Years ago Lambertville was the best-kept secret for housing buys in central New Jersey. That has changed as the city’s reputation as a manufacturing town has faded away and it has come to reflect the best of small-town life.
Located on the Delaware River, 19 miles from downtown Princeton, Lambertville draws some people who want to live near the water. Others come for the small schools where each teacher knows just about every family, while still others enjoy having a downtown that is easy to walk and merchants you get to know by their first names. Professionals come to get away from the bustle of the bigger cities, while others seek out the architecture, which dates back to 1705. Some come because they want to become part of a community that includes blue as well as white-collar workers who pitch in together to make things happen.
More than 30 years ago Lambertville began drawing a new population with deeper pockets that started a period in which the city transitioned from a rather sleepy community to a real estate hotbed.
As someone who grew up in Lambertville and where my parents, Al and Dot Yeske, were the owners of Yeskes’ Tots ‘n Teens clothing store, I am one of those who enjoyed but took for granted the amenities and benefits of living in a small town in a simpler time when people just seemed to enjoy their homes, neighbors, and environment.
As proud as I may be of my hometown, there is no one more zealous about Lambertville than the converts, people who discover the city, become homeowners, and embrace the community’s rich mix of people, housing, and cultural opportunities.
Realtor Steve Stegman is one of those who came to visit but quickly realized Lambertville had the feeling of home. “I came here on vacation during a period when I was looking for a place to establish my business of 1960s pop culture items. I had looked at Key West, San Diego, and Alexandria, Virginia, but none had clicked,” said Stegman.who is with Weidel Realtors in New Hope.
“I remember standing at the corner of Church and Union streets by the People’s Store and the feeling of home came over me,” he said, referring to the establishment that began as a general store in the 1840s and has since been reconstituted as an antiques co-op. “I looked around and it was the scale of the buildings, the history of the buildings, the proximity of the Delaware River; all of the elements fell in place for me. It was home. That’s what brought me here and keeps me here,” said Stegman, who prior to 1986 had lived in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
The city is not only a home, it is now also a destination place for restaurants and has surpassed its over-the-bridge neighbor, New Hope, Pennsylvania, for its reputation in supporting art shops and galleries. It’s also a prime area for shoppers looking for antiques, diners in search of fine restaurants, and a municipality where community spirit runs high.
Lambertville consists of about 1,950 households, 183 commercial or industrial properties, and two farms snuggled in one square mile surrounded by the Delaware River and three hills. The land was once the home of the Lenape Indians who also were known as the Delaware and sold their tracts to white settlers. The city’s first resident was John Holcombe, who built a stone house in 1724 that 54 years later became General George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War.
In 1732 Emanuel Coryell, an early entrepreneur, started a ferry service between the settlement and what is now New Hope. Coryell also established an inn for stage coach travelers between Philadelphia and New York. The settlement became known as Coryell’s Ferry.
Later it became Lambertville in honor of John Lambert, the first postmaster and in 1812 the builder of the Lambertville House, which was restored in recent years as an upscale hotel.
From just a handful of people in the 1700s, the town’s population grew to 1,417 when it was incorporated in 1849 and to 2,851 by 1863. The town’s industrialization got a boost when the Delaware & Raritan Canal Co. built its waterway in 1830. But there was a greater surge with the coming of the Belvidere-Delaware Railroad in 1851 that paralleled the canal north of Trenton.
Much of the prized housing in Lambertville stems from that industrialized era, from the handsome mansions to the row houses that line some of the city’s streets.
The Lambertville Historical Society has identified 10 distinct or overlapping styles of architecture that attract prospective homeowners as well as historians to the city. Spread at different locations around the city are styles from the following periods:
Federal, 1800-1840; Greek Revival, 1820-1860; Gothic Revival, 1830-1890; Romanesque Revival, 1845-1870; Italianate, 1830-1880; Second Empire, 1840-1875; Queen Anne, 1870-1890; Eastlake, 1865-1885; and Colonial Revival, 1890-1840.
There are also American Four Square styles that include homes that were Sears-Roebucks catalog kits from 1895 to 1950.
Many of the row homes or townhouses were built to accommodate some of the 4,000 Irish immigrants who were hired to hand dig the D & R Canal.
The city’s architecture and its walkable layout have been chronicled by many publications and newspapers including the New York Times and “This Old House” magazine, which noted: “This Delaware River enclave is now home to nearly 5,000 artists, writers, retirees, shop owners, and big-city professionals. What Lambertville lacks in population it makes up for in house-reviving spirit. It’s a hotbed for carpenters, masons, architects, antiques dealers, and other home-restoration pros, and a destination for those embarking on the endearingly prickly journey of rehabbing an old home.”
One refurbished mansion at North Union Street and Delaware Avenue, which had been an art gallery, recently sold for more than $1.4 million.
But Stegman points out there is a wide range of pricing for housing in town. “That house was totally renovated,” said Stegman. “On the other hand there are Federal brick row houses that come on the market priced at the low to mid 200,000s. There are also reasonably priced riverside and hillside condos that make fine single-family homes in the city limits. The redevelopment of Connought Hill has changed much.”
For many years the blighted Connought Hill, a section of the town located behind burned-out remains of the old Lambertville High School, was the city’s best kept secret and an embarrassment to civic leaders.
The area had its few moments of national attention in the 1960s when First Lady Lady Bird Johnson came by to visit an early Head Start operation that was part of the Great Society program.
Until about 10 years ago there were people there living in cars and substandard housing. Many properties were covered with debris and old cars. Since then the city spearheaded an effort to rehabilitate the area, which has made it an attractive place for reasonably priced housing or building lots.
A quick survey of some websites shows there are 43 homes for sale in the city including several three-bedroom houses ranging from about $350,000 to $420,000. There is also a York Street property available at $1.4 million.
“But Lambertville is more than housing,” said Stegman. “It’s the people, the shops, it’s the art galleries, the business community, it’s the good restaurants, the sense of community, it’s the cultural attractions, and it’s the schools, among other things.”
Besides the housing and schools, many are drawn here because it is a pedestrian town. “If you planned a community, Lambertville is what you would have,” said Mayor David DelVecchio. “The blocks aren’t too long, the downtown area is defined, and you can walk just about anyplace.
“We are a throwback to the whole idea of a community. People know their neighbors and people who move here get involved in the community, volunteering to do more than just live here. People who come here call it home.”
Among the shifts the town has made over the past 30 years is the makeup of the business district. It was once filled with mom and pop stores. They sold men’s and women’s clothing, infants ware, jewelry, sporting goods, and other items of daily necessity. There were also two supermarkets as well as several mom and pop grocery shops.
They all disappeared with the opening of the Quakerbridge and Oxford Valley malls in the 1970. Albert Mathews men’s shop, believed to be the oldest haberdashery in the state, liquidated about 10 years ago to make room for additional antique shops.
Residents today must drive across a toll-free bridge to New Hope for their groceries and other household items. For those who don’t drive there is a newly established taxi service available in Lambertville and New Hope.
Holly Havens, with Callaway-Henderson Real Estate, moved to town in 1995 and owns a house in “crow town” on North Union Street. “Among the attractions of Lambertville are the outdoor activities. The town is walkable and you can get to just about any place by walking. That includes walking across the bridge to New Hope and strolling along the sidewalks there. I’ve noticed that there seems to be a lot of buyer interest from the Montclair area and from Brooklyn because Lambertville is a very tight community where people look out for each other. Lambertville is unique. It is not one demographic. It has everything.”
Stegman noted that many initiatives for the betterment of the city have been generated by residents. “Historic preservation programs and recycling, which alone has saved the city thousands of dollars, were initiated by citizens.
“The city’s food pantry and a free community lunch program at the Methodist Church were all initiatives by residents as was the founding of the Kehilat Hanahar synagogue,” said Stegman of Weidel. “And the annual Shad Festival, which draws thousands of visitors to town every spring, is carried out by volunteers.”
The festival is a celebration of the return of the American shad in the Delaware River after the species was nearly eliminated by pollutants in the water way. The shad are caught during their spawning run upriver in nets handled by the Lewis family, the only licensed commercial fishery on the Delaware River.
Many townsfolk gather at the tip of Holcombe Island on spring evenings to watch Steve Meserve and his volunteer crew tend to the nets.
Another major draw to the city are periodic art auctions at the Rago Arts and Auction Center located in a former hosiery factory. The sales at times total in the millions of dollars. The founder, David Rago, is well respected in the business, resulting in bids from across the country and across the world for some of the art objects.
One of the major charms of the city is the growing restaurant business. There are more than 20 known for quality food or fine dining. They range from Hamilton’s Grill Room run by designer and chef Jim Hamilton to the newly opened Brian’s and d’floret to Lilly’s By the Canal, located in a former spoke factory. There are two Thai, one Japanese, one Mexican-Peruvian, one Middle Eastern, and several smaller eateries among the mix of restaurants that attract dining critics.
The mayor is fond of referring to the city as a river town. Residents go the river to fish, boat, scull, swim, hike, or enjoy the scenic views.
But the other side of living in a river town is periodic flooding. The city suffered three major floods in 2004, 2005, and 2006, with major damage to many dwellings and businesses. The town also suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Irene in 2011 when a surge of storm water came cascading off of the hills, leaving damaged homes, torn up streets, and erosion damage. Potential buyers of real estate would do well to engage an agent who is knowledgeable about the flood-prone areas.
During floods and other disasters, the city’s residents depend on their neighbors in the Lambertville-New Hope Rescue Squad, the four volunteer fire departments, and the 10-person police force to come to their aid. And they do so in a big way.
The city council and the mayor are also coming to their aid with flood mitigation plans. They include construction of flood gates on the Swan Creek in the southern part of town and on Ely Creek in the northern section of the city. The Ely Creek project may be completed by the end of this year. The Swan Creek project is awaiting funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Delaware River is not the only waterway available for recreation. The 44-mile long D & R Canal has a hiking trail that parallels it. It is used by physical fitness buffs, bicyclists, bird watchers, and people on leisurely strolls.
Some other attractions enjoyed by residents include the River Horse Brewery, the Holcombe-Jimison Farmstead Museum; the James Marshall house, which was the home of the discoverer of gold that set off the California gold rush; and the restored City Hall, an outstanding example of the Second Empire phase of the Victorian era.
The culturally oriented community has a free public library, a symphony orchestra, a Saturday night movie series, and access to the newly restored Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope. The theater was reborn this spring with Broadway producer Jed Bernstein offering a return of quality productions to the 73-year-old nationally known playhouse (U.S. 1, July 3).
On the horizon is Lambertville Hall, a major recycling of the former First Baptist Church by philanthropist Kevin Daugherty. The church’s congregation sold the building after moving to small quarters in another part of the city earlier this year.
Daugherty is in the process of renovating the former church into a music hall. He and his wife, Sherri, bought the church with their Bridge Street Foundation, which also acquired the Bucks County Playhouse at a mortgage foreclosure earlier this year.
One of the drawbacks of living in Lambertville is the limited public transportation. Bus and rail service to Trenton no longer exist despite the high number of people in town employed by the state in the capital city.
The only bus service is to New York City, and its passengers gather along a curb on Bridge Street to board. LINK, the reasonably priced bus service provided by Hunterdon County, is especially beneficial to senior citizens and for people who have special needs. After an absence of several years taxi service has been restored that serves Lambertville and New Hope.
A related issue is that of vehicle parking. The town grew up in an era of horses and buggies followed by cars. It wasn’t until after World War II that just about every home had an automobile, and that has expanded to many two-vehicle families in recent years.
“That has made parking a premium, especially in the business district,” said Stegman. “It’s one of the inconveniences that people accept to be able to live in a city born in the 1700s and 1800s.” It has forced the city to install parking meters in the business area. Two years ago the hours were changed to conform to those of New Hope because visitors were parking for free in Lambertville and walking to New Hope to shop and dine.
Life in Lambertville was exemplified in remarks by City Councilman Ward Sanders when he was sworn into office in 2011. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Sanders related how much he and his family had come to discover and appreciate the town:
“Sledding on Cow Hill, swimming in the creek, playing on Ely Field, the public school, anything at the Chocolate Box store, skateboarding on the new sidewalks, walking to school, Lambertville’s community and diversity, safety, Halloween, locally owned stores and restaurants, Sheridan Park, the tow path (by the canal) the wing dams (on the Delaware), Goat Hill Park (technically in neighboring West Amwell), the hot air vent at Greene and Greene on a cold day, Ota Ya’s shrimp tempura, Rojo’s latte, Bell’s steak sandwich, being the first city to hold a civil union in New Jersey and hopefully the first city to hold a gay marriage, and my son Ian being able to lead the council in the Pledge of Allegiance.”