Building #7 and the Deserted Village of Feltville
Watchung Reservation, Berkeley Heights Township, Union County
The village of Feltville was founded in 1845 by entrepreneur David Felt who purchased over six hundred acres in what is now the Township of Berkeley Heights in Union County. Felt was a businessman from New York who ran a prosperous stationery and book finishing business. He built a workers’ community based around his printing business with a large mill, two lakes, eleven multi-family worker houses/dormitories, a church and store in one building, a schoolhouse, and a residence for himself. The buildings were constructed in a vernacular version of the Greek Revival. The village’s location on the Blue Brook was ideal for powering his mill, and the village appears to have been prosperous, as the 1850 Federal Census shows 178 people living there at that time. It thrived for fifteen years until Felt closed the mill and put his holdings on the market in 1860. The village sold several times in the following years to various unsuccessful entrepreneurs.
The village fell into a state of decline until 1882 when Warren Ackerman purchased it and turned it into a resort. Looking to attract vacationers from urban New Jersey towns, he turned the workers’ housing into resort cottages, added Adirondack-style porches and renamed the village Glenside Park. The resort was successful into the early twentieth century when expanding mobility and development turned tourist preferences toward the Jersey Shore and other vacation areas. Ackerman’s heirs closed Glenside Park in 1916 and the village again fell into decline. Individual properties were sold off and some were purchased by Edward Grassman, a civil engineer, who used the village as a club. Grassman was a world traveler with a fondness for Mexico, Latin America and the Southwest. He decorated two of the cottages to reflect his interests, one being known as the “Mexican Cottage” and the other the “Indian Cottage.” Visitors to his club were received in the Mexican Cottage and ate dinner in the Indian Cottage next door. It was Grassman who apparently persuaded celebrated Nicaraguan/Mexican artist Robert de la Selva to paint themed murals throughout the first floor interior of the Mexican Cottage. In the late 1920s, during his first trip to the United States, de la Selva spent months in rural Union County painting the murals, which depict native Mexicans at work, play and worship, including statues of both ancient gods and the Virgin Mary. As the only murals de la Selva, who was primarily a sculptor, is known to have painted, these murals are significant to both the history of Feltville and the international art world.
In 1927, Union County acquired the site to be preserved as part of the newly created Watchung Reservation. Some of the houses have been occupied since that time, but many of the buildings fell into disrepair and a few were demolished. Today, ten buildings remain: two have been restored by Union County and are occasionally open to the public, one is occupied in good repair, and the others remain vacant. In 1980, the Village was listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. The County has been struggling to stabilize and restore the ten surviving buildings over the past twenty-five years. A historic structures report was prepared in 1989, and in the early 1990s new wood shingle roofs were installed on most of the buildings and the Adirondack-style porches were stabilized. The church/store was fully restored in the late-1990’s and today provides exhibit and office space. Rehabilitation of Maskers Barn was completed in 2011 and it now serves as a small lecture hall, meeting room and rental hall. Despite this progress, seven buildings remain unrestored and the stabilization measures taken in the early-1990s have reached the end of their useful lives, resulting in severely deteriorated conditions. The Mexican Cottage, today known as Building #7, is next in line for restoration, but the county has limited funding, and other public funding is scarce at present. Deterioration of de la Selva’s remarkable murals is accelerating rapidly.
Previous Feltville restorations were funded in part by matching grants from the New Jersey Historic Trust (NJHT) and any future restorations are likely to depend, at least in part, on similar grants. NJHT grants are funded by the Garden State Preservation Trust, which is presently out of funding for capital historic preservation grants, and plans for restoration of Building #7 and preservation of the murals have consequently been put on hold. While sufficient funding is needed for restoration of the village in the long-term, educating the public about its history and significance in the short-term would increase public interest and encourage the expenditure of county funds for restoration. The problems facing Feltville exemplify the economic difficulties that New Jersey’s public entities face in restoring and maintaining historic sites, and the urgent need for expanded funding to support historic preservation, including permanent, stable funding for the New Jersey Historic Trust.
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