Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the September 20,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Morven’s Preservation: For Posterity & Tourism
To many of us, the idea of historic preservation
conjures up musty, dusty notions of old deeds and genealogies, dry
rot and leaky roofs. But spend an hour with Emily Croll, director
of Historic Morven, and Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner, of Historic
Building Architects, and you’ll discover that there’s no work that’s
challenging, or compelling. They almost make it seem like just plain
Morven, the house that was home to Richard Stockton, a signer of the
Declaration of Independence, is moving closer to becoming a regionally
significant historic site. Closed since July, 1999, the first phase
of the three-phase restoration of house, gardens, and outbuildings
has just been completed.
Progress to date will be celebrated and shown off to all with
that begin Friday, September 22, with a benefit cocktail party.
September 23, is Family Day, with special activities featured from
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tours will be given by these most knowledgeable
professionals at 11 a.m., noon, and 1 p.m. There will also be antiques
appraisals by Sotheby’s, historic reenactments, children’s crafts
and games, a silhouette artist, storytelling, and refreshments.
"The whole history of Morven is a timeline of change,"
Croll. This notion, she says, defined the restoration approach.
acquired historical significance early on as the home of a signer
of the Declaration of Independence, but interesting and important
people lived here right up to the 1980s."
"A lot of preservation projects take in just one moment in
says historic preservation specialist Radcliffe-Trenner. "For
instance Colonial Williamsburg ripped down all their pre-18th century
structures, including some interesting 19th-century additions."
"If we were to rip down everything after built after Richard and
Annis Stockton," says Croll, continuing the line of thought,
have nothing more than a small portion of Morven’s west wing. Instead
what we’ll have here is 250 years of history told in a variety of
She and Radcliffe-Trenner first worked together in the early 1990s
on the restoration of the Bainbridge House for the Historical Society
of Princeton. Directing the design and restoration of the gardens
is landscape preservation specialist, Lucinda Brockway of Kennebunk,
Maine. John Hatch of Clark Caton Hintz is the project architect. The
general contractor is Haverstick Borthwick, and the landscape
is N.V. Holmes. The progress to date is pleasing to Croll and
"The project has been a dream come true," says
"This is why I love my work — it’s detective work in
So enamored is the team with all the intriguing discoveries they’ve
made over the course of the project that the initial exhibition will
feature the kitchen of the building’s soon-to-be restored interior.
Looking quite a shambles at first glance, the room is a mass of
Yet amidst these stripped brick and exposed beams, the project team
has exposed some of the joys of their work to public scrutiny. Not
only does the room track the 250-year history of the structure, it
also shows off the recently uncovered 1758 brick oven, lost for
behind brick wall additions and remodeled chimneys.
The property that became Morven was part of a 5,000-acre tract
by Richard Stockton from William Penn in 1701. In 1754, Richard’s
grandson, Richard Stockton, one of the colonies’ leading attorneys
who became a signer of the Declaration of Independence, acquired
of the tract on which he and his wife, Annis Boudinot Stockton, built
their house in 1758.
Annis named Morven after the home of a mythical Gaelic
King Fingal in the epic poems of Ossian. (This notorious poetry scam
of the 1760s was perpetrated by the Scottish poet, James Macpherson,
who represented the works as translations from the Gaelic
poet, when they were in fact his own.)
Five generations of the Stockton family occupied Morven before it
was sold in the mid-20th century. It then served as the residence
of four of New Jersey’s governors and their prodigious families.
to Morven during the era of Governor Brendan Byrne report that Morven
had a well-worn look to it — not surprising, given all the kids
underfoot.) In 1986 its management was turned over to the New Jersey
One of the most historically significant sites in the state, Morven
now comprises the 10,000 square-foot mansion, three outbuildings,
and five acres of land (reduced from 300 in 1890); it is a National
Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The first thing sure to strike this weekend’s visitors to Morven is
its fabulous facade, restored to the way it would have appeared circa
1850, about the time of the completion of all the old building’s
The look is stunning. Shining white brick is enhanced by off-white
paneled shutters. The Greek Revival style was superimposed by Richard
"the Duke" Stockton, who served in Congress around 1812. This
was the period of major construction of the nation’s capitol, and
"the Duke" probably wished to emulate the White House, then
Notable is the pedimented front porch, added about 1850, with its
fluted columns, fan light, and newly-revealed punch and gouge
ornamentation. In the 1880s, the porch was embellished with the now
130-year-old wisteria. Bound to be the envy of every gardener, it’s
back in leaf after being shepherded through the renovation ordeal.
Weighing pragmatic commercial interests against the requirements of
"the historical record" is an ongoing debate in the
profession, but Trenner sees the ready reconciliation of the two.
"You can do that by being very honest about history," she
says. "You can make your site attractive — and visitor
— by telling the stories, all the stories."
"We have gone for excellence with the restoration of the building
exterior," says Trenner. "We’re setting standards for
re-use of traditional materials."
The bricks used in Morven’s original 1758 construction were probably
made on site, pressed into molds, and pit fired. The house was
unpainted, then limewashed through the 1880s. What came next —
26 layers of enamel paint — was one of the team’s greatest
To protect the historic brick and woodwork lurking below, innumerable
paint layers were removed with rubber spatulas.
Four coats of authentic limewash, know familiarly to country folk
as whitewash, now provides a "shelter coat" for the old brick.
Another accomplishment of which the team is justly proud is the
lime stucco with horsehair binding on the visitors center. Builders
for the project had to learn how to "chuck" the wet stucco
the old way, to make it adhere, before troweling it to a smooth
These lime-based historic building materials, says Trenner, are
to the materials behind them and allow them to breathe."
The first phase of the long-awaited restoration is the largest. It
has included the complete exterior restoration, new slate roofs, and
the interior and exterior restoration of the outbuilding. The latter
has been remodeled to serve as Morven’s Visitors Center, with upstairs
offices for staff. The visitors center opens with an orientation
"Morven through Three Centuries."
Directing the design and restoration of the gardens
is landscape preservation specialist, Lucinda Brockway. Her firm’s
past projects include Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville,
and the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline,
Brockway says that colonial families established their status not
only in the style of their house but in the landscaping their property
with spreading, deciduous trees. "The reasoning was that if the
public is walking past your house on a hot summer’s day, and if you
provide a beautifully shady walk, they’re apt to slow down and
The new gardens incorporate elements of various past landscapes and
restore such famed elements as its enormous catalpa trees that seemed
designed to commemorate Richard Stockton each year when they burst
into bloom on the Fourth of July. The last of them were cut down in
the 1920s. The new Bower Walk, completed in 1996, is a theme garden
that is home to a variety of 18th-century plants that were mentioned
by Annis Stockton in her poetry and letters.
Now nine new catalpa saplings run along Stockton Street again, and
nearer the house, pairs of young horse chestnut trees define a new
tree-lined walkway that will eventually extend along the Borough Hall
property. An orchard of pear trees is beginning to take form behind
Radcliffe-Trenner, whose firm won six grants this week from the New
Jersey Historic Trust, including funding for the planning of Morven’s
final restoration phase, knows the value of historic preservation.
"Worldwide," she says, "preservation is proving itself
as an economically viable tourism tool with significant socio-economic
benefits." She says her approach had to be both practical and
"Morven’s a large place to keep going, and we’ve got to get the
audience in time and time again," says Croll, so it’s logical
to make it an attractive destination that the public will want to
The new Morven should prove attractive to history buffs, architecture
enthusiasts, and garden hobbyists. For weary workers, it also promises
a gracious destination of lovely outdoor spaces. History buff or not,
here you may sit in the shade of the 100-foot-high Norway spruces
and watch those sapling horse chestnut trees grow.
— Nicole Plett
609-683-4495. Cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, musical entertainment, and
an insider’s tour of the gardens and house. $75, with proceeds to
go toward Morven’s continued restoration. Friday, September 22,
6 to 8 p.m.
a day of special activities including antiques appraisals by Sotheby’s
($5 charge per item), historic reenactments, children’s crafts and
games, silhouette artist, storytelling, and refreshments. Free.
September 23, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
for tours on Wednesdays, Thursday, and Fridays, from 11 a.m. to 2
p.m. It will then close for the second phase of restoration that
the house interior, reopening in the spring for garden tours.
Corrections or additions?
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