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This article by Caroline Calogero was prepared for the October 13, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
At Morven, History Is Now Served
In central New Jersey where historic sites are lined up like so many pearls, the reopening of Morven, with a formal reception on Saturday, October 16, adds one more to the string. It is a bead of a slightly different color, both harmonizing with the Colonial treasure trove offered by Rockingham, the Princeton Battlefield, Nassau Hall – and offering something more.
"We didn’t want to just be the home of five generations of one family, the Stocktons, who were here for 200 years. We have other equally important residents. Robert Wood Johnson of Johnson & Johnson was here for 18 years. We had governors here for 40 years. It wasn’t as if history just stopped at the 18th century," says Martha Leigh Wolf, executive director, discussing her decision to expand the focus of Morven beyond that of a historic house dating from the Colonial period.
In its latest incarnation, Morven has been reborn as a museum with interpretive history galleries, rooms done up in period decor, portrait collections, and exhibits of decorative arts.
In a quest for more space, the official governor’s residence was moved to Drumthwacket. Governor Brendan Byrne had vacated the mansion almost 20 years before Wolf arrived at Morven in 2001. Wolf listened to a number of schemes for reusing the house. "We weren’t really sure what we were going to do here for quite some time," she says. "There might have been five or six kinds of approaches proposed."
The most obvious choice was to capitalize on Morven’s association with the Revolutionary War. "When the restoration program was initially being developed, the thought was that we were going to take Morven back to the 18th century, that there was enough of the 18th century structure here so it could be Monticello or Mount Vernon for New Jersey. It turned out the 18th century house had been engulfed by this bigger house. But the bigger house had significance too."
Dropping the idea of restoring Morven as a relic of the Colonial era, Wolf seized upon a more daring vision. The mansion would serve as a backdrop for a museum celebrating New Jersey-based arts and culture.
"We have ended up with a historic house that is functioning as a museum," she says of her plans to install a range of exhibits connected by their focus on New Jersey, including many honoring Morven’s history.
The restoration, started in the 1990s and completed only last year, incorporates the additions from various periods – an admission of the house’s evolution rather than an attempt to strip it down to Colonial purity. "We kept the best of what each generation did," says Wolf.
Acknowledging this long gestation period, Wolf admits to considering the phrase, "There’s finally something for you at Morven," as a slogan for the reopening. Two-thirds of the funding for the $5 million job came from private sources. Private sources also provide three-quarters of the annual budget of $800,000.
Joanne Singer, Morven’s events coordinator, prefers "The past is in the setting, the history is in the making" for an opening theme. Yet both anxiously await public reaction to the revitalized Morven. "One of the things we’re anxious to hear from our first time audience is what do you like best? What does Morven do best? We’re hoping that they like all of it," says Wolf.
Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his wife, Annis Boudinot Stockton, began building Morven in the 1750s. The site was originally part of a 5,000-acre tract purchased from William Penn. By the time that the Continental Congress met, it was considered a commodious house with four rooms on each floor. In the 1790s, Richard "The Duke" Stockton, the signer’s son, leveled the house and remade the floor plan, changing the house from Georgian to Federal style with bigger rooms and a wide central hall.
While restoring the house involved detective work, Annis Stockton’s noted 18th century gardens also proved hard to recreate. Investigators never determined the exact configuration of her plot, explains Wolf. The current landscaping was chosen to represent several periods over the life of Morven, including an 1890s Colonial revival garden, a rolling lawn characteristic of the 19th century, and horse chestnut trees lined up on a path in an 18th century pattern called an allee.
Morven is situated in downtown Princeton on four park-like acres just next to Princeton’s borough hall. The house sits facing the main road, Route 206 South, which was called Stockton Street at that point. A brick courtyard connects the rear of the main house to the Wash House, circa 1850, formerly servants’ quarters and laundry, and now housing museum staff on the upper floor. The gift shop will open below. This spot between the buildings will serve as a staging area for house tours and also leads into the gardens and back lawn.
Wolf clearly adores the house. "We think of it as a showcase or a gallery. It has wonderful light. It has tall ceilings. It has narrow rooms so you can look both ways at the house." She contrasts these charms with the dark interiors and low ceilings characteristic of other historic houses of the same age.
Wolf explains that the building’s systems needed updating before Morven could be reopened. The house’s nine bathrooms were reduced to two. Ultraviolet filters to protect valuables and antiques from sun damage were installed over all 64 windows. Some woodwork that was refinished could have been taken down further, but cost considerations influenced the decision to limit its restoration, she confesses.
Wolf is the former executive director of Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia, the restored home and garden of Colonial botanist John Bartram, and has also worked at the Brandywine River Museum, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, which is home to an extensive collection of Wyeth paintings, giving her a background in both historical gardens and in museums focused on decorative arts.
Before taking the job as executive director, Wolf says, "My first question was ‘Was Morven worthy of preservation?’ It took me about one minute to figure out that Morven was worthy of preservation because of this enormous history it had. Everybody’s been here since 1758." George Washington, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter have all been visitors.
In late September the well-lit sparking rooms were mostly empty. In the back gallery, a 1941 portrait of Robert Wood Johnson stood propped against a wall, waiting to be hung.
The mahogany table owned by Richard "The Duke" Stockton dating from the early 1800s, on loan from the New Jersey Historical Society, stood covered in muslin awaiting its unveiling in the dining room.
Plans for the entrance hall include the installation of four 18th century marble sculptures known as the "four continents" after Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. Represented as classically draped female figures, they are part of the Boudinot Collection of Princeton University and were recently rescued from storage.
Six portraits of Stockton family members, by Thomas Sully, who also painted Queen Victoria, Lafayette, and Andrew Jackson will hang in the side parlor, also home to an 1850 marble fireplace inscribed, "the fire burns for you" in Latin.
There are numerous interesting details at Morven. A lush 150-year-old Chinese wisteria twines around the portico, shading the front door. A weathered red brick wall with an arched doorway borders one side of the back garden. Far back on the property are a carriage house, pool, and a pool house whose fates are still undecided.
The house’s second story is closed pending further renovation. Wolf hopes future exhibits on the upper floor will focus on the private lives of Morven notables. The idea of building a visitors’ center to accommodate lectures or larger groups has been bandied about.
Singer and Wolf are quick to point our Morven is not a place for kids under age eight. My impression navigating the rooms was that it could also present some difficulties for less mobile visitors.
Wolf is intrigued by the possibilities for further development. "This is New Jersey’s house," she says. At the reopening week beginning October 17 she hopes to find the public feels that way as well.
– Caroline Calogero
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