Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Category: Architecture

Loft Living

For J.S. Weaver

In a true Colonial, chopped, cornered,
center-chimneyed, puritanical walls
create charming nooks in which to
hide, with antiquated mechanisms.

We preferred loft living, a space
without the cordoned compartments, open:
where moon-faced children,
reflecting light, can hear

our shared soundtrack, a Joy
of Man’s Desiring. Clutching
fistfuls of color, they’ll
recognize me as I stumble

over their boots, left in a
row by the glass-paned door,
as I peel root vegetables
sweetened with dried herbs

which will sustain us through
this sinful New England winter.

Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation

Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation
forces an impressionist painting of a river
displayed in our dining room to
hang at a five-degree angle.

Passers-by adjust it, usually with a thumb
and forefinger at one of the lower corners
with delicacy, leaning back on their rear
leg, with a squint and a tilt of the neck

to ascertain the line of the adjacent
window. Alas, the truth of the matter
is the square of the distance of its center
is perfectly equal: it is the house itself,

more than two centuries old, that lists,
to the opposite degree of the art, a mimetic
representation of the river that rushes
by our Westerly windows. The structure

is subject to time and its universal effects
on its earthly subjects, shifting sills,
listing beams and turning arthritic joints,
all the while still housing us, embracing us

with silent stoicism, paternal wisdom
and immortal affection.

Historic Preservation

For more than a century she stood
On a rocky outcrop of
Land, a pile of indigenous stone
On the shore of a glacial Lake,
Carved, an ancient water-filled
Sculpture fashioned from
Ice-aged hands.

Her Victorian façade,
Dressed in cedar shingles,
Were weathered to a rich
Grey in steadfast streams
Of earthy elements; she
Leans to the West, toward her
Inhabitants’ viewpoints,
Contemporary, ancient:
Where summer days would
Conclude, awash in golden
Reflections.

Her skirt, foundation plantings:
Leggy Rhododendron, stalky hydrangea
Whose blooms prefer old wood,
Are stripped away, and lie waiting
In burlap-wrapped bunches.
Tattered hemlines of her stone slip,
Her rudimentary systems,
Pipes, conduits, wires, and
Shards of wood hang like entrails,
Grotesquely, finally resting
With an audible sigh
On six hydraulic lifts,
Steel I beams fashioned
After an Industrial era that
Postdated her and her
Oak and chestnut frame.

Behind her wide-open
Glass eyes, upholstered furniture,
Some with pillows still fluffed,
Await in arrangements suitable
For best conversation. Photographs,
Framed in silver, plates, chipped
And stained are wrapped
In newsprint, screaming headlines
Unthinkable to her original builders.
She awaits patiently on her craftsmen,
Her stylists, her mechanics,
For new, perfectly fashioned shoes,
To break in as she settles down
For something else
To pass her by.

The Front Porch

In Appalachia, they showcase

Moldy and holy upholstered couches,

Dueling banjoes

And Christmas lights in July.  Children

With no shoes or after school

Dance recitals instead spit

Watermelon seeds into cans

Nestled into dirt that once

Sprouted green grass.

 

Now the bare and rotted wood,

dangerously open to the hiding place

Below the planks

Introduces to passers-by

A public representation of the

Private squalor in which the inhabitants live

Behind the rusted screen door.

A shrouded world where

Rodents are the main course

And frustrations give birth

To abuse and neglect

And the start of a generational

Cycle of despair.

 

Further north, in suburbia

The same allegorical bridge:

The threshold, extended,

Includes potted flowers

And wicker and a bridge to

Gap the public and private worlds

In an historical, architectural parable.

Unused, the elaborate presentation is but

A semi-public representation of what lies inside.

The door is opened, only ajar,

Offering an eyeball and a sliver of

A bathrobe, a mumbled no thank you and

A vertical slice of the neatly folded basket of laundry

Lying prostrate at the bottom of the staircase:

The backbone of the Center Hall Colonial,

A vestigial organ of an American Dream.

 

Somewhere, in between,

The door is opened, and coffee is shared

Over which one discusses socially acceptable topics:

Weather, the headlines, home improvement.

Neighbors admire the passing communal children

Tripping by with their pets and jump ropes.

The smell of roasting onions wafts out to

An outsider’s set of nostrils, enticing one to enter

A more private, intimate realm

Where one removes their shoes, revealing

Striped socks, or, provocative bare toes

That are folded every night into the sheets of

A marital bed.

 

A door closes, locks, a private dance ensues

Where fear is left outside to freeze.

The next morning, the inhabitant bids adieu to the

Once-welcomed family member,

Spit out from hearth in the same T-shirt in which

She dined, slept, made the morning coffee.

The guest crosses the threshold

Recycled once again into the public world

Where the face grows more stern

But the eyes still reflect the nourishment

Of a private love.

Thomas Edison’s Beautiful Failure

A piece of history is for sale. Mr Brennan’s Edison poured concrete home has been listed for $599,000, and here’s hoping the right person — one who appreciates its historical significance — will move in!
http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/303-N-Mountain-Ave-Montclair-NJ-07043/38682518_zpid/

Braving the Wilds

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The James Howe House: A Local Manifestation of the Failure that Was Reconstruction

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The James Howe House, also more commonly known as the (misnomered) slave house at 369 Claremont Avenue, is largely agreed upon as the first piece of property in Montclair to be held by a freed slave. Howe’s story may offer a touchstone of understanding of race relations in this town, which is largely known as having made great strides towards integration, despite  its checkered past. Even though New Jersey is north of the Mason-Dixon line, neither it — nor Montclair — was a stranger to slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude. Holding slaves was commonplace in New Jersey until as late as 1866, when the adoption of the 13th Amendment made it unlawful for one man to hold another as property. In fact, in 1690 nearly all the inhabitants of (a much less populated) northern New Jersey owned slaves, according to historian Simeon Moss (See The Persistence of Slavery and Involuntary Servitude in a Free State (1685-1866)).

Unfortunately, Montclair was not innocent to the slave trade, although no mention of this unseemly aspect to its history is mentioned on the Township website historical page. Yet most of the members of the founding Crane family held slaves as did the Speer family, of what is now Upper Montclair. According to one town historian, Ken Cleary, the English and Dutch settlers encouraged the purchase of slaves to support the foundation of the colony and handle the hard labor. Moss goes even further to argue that the slave trade was actively encouraged by the crown to make for a healthy, hearty and prosperous — albeit amoral – Royal Africa Company.

In the 18th Century, the main port of entry for slaves in eastern New Jersey was at Perth Amboy, now a gritty old port town, about 30 miles south of Montclair. Moss offers a grim picture of their entrepôt:

Negroes were brought from Africa to the West Indes where they were seasoned, that is, acclimated to the more temperate regions, instructed in the rudiments of the English language, and shipped to the American Colonies. On their arrival at the port [of Perth Amboy] the slaves, usually chained in groups of two, were led into a large barracks where they were kept until auctioned. Slaves were usually imported in small numbers, consequently they created no problem at the ports of entry. Here they were sold soon after their arrival.

In later years, as the War for Independence approached and the influence of the Quakers from Western New Jersey and Pennsylvania grew more influential, anti-slavery sentiments became more widespread. In 1792, the Quakers were the first group of people to protest to slavery on humanitarian grounds. Governor Livingston unsuccessfully urged the General Assembly to pass an ordinance for mandatory manumission. He personally freed his own slaves during the Revolution.  He saw avowedly Christian slave holders – those, who he said, “almost idolized liberty” — as particularly odious. (Moss, ibid). There were also economic arguments against slave holding, mainly ones that came from the Raritan and Minisink Valleys, where large plantations were on the out because their owners could no longer afford to keep a large number of slaves.

Howe was purchased by one of the descendants of Montclair’s (formerly Cranetown) founding family, Major Nathaniel Crane, in 1813 for $50. It is unclear if Crane had other slaves at the time or afterward, but the wording of his 1831 last will and testament, as paraphrased here by Philip Doremus in his 1908 book Reminisces of Montclair, suggests that Howe was a survivor of former slaves of the family, and perhaps others were freed:

He made provision for his old colored servant, James Howe, who was a survivor of the former slaves of the family and was known as Uncle Jim. He gave him a good tract of land on the north side of Clairmont Avenue running west from North Mountain Avenue, where he lived many years. A part of the house he occupied is still standing. As children, we used to enjoy visiting the old man who had become blind, and listening to his stories of our ancestry. Major Nathaniel Crane had no children and made the West Bloomfield Presbyterian Church the residuary legatee of his estate, which amounted to about ten thousand dollars. This fund the will requires to be held in trust by the church and the annual income to be used in support of the gospel in this church. He died April 18th, 1833. In recognition of his gift to the church, The Society erected a suitable monument over his and his wife’s graves in the Rosedale Cemetery. (<em>Reminisces of Montclair</em>, by, Philip Doremus. 1908. Excerpt can be found at Rootsweb.)

Although Livingston’s pioneering efforts to outlaw slavery in the Garden State were premature, the Legislature eventually addressed the problem, although it continued to recoil from outright abolition.  According to Moss, New Jersey passed  a series of three Acts with the goal of gradually abolishing slavery by making manumission easier for slave holders.  Through these piecemeal efforts the number of people held in bondage in1850 New Jersey diminished to about 200, still a deplorably large number but an improvement nonetheless.  Crane’s act was not unusual in the grand scheme of things, although it is also speculated that Howe held an entirely more intimate connection to Major Crane in that he may also have been his son. ( “Montclair’s Hidden History,” by, Stacey Patton.)  Doremus is clear to point out that Major Crane had no children with his wife, Hannah.

New York Times Op-Ed Contributor Stacey Patton, who is also a history professor at Montclair State University, says “the house itself is an uncomfortable remnant of history for a town that has regarded itself as the epitome of a progressive suburban racial utopia.” She has unearthed scathing recollections about what is largely construed as the failure of Reconstruction following the Civil War, where the freed slaves were discriminated against out of fear they would swallow up jobs, amongst other cruel and inconceivable arguments. Montclair wears the shame of having segregated restaurants in the 1950s and 60s, although was never considered a Jim Crow town. Churches were also segregated, and blacks were known to “break off from white churches that made black parishioners sit behind black curtains and in basements during services.” (Patton, ibid).  While no one today equates Montclair with the cruel depravations of what we like to think as Southern-style segregation, Jim Crow was alive and well in Monctlair.

This de facto segregation ultimately led to legal action.  In the 1960s a discrimination suit was brought against the Montclair School Board, seeking to correct an unjust imbalance in the composition of the schools. The result is a nationally-lauded magnet system that has attempted to integrate our schools. The concept is that providing a forward-thinking curriculum makes the requisite bussing inconsequential, since what’s at the end of the ride is so appealing. Yet even today there is grumbling about the tracking of students that is unfair to our black population. Integration has not been fully established. (Please see Lise Funderburg’s “Integration Anxiety” from the New York Times Magazine, November 7, 1999).

The James Howe House is a tangible example of where we went wrong in properly addressing the full story of an entire section of our society who was struggling to find their way in an entirely new world after the Civil War.

As recently as 2008, there existed a heated debate about the fate of the physical structure. Formerly known as the Washington Wayside House because General Washington himself passed it on his way to another Crane-held property further down Claremont on the corner of Valley Road during the Revolution, 369 Claremont Avenue is now a rental property belonging to Robert Van Dyk. Van Dyk also owns an adjacent nursing home and expressed an interest in donating the structure to the Montclair Historical Society, freeing up the land for a more substantial, lucrative structure than the 800 square foot James Howe House, which currently houses a mother and her young son.

The Montclair Historical Society wanted to move the structure to its present grounds on Orange Road. And the society has experience with such big moves.  In 1965, the Society moved another Crane House which originally was situated on Glenridge Avenue and had a colorful past. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Crane House was the “Trinity Presbyterian Mission for blacks who left Virginia and North Carolina in search of better lives in this northern suburb.” (Patton ibid). In 1920, it became an African-American YWCA, serving a variety of civic purposes. Patton notes that W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Booker T. Washington all spoke here, and most astonishingly, the house even served as a dormitory for black female students who were denied housing on the campus of Montclair State University.

The Historical Society has been criticized amongst many of the more liberal minded citizens of Montclair for having failed to relay this important piece of the Glenridge Avenue Days of the Crane House’s story to visitors patronizing its present site on Orange Road. It instead has been more of a showplace for antiquities; the second floor is now a reconstructed one room school house that caters mostly to students from the elementary schools. Many feel that an opportunity to educate our school children of the full story has been missed.

Most of those against moving the structure simply argue that moving James Howe’s home, bequeathed to him by his master, next to his master’s family house would be a cruel irony. They also contend that moving the house might jeopardize its structural integrity, and that the historical significance is best understood on the original site. Those in favor of moving the house point to the problems with the current site, which is now a busy thoroughfare, its five original comfortable acres swallowed up by suburban development and encroached by other structures, and with poor accessibility and parking.  The Montclair Kimberley Academy owns the land behind it, playing fields destined for improvements over the summer, and leaving the back of the seemingly inconsequential James Howe House closed to the public.

Seeking to preserve this piece of living history, the Township Council passed an ordinance in January  2008 designating both the house and the property as landmarks.   Some contend that this amounts to an unlawful seizure of property, imposing an unreasonable hardship on the present owner who clearly bought the property to provide rental income or to expand his business.

Today, the house looks rather forlorn, not exactly well maintained, but dignified in its old age and significant past. Its 19th century inhabitant was finally given what he must have strove for all his life: liberty. What remains of his former domain has great potential to educate our citizens to the story of our town.  It is a story that may not be easy to hear, but most certainly should be told. The failures of Reconstruction that are evident in the segregation stories in our own seemingly cosmopolitan town, where blacks struggled to find their own way in society without much help. They arrived here against their will and yet were never officially given the start in a free life that they most assuredly deserved.


A Neighbor of Epic Proportions

Paterson, New Jersey is a strangely situated city, nestled in between leafy suburbs of New York City, and is largely unexplored by its neighbors. One might never know its existence if it weren’t for the presence of the award-winning St Joseph’s hospital there, with one of the only true pediatric care units the area. Less than 6 miles north of the Center of Montclair, its a physically close neighbor, yet Montclarions rarely visit. Perhaps they have been guided by their GPS hosts north on McLean Boulevard on their way to a friend in Glen Rock or Ridgewood and were dismayed by the squalor that existed there, boarded-up store fronts of independent junk stores, discount clothiers and bodegas. City busses in this third largest city in New Jersey choke residents that line the streets, leaning up against the walls of an abandoned entrepreneurial waste land, smoking cigarettes and eating their lunches from paper wrappings.

great falls waterfalls of passaic river peaceful tranquil scenery brige over waterfall paterson new jersey

View of the Passaic Falls, Engraved by J. Sands after Artist WH Bartlett

Indelibly placed on the map largely due to the 77-foot Great Falls there, the largest on the East Coast second only to Niagra, Paterson was — and is — a place of beauty. In the 18th century, before America was even established as a country, before Paterson was established a town, George Washington himself came to admire the falls during his extensive travels through New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. It is said that he even carved his initials and date on one of the faces of basalt . He enjoyed picnic lunches here with LaFayette and Hamilton.

The picnickers had greater visions for this powerful force of nature, and as such, Paterson can be construed as the seat of the industrial revolution. Its powerful waters once harnessed for its energy, mills sprung up along the Passaic River thanks to the efforts of our first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who chose the Great Falls as a natural place in which to turn newborn America’s rich natural resources into goods of their own, forever shifting our economy from agrarian to capitalist. By founding the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers, Hamilton permanently removed Mother England’s shackles, and the fledgling United States began to fend for themselves and thrive as an independent economy. Silk, cotton and duck cloth for sails, locomotives, submarines and guns: Paterson provided an array of lucrative products that buoyed our new society, changing the face of a social order. The average American won the ability to earn his fortune with hard work rather than by gentry.

Evenually, Globalization and the shift of American manufacture to foreign locales, and the exodus of more successful retailers to the newly conceptualized shopping mall left Paterson in squalor. Factories were left to decay, smaller businesses moved in as the market price for residences and businesses plummeted. What is left along the falls are eerie but beautiful monuments, roman ruins of a collossal giant of American manufacture. Their gorgeously arched industrial brick facades are ripe for preservation.

Little by little, Paterson has shown signs of renewal thanks to many hard working residents past and present who are breathings new life to its districts. Suburban neighbors who have renovated their kitchens might be surprised to learn that their Parsons cabinetry is crafted in a vintage Paterson mill. Alfaro Furniture is centered in Paterson, linen manufacturers, rental companies, movers and storage companies.

Most notably, however, is the recent recognition of Paterson’s heritage and the desire to preserve it. There are numerous sites in town that have recently been placed on the National Register of historic places, and in the case of the Falls themselves, Paterson is now home to America’s 397th National Park. A development plan has been established and is said will take years to come to completion, The Paterson Museum most ably educates those interested in the history of this unique and historically significant seat of American manufacturing, and the birthplace of American capitalism.

Always home to immigrant populations who found work here, Paterson is also a notable seat to African American history. The black Yankees played baseball at Hinchliffe Stadium here and black pilgrims seeking a congregation in which to worship God without the stigma of segregation set up the First AME Zion Church, where the city’s first Colored School was founded in 1855. The church and school has just been declared an historic site and will be preserved by the town government.

Paterson has also been muse to many novelists, essayists and even poets. Allen Ginsburg famously posed high above the Falls, double entendre well intended, and was even issued an arrest by the mayor of Paterson after a poetry festival in which participants smoked marijuana to enhance their sensory experience of the powerful rush of water. The case was later dismissed due to lack of evidence. Paterson also served as setting for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Juno Diaz novel, The Brief and Wonderoud Life of Oscar Wao. But most eloquently, there exists the epic poem by Rutherford doctor and Pulitzer Prize-winner himself, William Carlos Williams, who penned his epic Paterson as a response to the “anti-epic” Waste Land by ts eliot. James Breslin, who authored a biography of Williams, outlined the contrast between the two great works and serendipitously also describes what many believe to be the future of this great New Jersey city:

The Wasteland is a kind of anti-epic, a poem in which the quest for meaning is entirely thwarted and we are left, at the end, waiting for the collapse of Western Civilization. Paterson is a Pre-epic, showing that the process of disintegration releases forces that can build a new world. It confronts, again and again, the savagery of contemporary society, but still affirms a creative seed. Elliot’s end is William’s beginning.” (source: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/William-Carlos-Williams).

The renaissance of Paterson is imminent. This singular city with a rich history is in the early processes of a great renewal, which will forever change the face of it but with a new purpose, a reinvigorated goal.  A visit in the near future is suggested, before the mysterious façades of the old mills are scrubbed clean, and their secrets are washed away.

An Historic Michrocosm

Edgemont Memorial Park in Montclair, New Jersey is a speechless witness to our collective suburban American story.  A plains land pasture at the foot of First Mountain, the Park has endured and flourished through many defining American moments.  One might go as far as to say that a swath of the collective American personality is embedded into its landscape, and its usage.

The Park was used by George Washington’s Army as a place to camp during the Revolutionary War, as its intersecting Toney’s Brook conveniently provided fresh water for the troops.  Before our small corner of pastural elegance was ever dreamed as an area solely for recreation, before it was technically even American, it existed as a place of respite for those fighting to label its ground as American.  Later it provided pasture land for a farm, and by 1820 it was the vast expanse of a privately held estate owned by Moses Harrison.  Harrison’s stately house still stands at 249 Valley Road, its many porches providing a panoramic view of our Edgemont Park.

By 1896 the land was well under way of being encroached.  With the birth of Montclair, Bedroom Community to a Developing New York City, the Harrisons already had begun to cash in by selling off parts of their estate to become what is now Erwin Park.  They rented their pasture lands to the Montclair Athletic Club with the proviso that it not be mowed, making for one of the more challenging golf courses in history.  Perhaps all that hacking through the weeds provided for an acquired skill unmatched by even the most seasoned Scottish fairway walker.  Today, under our formidable oak that shades the center of the field there is a stone marker that reads, “NO GOLF,” a relic to our dear Edgemont’s VIctorian past.

The encroachment and precipitous development of Montclair’s open space was the catalyst for the formation of Charles Anderson’s Citizens’ Park Committee, preserving some of our open space to be breathing room and spots of beauty in our town.  In 1906, there where reportedly still die hard Mulligan McDuffers hacking away at the tall grasses with their clubs, hangers-on who remained on the Harrison tract long after the Montclair Athletic Club moved to West Orange.  By April of that year, a referendum was passed, creating a bond issuance for the acquirement of land for the purpose of preservation and the formation of parks.  The Harrison Tract was one of those purchased.

The development of Edgemont was tackled by none other than the Olmsted Landscape Architecture firm, largely given credit for creating the urban and suburban recreational American landscape.  Although their expensive plans never came to fruition, a predicament most likely due to a lack of funds, one can assume that the Town used Anderson Park, less than a quarter mile north of Edgemont and an Olmsted design, as an example for its more practically minded plantings.  Therefore it remains as an example of an offshoot of the nation’s first county park system, the famed Essex County Parks with its Olmsted pedigree.

In 1919 the mayor of Montclair, Lewis F. Dodd, sought out the services of J.C. Olmsted one more time, again to no avail, in search of a landscape architect to outline preliminary plans for our World War I monument.  Olmsted suggested the creation of a New England-style town common or green on which to showcase it.  Interestingly, the Firm thought many other locales a much more suitable arrangement for its situation.  “[They] looked at Edgemont Park with the thought that it might offer an opportunity for a site, but there did not appear to be a natural feature distinctive enough to be seized upon for the purpose.”  One can assume that the damming of Toney’s Brook and the creation of Edgemont Pond, done sometime between 1919 and 1924, was to create that distinction fitting to memorialize the many Montclair men who never made it back from the front.  But the dismissal of Olmsted — for a second time — was due to the understanding of the Memorial Committee that Olmsted “would submit a much more comprehensive plan and sketch and the Committee were very much disappointed that [they] did not.” (Source: Library of Congress, Olmsted Correspondence Files, Job 6659, Box B365, Reel 323).

Charles Keck’s award winning sculpture of our doughboys being protected by the angel of victory seems so at home today on its man-made island in the middle of Edgemont Pond as to picture it in the other Olmsted proposed locales — in front of the high school, on the triangle at a junction of Bloomfield Avenue, or the intersection of Church Street and Valley Road — seems preposterous.  The monument itself is the logo of our town as a whole, sits in the general vicinity of its dead center and has honored our fallen men for all conflicts since the Great War.  Raymond M. Hood, renowned architect who went on to create Art Deco masterpieces such as The Tribune Tower of Chicago and Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, designed its beautiful obelisk, with trademark eagles at its culmination and military insignia at its fundamental base.  One might speculate on the creative teamwork that went into this magnificent piece of art.  Edgemont’s war memorial was not the only project on which they worked in conjunction.  There is another example of their work in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, a memorial for Placido Mori, a piece David Dunlap considers a reason for death to be proud in his New York Times article, “Forgotten Treasures in the Woodlawn Cemetery Archives.”

Aside from being witness to the display of admirable art, Edgemont has also seen The New Deal at work in its Economic Reform Act of 1935.  The one Master Plan in existence today reflecting many of the present plantings is a depression era one, a federal program designed to put struggling Americans back to work.  The oak tree that shades the center of the Park at the time was much younger, but perhaps old enough to have provided shade for those Montclair men given much-needed employment, perhaps seeking shade while they took their lunch break.

We know from this plan that the ball fields were there in 1935, firmly establishing Edgemont as a place of recreation for the children of our town.  On Saturdays, the park still bustles with children wearing a rainbow of Montclair T shirts, running the bases just to the north of toddlers romping in the All-Children’s playground.  A group of adults walk their dogs along its perimeter while young teens try to fish for the stocked brown bullheads in the waters of the Pond.  John Nolan, a notable member of that Victorian Parks committee, “felt that Montclair should make sure of more open spaces, that it should guarantee to every child and citizen all the fresh air, sunlight, and out-door beauty that health and pleasure could reasonably require.  He said, ‘Is not this the peculiar function of a community that attempts to provide permanent, away-from-the-city homes?'” (Source: Those Were the Days, The Montclair Historical Society, Volumes 7/9, 1900 – 1929).

Edgemont most certainly performs this function.  From the 1770s, when Washington’s Army drank from the waters of Toney’s Brook and rested their fighting bodies, to today’s children from the neighboring Edgemont Montessori School saluting our veterans in the shade of our imposing monument on Armistice Day, Edgemont Memorial Park has bore witness to the development of the typical suburban town, all the while appropriately honoring those brave Americans who died to ensure its preservation.  It has provided a respite from the bustle of the encroaching city and its periphery of development.    It deserves preservation and celebration.

For more information about Friends of Edgemont Park, please “like” us on facebook while our new website remains under construction.

Tough Going, Rabble Risers and a Feverish Pitch

Having previously chased two crawling babies in two different city apartments, I never knew the fear of the staircase as acutely as I did with my third child, born in suburban New Jersey to two house dwellers. The realization hit me as I was hauling 25 pounds of extra me up the stairs, a few weeks away from Delivery Day, when my feet swelled and my normally athletic self took more effort to drag up the stairs than it usually did. I actually held the hand rail and took one step at a time instead of two. Mid-flight I stopped and stared at the landing, just six more risers before me when it struck me like a wet diaper to the face: I have never had a baby in the suburbs before.

I glanced backward through the windows on either side of the front door, the focal point of this center hall colonial, and took in the brilliantly blooming cherry tree and a half a dozen cars parked along the opposite side of the street, most likely belonging to the patients of the orthopedist who lives and practices there. One solitary jogger zipped by the Pennsylvania bluestone walk that connected the street to my door, her long brown ponytail swinging behind her. As I sat down to contemplate the lack of urban diversion with a newborn, I was surprised to find that my center of gravity wasn’t what it was seven months earlier, and slid three steps down on my now ample derriere. Jostled by the jolt of the third step, I somehow forgot why I was headed to the second floor in the first place, and instead headed straight to the computer to surf for baby gates that would rival The Brandenburg in impenetrability.

I have tumbled down the steps two other times, once severely enough to create a raspberry on my right buttock that Mia Hamm would be proud to call her own. On that particular trip, I startled my sister-in-law from her toilette, who was visiting at the time, and she rushed to my aid in an amusing state of undress. I was carrying my baby at the time, and am proud and relieved that she made it through unscathed; but I was sore for days. The second was simple stupidity realized in a death defying tumble. Suburban house dwellers, be forewarned: you cannot bring three baskets of laundry to the basement all at once; and when you try to grab onto the handrail, just let go of the baskets, for the love of God!

Although no statistics exist that illustrate how dangerous stairs are, there is a a book (maybe only one) out there on the matter: The Staircase: Studies of Hazards, Falls, and Safer Design, by John A. Templer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They are likely the second most common cause of accidental death, mostly older people (or I dare say, idiotic people who try to carry three loads of laundry to their basement on one 5’7″ frame.) But according to Templer, and Bill Bryson who writes about Templer in his At Home: A Short History of Place, most accidents are caused by poor design, bad lighting, the lack of handrails, confusing patterns on the treads, risers that are unusually high or low, treads that are too wide or narrow, or landings that are poorly placed, as to interrupt the rhythm of ascent or descent.

I was amused that Bryson’s whimsical book was interrupted by a chapter on stairs. Even Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for designing Central Park, obsessed over stairs and used a mathematician, Ernst Irving Freese, to construct a pair of equations making for an optimal riser and going, the step itself. The third part of essential geometry is the pitch of the staircase, which Bryson reports to be too slow going if less than 27 degrees, and far too tedious at anything more than 45.

Stairway at Monticello

Treacherously narrow stairs at Jefferson's Monticello

Thomas Jefferson paid no mind to such matters, as he thought the staircase a waste of real estate for his beloved Monticello. Instead, he tucked a windy, narrow, treacherous stairwell in an unused corner to preserve precious living space in a deceptively small house. In a recent NPR story about Monticello, there was an aside given by the tour guide to the interviewer regarding the narrow stairs, Jefferson’s view of economy of space and how he wasn’t willing to use it on stairs, but most interestingly: Mick Jagger was her only visitor who didn’t use the handrail. He’s as agile as we all assumed him to be.

My suburban baby turns out to be pretty light on her feet as well. She realized all my greatest fears by scaling the gate installed at the bottom of the stairs one afternoon as I dared to excuse myself to use the bathroom. The loud crash was not followed by a howling cry however, so when I came rushing out in a similar version of my sister-in-law’s undress, I found her unscathed. She was also at the top of the landing giggling with pride at all she had accomplished. I only wish I had seen how she pulled down the contraption without injury.

After countless trial runs, she has gotten adept at crawling up, and at shimmying down the goings on her diapered back side. She has recently graduated to using the railing with her hand as she uses her feet to ascend, all the while with a protective hand at her back. The lack of urban diversions with a newborn was not the issue I suspected it to be, either, with many a villager stopping by with home cooked suppers, a load of kids to entertain my older children and offers to help. Sometimes I got gallons of milk without even asking for them. One neighbor just sat with me while I held a sleeping baby for hours, reminding me that staring at the perfection of a newborn is sometimes much more fun with company. I didn’t need the diversions of store windows, a sea of strangers and decaf lattés. I tackled the stairs, and sometimes fell; but I had my sister-in-law, half naked and as exposed as me, there to help me back up again.

Van Vleck’s Beech Tree and the Spirit of Community Giving

Chinese Wisteria in Full Bloom at the Van Vleck House and Gardens

My friend Jessica lives in an enviable locale, directly across the Street from the Van Vleck House and Gardens.  Bequeathed to The Montclair Foundation in 1992 after Howard Van Vleck’s death, the house and grounds have been home to many different not-for-profit groups and also act as a back yard for those villagers who don’t have access to their own.  The grounds, currently undergoing extensive renovations, are home to many of Howard’s famous hybridized rhododendrons, mostly registered in the names of the loved ones in his tribe, but were never marketed for financial success.   Instead, they dot the landscape like selfless living testaments to his love for those long gone.  They are also a treat to the eye for children of all ages utilizing the gardens for a picnic on a Saturday afternoon, taking advantage of a birding course or sketching during a garden journaling club meeting.  The gardens are open from dusk until dawn for individuals, 365 days a year.  Kids come on snow days to build snow men, and come back in May to see the famous Chinese wisteria in full bloom.  In fact, it’s a favorite time for all ages to picnic: when the ancient tangled purple vine of Wisteria is in full bloom, supported by its specially-designed iron posts, and choking the portico with vibrant color.

The grounds were home to the Van Vlecks for close to 140 years, and although the Mediterranean style villa has only been standing since 1916, when Joseph Van Vleck designed and built it, it still stands as a wonderful example of what life looked like in Montclair at the turn of the Century.  Howard, Joseph’s grandson and its last private owner, actually left his job in the city in the late 1930s to pursue his interests in the arts, architecture and horticulture full time in Montclair.

Jessica has an enormous, mature beech tree in her front yard which is much like those rhododendrons, a living example of the spirit of community that surrounded the Van Vlecks.  Around the Turn of the Century, this beech tree and others just like it were gifted by Joseph to his neighbors and friends about town, many surviving today that can be seen along South Mountain Avenue.  Although there is much dispute between Van Vleck groundsmen, local arborists and landscaping experts, Jessica believes it to be of the European variety rather than American.  But one thing is universally agreed upon: that the life cycle of these beautiful monsters are not infinite.  Although the American beech can live for up to 400 years in moist, shaded soils, typically in suburban locales they live for about 100, which means Jessica’s may be nearing the end of its natural life cycle, sadly.

Not if Jessica has anything to say about it.  Hers is loved for, tenderly, with a mulch bed of no less than 100 feet in diameter where nothing else is cultivated — nary an autumn chrysanthemum — to protect its shallow and vulnerable root system.  Arborists and tree experts have come to see her tree and to speculate about its origins, and carefully prune its branches, which she feels does more harm than good.  When she noticed that any branch that had been clipped back had subsequently died, she has been very careful about cutting, seeking several opinions.  She lovingly describes the dramatic nature of its fall foliage, its leaves turn a dark eggplant color and fall almost all at once late in the season like a grand finale of natural fireworks.

Perhaps Jessica’s beech is a smaller example of the giving nature of the Van Vleck family, but what a terrific neighborly gesture: one that remains as tangible evidence of civic mindedness and spirit, and appropriately under the care of Jessica, who is no stranger to volunteerism herself.  She has been on the scenes for The Montclair Public Library Foundation, the Van Vleck House and Garden, The Montclair Art Museum and the Edgemont Montessori School Parent Teacher Association.  And these are only the ones of which I have personal knowledge.

Jessica, even in her joking ways and casual demeanor, is a romantic.  With twin babies and two other children besides, a larger house was needed.  But when she stepped off the porch with the real estate agent on Van Vleck Street and noted that the initials “M.D.” were carved in the beech, she knew the house was home, as those are the initials assigned to both her parents.  The house needed substantial work, as is typical of older homes, but this one featured a kitchen with no cabinets.  But it also had a spooky basement with graffiti on the walls that was signed by children with the same names of her own.  Must be a sign that this was The One…  Cabinets or no cabinets.

She has lovingly cared for the house, which is known in its own rite.  Charmingly, Jessica assumed those stopping to take photographs outside her house were interested in the tree, but in fact, the house itself, known as the William H Jewett house after its inaugural occupant, was the star attraction.  It is a rare and shining example of the stick and shingle style of architecture, and drawn by noted architect Alexander Oakey in 1886, the Golden Age of Montclair’s art community.  She simply assumed that those stopping and snapping photographs must have wanted a souvenir of her gorgeously gnarled, strong, massive beech tree, which resembles an even larger version of an elephant’s leg, its grey trunk measuring several feet in diameter.

The tree has survived about 100 years of changing weather patterns, micro bursts, hurricanes and freak October snowstorms, which brought down other species just mere yards away.  Ones lost in the neighboring Van Vleck gardens, notably, have been replaced by beech saplings to match Jessica’s.  This is a town noted for our shade trees, with a municipal staff that’s dedicated to preserving the leafy nature of our streets.  Not-for-profits have been established to preserve and restore our shady town.  My bet is that this historic beech will make it, especially in the care of Jessica, a similarly-minded Montclair villager with a mind for the greater good, even when it comes to the seemingly simple gestures.

For more information about the Van Vleck House and Gardens, including a full schedule of Spring events, you can find it by clicking here.

For a glimpse of Jessica’s gorgeous beech tree, please click here to see Jill Ann Siegel’s lovely photographs.

For a way in which to get involved in re-planting Montclair after major losses in the wake of recent storms, please click here to see Replant Montclair’s website.