A National Historic Landmark, Liberty Hall was constructed in 1772 for William Livingston who became the first Governor of New Jersey (1777-1790). Livingston’s original purchase included 140 acres of wetlands, woods, orchards, and farmland. Today after land sales to Kean University, Union County, and private corporations, the existing National Landmark boundaries include vast acreage surrounding the mansion, including a large meadow that lies between the main house and the Elizabeth River to the north.
Continuing development pressure has led to concerns that the estate will be further encroached upon, leaving the house of New Jersey’s “First Family” without a sense of the spacious grandeur of its early years. Already, the house and grounds are within sight of new townhouses, an office park, and commercial business on a heavily traveled road and parking.
Liberty hall landscapeThe current threat to the property involves a proposal that the boundaries of this National Historic Landmark be reduced, apparently in order to open the majority of the land surrounding the house for the possibility of new construction by Kean University, to which ownership of the property was recently transferred. In June 2008, the State Review Board tabled a request by the Foundation, Museum and University to reduce the NHL boundaries to 11 aces, requesting further justification for the proposal, which would disassociate the house from its lands and particularly, its historically significant connection to the Elizabeth River. To date, the proposal has not been reintroduced, but the possibility remains.
Liberty Hall is of tremendous historical and cultural significance to the citizens of New Jersey. Restored by the Kean family in the 1950s and further by the Liberty Hall Foundation sine the 1980s, the house and grounds are open and interpreted to the public. The property is one of the richest, most intact and most significant historic estates in New Jersey, featuring nearly two centuries of personal possessions including furniture, clothing, paintings, china and family papers.
The mansion was conceived as a Georgian Style manor house, based on the Livingston’s interest in copying the styles of New York City elite homes. After many additions, the 52- room house today is an Italianate-style mansion. The estate also contains a carriage house, ice house, smoke house, wagon shed and hot and cold green houses. A 1790s farmhouse that was moved to the site in 1988 to save it from demolition serves as the visitor center and headquarters for the Liberty Hall Foundation.
With regard to the threat of surrounding development, the grounds are equally special. The property is connected to the Elizabeth River and site of Colonial-era lumber and paper mills and Kean family mills in the 20th century. The west lawn contains footpaths and carriage drives; the east lawn features gravel pathways through geometric flower beds; and the rose garden on the north is densely planted.
The house has long been associated with the state’s most influential political leaders. John Jay, William Livingston’s son-in-law, became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1789. His daughter married William Henry Harrison, who became a U.S. President. After leaving the family for a few years, the property was purchased by William’s niece, Susan, who left the property to her son, Peter Kean upon her death in 1831. The house remained in the Livingston / Kean family until given to the Liberty Hall Foundation in 1995. Since that time, it has been well stewarded by the Foundation, and it is PNJ’s hope that, as Kean University assumes management of the property, this legacy of exemplary stewardship, for both the property’s built resources and its historically-significant lands, will continue.
Bill Bolger, National Historic Landmarks program manager, National Park Service, Northeast Region
Catherine Turton, Historian, National Park Service, Northeast Region