THE CASE OF THE PURLOINED MANOR
It was that first early spring day of the year, that day when the sun shines bright and the temperature exceeds sixty degrees for the first time, and I was compelled to do something, anything, outside. Having business to attend to in Jersey City, I decided to spend my lunch wandering around Journal Square, where I had spent much of my youth attending movies at the Loews, Stanley and State theaters, eating at Boulevard Drinks and 3 Guys Pizza, and working at Gino's and J.M. Fields.
Parking behind the Loews Theater, which is happily undergoing renovations to restore it to its past glory, I emerged through the side alley onto the Square. Although almost all the store names had changed, the basic configuration of Journal Square has remained the same since the 1950's. The major exception is the Port Authority Path Terminal, which replaced Woolworth's, and many other adjoining stores. I was strolling west along Kennedy Boulevard to Bergen Avenue when I recalled walking the same path once a week as a child on my way to Public School #11 for guitar lessons. I remembered passing a plaque on the side of Kay Finley's Jewelers on the corner of Newkirk Street and Bergen Avenue on the way, but I could not remember what the plaque commemorated. Determined to again see the brass tablet and discover what it signified, I made my way to Newkirk Street across from the loading docks at the rear of the Jersey Journal Building, and was disheartened to find the plaque missing. All that remained was the fading outline and four empty screw holes.
I thought that maybe the city had moved the marker to a more public location nearby, so I continued along Bergen Avenue to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School that replaced P.S. #11 in the 1960's following a fire. There, under the watchful and stern visage of the Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant's statue, I found a plaque, but not the one I was searching for. This one was mounted at the entrance of the school and was dedicated in 1905 to honor the first school established in New Jersey.
Disappointed by my findings, I wandered further south on Bergen Avenue in search of clues to the missing plaque. The Old Bergen Church still stood, along with its cemetery, the oldest in Jersey City, across the street, but neither provided any clues. Still searching, I made my way up and down the side streets and was delighted to find the Vroom Street Cemetery in good shape and fenced, a far cry from the littered dumping ground I remembered. I was also glad to see the Apple Tree House, also known as the Van Wagenen House, still intact on Academy Street, albeit in a neglected state. It was here that Lafayette entertained Washington for dinner in 1779 under the shade of an old apple tree. Lafayette returned here in 1824 during his tour of the United States and was presented with a cane carved from this tree. The tree had blown down in 1821, but the house continued on transformed over the years to serve many different purposes. I knew it as the Quinn Funeral Home in my youth. It is has recently been purchased by Jersey City and there are plans to use it as a museum and historical research facility.
I was encouraged and invigorated by my walk down memory lane, but I was becoming more and more obsessed with the missing plaque. What did it say? Where was it? Was it moved or stolen? I decided I needed to bring the full resources of NJHM to bear on the question, and to use all of our contacts in Jersey City and all of NJHM's research materials. After a day of phone calls with various city officials, I remembered why I never called city officials. I could not even get agreement that a plaque ever actually existed, much less what it signified. Poring over the NJHM library was more helpful. A 1902 publication, "Historic Houses of New Jersey," listed two houses in the general vicinity of Journal Square. One was the Apple-tree House and the other was the Sip Manor. No address was provided for the Sip Manor, but the Apple-tree House was described as "about a hundred yards away" from it. This is the approximate distance between the Apple Tree House and the corner of Newkirk and Bergen today.
The next volume I checked was "Historic Roadsides in New Jersey," published in 1928, but compiled a few years earlier. It too listed just the Sip Manor and the Appletree House as points of interest in the former village of Bergen. This was even more evidence that the missing plaque commemorated the now extinct Sip Manor, but it still was not proof. Later publications such as "Historic New Jersey in Pictures," and others contained no mention of the Sip Manor, leading me to believe it must have been torn down in the mid to late 1920's.
It was time to head back to Jersey City, this time to the Library, where I began to examine local newspapers of the mid 1920's. In late 1925, I came upon the evidence I was seeking. There was an ongoing effort at the time to save the Sip Manor, already 262 years old and the oldest house in Jersey City. Its location was listed as the corner of Newkirk Street and Bergen Avenue, exactly where the plaque had been fastened. It was scheduled for demolition in the name of "progress," but patriotic and preservation groups wanted to move it to vacant land at West Side Park (now Lincoln Park). City officials, helpful even back then, countered that the home was in too poor a condition to survive a move, and the cost would be prohibitive. A photo of the Sip Manor at the time shows a structure in a serious state of neglect. In May, 1926, the Jersey Journal reported the battle had been lost. On May 24, workmen began to dismantle the historic house, and it was announced the beams and other wooden parts were to be carved into gavels and given to patriotic societies throughout the area.
So what was the history of the demolished Sip Manor, and why was it historically significant? It had been built in 1666 by Claas Ariance Sip in the Village of Bergen, which had been settled by Dutch settlers from New Amsterdam. The home was famous for its beautiful gardens, and Governor Peter Stuyvesant often visited and relaxed under an old willow tree within its confines. During the Revolutionary War, the Village of Bergen and the Sip Manor were visited often by solders from both sides seeking provisions. In 1776, Lord Cornwallis and a troop of redcoats arrived, and Cornwallis spent the night at the Manor. The following morning, before departing, he hanged three spies from the same willow Governor Stuyvesant used to sit under. During Lafayette's earlier mentioned visit to Bergen in 1824, he stopped at the home and planted two elm trees in its famous garden. The Sip Manor remained in the hands of the Sip family until the early 1924, when it was purchased by commercial interests and scheduled for demolition.
I continued to ask around about the missing plaque for the next few weeks, but with no success. I had given up all hope, and relegated myself to failure, when I was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call. In a heavy accent (Dutch?) the voice on the other end asked if I was the one looking for information on the Sip Manor. I told him of my interest in the plaque, and he replied that he knew nothing of the location of the plaque, but he did know the location of the house. "It was stolen. Look in the west field," I thought I heard him say. Then he was gone. My mind was spinning. What was stolen, the house or the plaque? Did the Sip Manor still exist, and where was the west field? My first thought was the west field referred to West Side Park, but I knew the house was not there. Then it hit me; west field referred to Westfield, New Jersey. The game was afoot!
First thing the following morning, I called the Westfield Historical Society and was pleasantly surprised to find they were open that day. I immediately drove to their location and parked a block away to avoid suspicion. If the house had been stolen from Jersey City as the voice had suggested, I felt it best to disguise my intentions. The Historical Society was located in the Municipal Building and I needed to make my way past various township offices and the Police Department ("Armed guards of the secret," I thought). By a stroke of luck, the Society was open and there was no one there. I began to look at the displays of Westfield's history, very interesting in their own right, but useless to me in my present quest. I was startled when a friendly looking gentleman entered and asked if he could be of help. Trying not to arouse suspicion, I replied that I was interested in historic houses in the area, and asked if he had any information about any. He pulled a file from the cabinet he thought would be useful, and then left me to peruse the contents. It was filled with photocopies of various newspaper and magazine articles, as well as some pages from books. When I recognized copies taken from "Historic Houses of New Jersey," I knew I was on the right track. I also found a few copies of articles from the Jersey Journal newspaper about the Sip House, but the copies were so faded, I could not read them. However, I was able to note the dates for future reference. What I saw next almost caused me to drop the file that I was holding. In my hand were a few pages from a book that spoke of the Sip Manor on Cherry Lane in Westfield! "The fool," I thought, "He must have had no idea what he had given me."
I now knew I was on the final leg of my journey. Making my excuses I rushed from the Municipal Building and headed for Cherry Lane. Fearing that my discovery would be detected at any moment, I kept one eye on my rear view mirror to make sure I was not being followed. I arrived at Cherry Lane in minutes, and luckily I had brought my camera. I drove down the block and there it was, the object of my quest. Looking exactly as it had in drawings I had seen from the 1800's stood the purloined Sip Manor. Even the garden had been recreated. I quickly took a few photos, wondering how far they would go to cover up the theft. Would they move the house again? If so, at least I would have the photographs to prove it once stood here on Cherry Lane. Jumping back into my vehicle, I made my out of Westfield as quickly as possible, not wanting my film confiscated by the authorities, or worse. I did not feel safe until I was many miles away on Route 22.
The next day I made my way back to the Jersey City Library armed with dates of articles from the Jersey Journal. Quickly, the whole story became apparent. The Sip Manor was torn down in 1924 as reported, but what no one knew at the time what it first had been extensively photographed and measured beforehand, and each piece was carefully numbered and stored away. The whole story about carved gavels was created to hide the true intentions of the mastermind of this plot, Arthur Rule, a New York businessman. Various local people who felt the house would be doomed otherwise abetted him in his efforts. It took three years of hard work in total secrecy to rebuild the house as it once stood, and the Jersey Journal broke the story on August 19, 1929. Mr. Rule was guided by his love of history, the story said. What it did not say was that he might have also been guided by his interest in promoting the Sip Manor as the focal point of the new real estate development of unusually constructed homes he was building. It was done in utmost secrecy to keep him from being besieged by the curious while construction was in progress, the article further stated. However, another motive may have been to avoid being besieged by the protests of those who may have felt the oldest house in Jersey City should stay in Jersey City. Dr. Philemon E. Hommell, a early Jersey City preservationist, was quoted as saying, "Except for that (the move to Westfield) this city would have nothing to remember its oldest building by save an empty space, soon to be filled with a business building, another empty space in West Side County Park, where the house might have been, and one or two oil paintings of the manor now in the possession of the Sips." He may have been correct, but I doubt his conclusion was unanimous at the time.
So there is the story. What started as a quest for a missing plaque, became the quest for a missing house. As for the plaque itself, I have concluded, "Who knows?" It may have been stolen. It may have been removed for repair and never replaced. It may have just fallen off the wall. However, if it was stolen I know the first place I would begin to look for it- Westfield. If they could steal an entire 262-year-old house, I do not think they would find stealing a plaque the least bit difficult.
Historic Houses of New Jersey
Historic New Jersey in Pictures
Historic Roadsides in New Jersey
The Hudson Dispatch
The Jersey Journal
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
The Jersey City Public Library Main Branch
Westfield Historical Society