County: Union & Middlesex
The Homestead Farm at Oak Ridge was first established c. 1720 – 1740 and was made up of 208 acres of open space and a farmhouse, both of which remain; as well as outbuildings that were removed over the years as the farmstead was converted from a farm to an 18-hole golf course. The Homestead, as it is commonly referred, remains today as the largest tract of land in Union County that reflects its original eighteenth-century boundaries and is significant for its association with military events during the Revolutionary War. Historic evidence indicates that in December 1776, when the property was owned by the Smith Family, the patriarch of the family, William Smith was shot coming to the defense of his daughter when she was being assaulted by a Hessian officer. This event helped to spur increased hostility of New Jersey natives toward the British. Furthermore, the property, listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places in 1995, is significant for its association with Judge Hugh Hartshorne Bowne, a prominent 19th-century New Jersey politician and lawyer; as well as for its architecture retaining pre-Revolutionary, Federal-style, and Italianate features showing its architectural evolution during its many years of occupancy before serving as the clubhouse for the golf course beginning in 1929.
Since 2009, the farmhouse has been closed and lays fallow while the former golf course serves as a regional park for passive recreation by Union and Middlesex County residents. It remains today as one of a handful of Union County parks that do not contain ballfields or other organized recreational facilities. The County is now planning to construct a track with multi-use athletic fields, bleachers, a press box, a 3,000-square-foot fieldhouse, lighting, fencing, and a large parking area. This proposed development will not only change the use of the park but will also disrupt the unique 5-mile vista of the Watchung Mountains as seen from the back porch of the farmhouse. Although the County’s plan attempts to place the proposed facilities on the periphery of the vista, preservationists are concerned that once the County is given the authority to construct the athletic fields, then other facilities will not be far behind; such as an ice skating rink, which had been previously mentioned by the County for this site.
In December 2017, the New Jersey Historic Sites Council voted unanimously to deny the application for the proposed facilities at Oak Ridge Park, as it was determined that mitigation would not lessen the impact of the proposed development and would have a negative impact on the historic site. However, the Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection under the Christie Administration overturned the Council’s decision with conditions, and the project appears to be moving forward despite the overwhelming negative impacts to the County’s architectural and historic heritage. PNJ is concerned that politics have trumped sound preservation policies and procedures, which calls into question the veracity of the New Jersey Historic Site Council and other advisory groups when their unanimous decisions can be so easily overturned. PNJ encourages Union County to find a more viable site that would not have a negative impact on either the environment or historic and cultural heritage. The Homestead at Oak Ridge is an oasis in what is one of the most densely developed counties in New Jersey that will be lost to one more athletic field in a sea of such facilities located throughout the county.
Margaret M. Hickey, AIA