense Ridley Tate, held classes there to teach women and girls etiquette. reading, and writing at a time when local schools expected young African American girls to be employed as domestic help after graduation. The young women who attended the Y explored hobbies such as knitting and photography. There was also time for socialization and recreation as the club hosted parties, picnics, and dances. The YWCA allowed these girls and young women to become successful, encouraged further education, and trained them to be more than just "the help."

Notable African Americans W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Booker T. Washington all spoke at the YWCA. In 1953, the organization "reverse-integrated," allowing white women and girls to join as members. Despite this one example of community integration, some stores still refused to serve people of color and certain areas of Montclair were "red-lined," meaning that homes outside of an imaginary red line on municipal maps could not be sold to African Americans.

The YWCA Room at the Crane House and Historic YWCA Museum.
In the 1960s, the growing membership of the integrated YWCA was outgrowing its 150 year old home. The leadership determined the best course of action would be to demolish the home and build a larger building on the property. A group of concerned citizens formed the Montclair Heritage Trust, which would later become the Montclair Historical Society. The Trust was successful in relocating the house from Glen Ridge Avenue to a property on Orange Road. Before it was moved, the rear ell, a later addition, was not moved due to its fragile condition and demolished on-site. The journey to Orange Road took approximately five hours. Once set on the foundation at its new property, the new house museum was restored and interpreted to reflect the Crane's occupancy. 

In 2014, the house was closed for a few months so that it could be reinterpreted to reflect the Crane period, YWCA era, and the Montclair Historical Society's preservation efforts after the 1960s. New exhibit panels detailing the home's history have been installed in the center hallway and the back parlor of the house now reflects how it may have appeared during the 1940s and 1950s when it was the YWCA. The exterior of the home was also repainted. It had previously been a light blue color but is now a very light peach color. The Montclair Historical Society chose this new color to represent the James Crane (Israel Crane's son) period, from about 1840 to 1902 because James was responsible for the way the house looks today, and the exterior of the house looks most like it did during his ownership. The future uses of rooms and history of the Crane House as a community resource will continue to evolve as new research is discovered, Montclair adapts to changing attitudes and tastes, and the future of historic house museums evolve in the twenty-first century.

The Nathaniel Crane House
Toward the rear of Crane House property is a small home. It was built in 1818 by Captain Nathaniel Crane, Israel Crane's cousin. It was originally located to the right of where the Israel Crane House is located, where the Clark House was built in 1894. In 1894, a portion of the house, the rear ell, was removed from the house by Dr. James Henry Clark, Jr. and the house was moved to the rear of the property. It was used as an outbuilding for many years. In 1974, the home was donated by the Sampson family to the Montclair Historical Society. The house was then moved approximately seventy-five feet to the Israel Crane lot and now serves as a museum shop, replica general store, and a recreated one-room schoolhouse on the second floor.


Additional photos of my trip to the Israel Crane House on Pinterest

For More Information
Montclair Historical Society


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