Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Beauty in Decay: White Hill Mansion

Beauty in Decay: White Hill Mansion

Normally, historic sites are well-kept structures, restored to their former glory after many years of hard work by countless volunteers. In Fieldsboro, New Jersey, at White Hill Mansion, a large brick homestead set upon a bluff overlooking the Delaware River, their preservation story is still unfolding. A relatively new historic site, only acquired in 1999, this magnificent mansion surrounded by a chain-link fence with its peeling paint and wallpaper, missing and damaged fireplace mantles, and eerily empty rooms, is all the more inviting to the inquisitive visitor. With three floors, plus a full basement, there is a certain draw to this home, which made me not want to leave. There is a hidden beauty in this organized decay - one that allows the mind to wonder about all those who stepped foot into these rooms, the conversations, and the actions that may have taken place here. Although we know the names of owners and some of their guests, it is the unknown - emotions, energy, and conversations - that keeps us asking questions in which the answers may never be known.


The area around present-day Fieldsboro, south of present-day Bordentown, was known as White Hill. One of the area's early settlers was Robert Field. In 1722, Field, who later owned a wharf and other businesses, purchased a 300 acre property where the mansion stands and built a modest one-and-a-half story house, which appears to have consisted of two rooms on the first floor separated by a hearth and a sleeping loft on the second, accessible by a winder staircase.

In 1757, Robert Field's son, also Robert, inherited White Hill. In 1760, it is believed he expanded the house to its present size by taking the original one-and-a-half-story house (present left side of house) and connecting it to a neighboring home he purchased from Stacy Potts (present right side of house). The Potts home is believed to have been a five-bay, center-hall, single-pile Georgian style home, as per a historical architect's analysis. Today, this section of the home (if you were to separate it from the later connecting addition) is three-bay, side hall, single-pile. The exterior of the home was Flemish-bond brick.

In 1765, Robert Field (the son) married Mary Peel, the daughter of a successful Philadelphia merchant. Robert was a lawyer and ran a number of businesses including a farm, apple orchard, fishery, and distillery. Politically, he was the Chairman of the Standing Committee of Correspondence for Burlington County who argued to Parliament for representation by The Colony of New Jersey. In 1776, Robert mysteriously drowned in the Delaware River, while on the way back from a meeting in Pennsylvania. Robert was known to be passively resistant against the British, and possibly for that reason he was a marked man. He left behind Mary and their three young children to run the estate, which included the mansion, a bake house, commercial wharf, several hundred acres, six slaves, and a vessel.

A bedroom on the second floor of White Hill Mansion.
During the American Revolution, White Hill Mansion was visited by military leaders from both sides. In 1776. Hessian Commander Count von Donop and his troops came to the home and accused Mary Peel of harboring Continental soldiers. She convinced them that she had no soldiers and let them use the house as a headquarters for two weeks. Their visit was rather fortunate, as one of Mary's daughters Molly was sick and a doctor traveling with the troops was able to provide care. In December of that year, Captain Houston, an American Navy Captain visited the home to take supplies that the British had left behind. Three years later, in 1779, Commodore John Barry visited Mary and her second husband, Captain Thomas Read. Commodore Barry was traveling back to his home in Reading, Pennsylvania. It is interesting to note that throughout the Revolutionary War, Mary received multiple protection orders from the Continental and British armies.

Robert Field Jr., the son of Mary and Robert Field, married Abigail Stockton, the daughter of Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and poetess Annis Boudinot Stockton, in 1796. Annis Stockton frequented White Hill Mansion and died at the home in 1801.

A bedroom on the second floor of White Hill Mansion.
Robert Field Jr. was forced to sell White Hill Farm in 1804 due to financial difficulties. The farm, which then amounted to 200 acres, was purchased by Jonathan Rhea of Trenton. Rhea, a developer and entrepreneur, mapped out a town and began selling lots. Richard Stockton, who married Molly Field, purchased the home so that it would remain in the Field Family.

The house was sold to David Bruce in 1832. Bruce is known as the inventor of several typeface styles, some of which are still in use. Rimmed Roman, which was supposedly developed in the attic of the house, was the precursor to Times Roman.

Other owners during the 1800s included iron manufacturer and senator, Isaac Field, and Joseph Mayer, who held patents in pottery machinery design and operated Arsenal Pottery in Trenton. The tile surround on at least two of the fireplaces in the mansion have been credited to Mayer. White Hill was incorporated as the Village of Fieldsboro, in honor of the Field family, on March 7, 1850.

Center hall of White Hill Mansion today with the three-story main staircase.
Between 1877 and 1885, the mansion was used as a summer home by a Dr. Andrew Ingersoll, who ran a clinic in Corning, New York called Dr. Ingersoll's Water Cure Hospital. Prior to Ingersoll's residence in the home, a wooden cistern was added to the third floor attic. It is believed to have been installed during the 1860s because of the railroad tracks that it sits on, which were only produced for a short time during that period. Water was pumped to the tank from an outdoor well through a pipe in the window. This very early form of indoor plumbing is remarkable and despite all of the changes to the home, still exists tucked away on the southern end.

Wooden cistern on the third floor.
Between 1896 and 1911, the Crossley Family owned the home. The Crossley Family modernized the home by adding Queen Anne elements: two two-story frame bay windows on each side of the house, a three-story frame bay with gambrel roof, two oriel windows, a widow's walk, iron cresting, and wrap-around porch. On the interior of the house, the family installed a three-story staircase, new doors, woodwork, and made changes to some walls and fireplaces.

Archibald Maddock Crossley, considered one of the fathers of modern public opinion research, was born in the house in 1897 and is likely the last person born at White Hill Mansion. Crossley, who attended Princeton University, become a famous pollster and developed many techniques used in modern polling. He established his own market research company in 1926 and in the 1930s, he introduced the Crossley ratings (or Crossleys), which were an audience measurement system created to determine the audience size of radio broadcasts. The system was dissolved by 1946. 

Mr. Crossley, along with his contemporaries Dr. George H. Gallup and Elmo Roper, devised the first system of using a scientifically selected random sample to proportionately represent the opinions of the entire population. This method got its first test during the 1936 Presidential election, when the Hearst newspaper chain hired Mr. Crossley to compete with Fortune magazine's Roper Polls and the Gallup. Their scientific method correctly guessed the winner of the election, Franklin D. Roosevelt, while the straw voting method did not. The Crossley Poll was eventually syndicated and appeared in more than fifty newspapers under his name. Crossley resided in Princeton, New Jersey from 1923 until his death in 1985. Although his name has mostly been lost to history and outshined by competitor Gallup, there is a Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver.

Oriel window and iron cresting on the northern end of White Hill Mansion.
In 1922, Heinrich and Katrina Glenk purchased the mansion and converted it into an upscale German Restaurant. During their tenure, they dug out the basement a full two feet to install a bar. During Prohibition, the Glenks were known to continue to serve alcohol. There is believed to be a tunnel or two that runs from the house to the Delaware River, which was used in the illegal transportation of alcohol during that period. The top to a tunnel may have been found during recent archaeological excavations. The restaurant was a popular venue for politicians due to its secluded location. A corner table in the basement was the most popular seat in the house and the wait list was often months long. According to the Glenk's grandson, John, many political deals were made in the house. The Glenks owned the restaurant until 1972. From 1972 to 1992, the restaurant operated under numerous owners.

During the twentieth century, the house continued to evolve architecturally. The present front porch was most likely added in the 1930s, the basement was dug deeper for the construction of the bar, and a series of one-story additions were added to the rear of the home for use as kitchen space. At the rear of the house, a large dining room built over a concrete slab was added in the 1950s to replace an earlier dining room in an enclosed porch. On the interior, white subway tile was installed in the restaurant's kitchen around the original fireplace, Other changes included additional restrooms in various parts of the house and changes to ceiling, floor finishes, and some doors.

The coveted corner table in the basement of White Hill Mansion.
The property was purchased by neighboring Stepan Chemical Company in 1992. From 1992 to 1999 the mansion sat unused. Stephan proposed to use the mansion for offices, but that plan was never realized. In the late 1990s, the mayor of Fieldsboro heard that the company was instead going to tear down the house  In 1999, the Borough of Fieldsboro acquired the property through eminent domain from Stepan Chemical Company in order to ensure its preservation.

In 2012, White Hill Mansion was placed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. Since then, the Friends of White Hill Mansion have continued to document the home's history through research and in 2013 a second archaeological dig was conducted on the property. The group has also held numerous events, programs, and paranormal investigations in order to increase awareness and raise funding. A local boy scout will soon be making repairs to the back of the home where a part of a one-story kitchen addition collapsed a few years ago. Although small, the group is determined to breathe new life into this decaying, yet absolutely beautiful house and revive local Revolutionary War history in a small, sleepy community of just 500 residents.


Additional photos of my trip to White Hill Mansion on Pinterest
View a video of White Hill Mansion on YouTube

For More Information
Friends of White Hill Mansion


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I've enjoyed reading your write-ups. Keep up the awesome work.

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