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Old Friends house goes back in time

Sep 02, 2016 05:56AM ● Published by Community News Service

The restored Old Friends Meeting House.

By Jacquelyn Pillsbury

The history of the Bordentown Friends Meeting House spans three centuries. The building at 302 Farnsworth Ave., originally built in 1740 as a place of worship for the local Quaker population, has changed with the times—in both purpose and appearance.

Recently, though, the Bordentown Historical Society took part of the building back to what it looked like nearly two centuries ago.

In July, the Bordentown Historical Society celebrated its façade restoration, during which the front of the building was returned to how it appeared in an 1890 photograph when the building was already 150 years old, after it had a full second story built on top of it and was covered in white stucco.

It was originally built as a tall one-story, one-room Flemish bond brick structure with a gabled roof, and though it currently faces Farnsworth Avenue, its original entrance was what people today would consider the back. The meeting house itself was built before Farnsworth Avenue, and was most likely on Crosswicks Street facing the Delaware River and the area that would have been settled at the time.

Abby Varley Alphonse LeJamber, Susan Bradman, Helen Wells and some others — recognizing the rich history in Bordentown — gathered in 1930 to figure out how to preserve the meeting house, and with that the Bordentown Historical Society was born. They first met in the Wells Law Office. Eventually, the town gave the group space in the Old City Hall, and long-time member Faith Bailey acted as a docent, teaching people about the town’s history.

The earliest historical society founders have long since passed away, but the mission continues with the next generation. One of the early members, Marion Jacobs, brought her then-college age daughter, Kathy, with her to a historical society meeting. Kathy was a Rider College (now Rider University) student studying business, and the historical society needed a secretary to take notes.

The Jacobs family lived in a house on Murat Row, named after Prince Murat, a relative of the Bonaparte family. Kathy Jacobs became Kathy Finch, and moved to California, only to return years later to Bordentown. “When I came back, I bought an old home some of my relatives lived in on Second Street,” Finch, now a BHS trustee, said. “Over the years we have had ebbs and flows with getting others more interested as people move to town. Our activities bring people to town.”

The historical society holds several annual events, including the holiday walking tour (to be held on Dec. 10 this year), the blueberry and peach festivals in the summer and a spring garden tour. They also provide community outreach and education to Bordentown’s third-grade students through a walking tour highlighting the town’s history.

The interest in history and historic homes is a common thread among members, as is a long-time connection to Bordentown. Diane Flanigan estimates 95 percent of the society’s active members currently live in Bordentown, and many also grew up here. Some, like her and Finch, grew up in Bordentown and then left. “It is a small town,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to get out. I got married and moved to Springfield. My daughter encouraged me to move back after my divorce.”

Twelve years ago, Flanigan moved to Thompson Street in Bordentown—a street on the state list of historic sites, and one that is rich in history. Thompson Street was originally built in the early 19th century to house Irish immigrants who were hired to build the canal and the railroad, Flanigan explained. It was known as “Irish Town.”

She had not even slept a night in the house when her neighbor, Monica Grippo, a volunteer with the historical society knocked on her door and invited her to join her group. Since then, Flanigan, who works full-time for Yardville Supply, has volunteered and served in almost every office, and her last position was treasurer. She is not currently an officer. “Many of our members are in their 50s to 80s,” Flanigan said. “Like all nonprofits, it is difficult to get younger people involved. They are busy raising their children.”

Flanigan loves the variety of people who have lived in Bordentown over the centuries. “We’ve had signers of the Declaration of Independence, artists, scientist, musicians …we attract lots of really interesting people.”

Doris Gorman, the group’s secretary, moved to Bordentown 28 years ago from Twin Rivers as an adult. “I wanted to sell my house and move to another area where there weren’t as many houses. I fell in love with Bordentown,” she said. “I can walk to the Farnsworth shops.”

Gorman, then an IBM employee, retired, and then went to work for the Allentown School District where she worked until she “really retired” two years ago and got more involved with the historical society. “I enjoy it,” she said. “There are always things going on here. The downtown business people’s association is very active. It is kind of busy.”

Gorman credits Finch with acquiring the Friends Meeting House at 302 Farnsworth Avenue for the historical society in 1999. “When [the Bordentown Banking Company] was selling it, we asked if they would donate it to us if we would detach it from the bank. We received word from the bank that they would give it to us,” Finch said. At the time the meeting house was attached to the bank next door, which now a pizza parlor.

The history of the meeting house spans three centuries. It was originally built in 1740 for the Quaker population to worship. Though it currently faces Farnsworth Avenue, its original entrance was what people today would consider the back. The meeting house itself was built before Farnsworth Avenue, and was most likely on Crosswicks Street facing the Delaware River, and the area that would have been settled there at the time.

The Bordentown Historical Society began restoring the building step-by-step two years ago by stabilizing the gable roof. “We had to add a tie rod to run from front to back to hold the wall together,” said Margaret Westfield of Westfield Architects & Preservation Consultants, the firm involved with the restoration process. While adding the tie rod, “the original finishes from the 1850 addition were exposed,” which was both an unexpected and exciting find for Westfield. The stabilization become an immediate priority and was paid for by a grant from the New Jersey Cultural Trust.

The restoration of the Meeting House is, and will continue to be, a work in progress. In 2012, Westfield Architects determined that the complete rehabilitation of the house would cost approximately $867,965. Each year the historical society applies for more grants, and continues to do fundraising for the project. “We are prioritizing the project to figure out how much they need,” Westfield said. Safety and deterioration issues come first, while purely aesthetic changes are part of the last step.

The first floor of the building returned to one open room, which the public uses for exhibits and meetings on select days throughout the year. Their next exhibit will be on carved duck decoys in October. Finch explained, “being a river town, this was an industry at one time. People would eat ducks,” so decoys were created to float out and catch real ducks.

The Friends Meeting House is listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the New Jersey Register. Westfield said there are “common misunderstandings about buildings with stucco.” During the era when the Friends Meeting House was renovated in the mid-19th century, it was common and stylish to cover buildings with stucco.

“People say, ‘Why would you cover this brickwork?’ We put up a sign with a photo of how the building appeared in 1890,” Westfield said. “We are reproducing how the building looked from 1850 to 1960 and keeping the water from being absorbed through the walls. When they raised the roof, the new brickwork did not match the old brick. They used a soft brick, which they intended to put stucco on.”

Overall, Westfield Architects believes the meeting house is in fairly good condition. However, the 1976 restoration attempts made by sandblasting the stucco exposed some of the softer brick, which was never meant to be exposed to the elements. The paint on the stucco is peeling and cracking, which is damaging to the building. It took off the outer layer, Westfield said, which then caused a water infiltration problem in recent years.

Westfield conducted much of her research for creating the preservation plan by visiting the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, which collects and preserves material that “documents non-governmental efforts for nonviolent social change, disarmament and conflict resolution between peoples and nations”—precisely what the original purpose of the Meetinghouse was.

As Finch says, it is important for the historical society to have historic knowledge and to appreciate why they have it and what they have.

“The Quaker connection is a marvelous thing,” Finch said. “They were great record keepers, which adds to the restoration’s accuracy.”

Historical Society meetings take place at the Meeting House 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month. For more information, visit bordentownhistoricalsociety.org.

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