Join us for a FREE Historical Walking tour and Networking Reception
By Rikki Massand
On Sunday June 11th at 2pm you are invited to join Preservation New Jersey for the next ‘On Tour with PNJ’ event, coordinated with our Education Committee and presented in partnership with organizations the Heritage Trail Association, the Wallace House & Old Dutch Parsonage State Historic Sites and the Downtown Somerville Alliance as we venture to the Somerset County seat. The event and reception to follow are free for all attendees. Somerville’s own Bob and Linda Barth will be leading our tour through downtown, as we examine the historic buildings and economic activities including the local restaurants and shops.
Somerville resident and Heritage Trail Association (HTA) trustee Marge Sullivan, a member of the Somerset County Cultural & Heritage Commission, spoke with PNJ as the Tour day lineup came together. She discussed the HTA organization, which operates one of Somerset County’s historic “5 Generals” houses – the Phillip Van Horne House in Bridgewater which dates to the 1700s.
In 2024 the Heritage Trail Association will celebrate its 30-year anniversary. The organization was founded by Marjorie Chandler, a Somerville resident and Bridgewater businesswoman.
“She was extremely taken up with the interesting historic sites of Somerset County. Chandler wanted to put together an organization that will focus on creating a sense of history in place in the county and she was big on heritage tourism before people really knew what it was, so I believe her to have been ahead of her time. A lot of the people originally involved with
HTA, and still our volunteer base, have been primarily Somerville residents though our Van Horne House headquarters are in Bridgewater…Somerville became Somerset County’s Main Street since before the Civil War and this is a role it has never relinquished,” Sullivan explained.
The mission of HTA involves presentation of Somerset County heritage exploration and tours, and every February the 5 Generals Bus tour takes visitors to all 5 sites in different municipalities. One of the stops on the 5 Generals tour is where PNJ and guests will enjoy a post-tour reception with light refreshments: the historic Wallace House, General George Washington’s headquarters during the second Middlebrook encampment and the largest house built in New Jersey during the Revolutionary War.
HTA has established and recently updated its educational walking tours, as PNJ and its guests will embark on the “Second Story Somerville Tour.” As the name suggests the focus of our tour will be on “The Second Story of Somerville” as Sullivan noted that as the storefronts and businesses (1st floor) that are in them changed, the Main Street and downtown has continued to showcase an impressive wealth of architectural buildings.
“In our downtown, the second stories didn’t and don’t change that much – they are preserved pretty well in original conditions, and that is how the great architecture of the borough and the original vision of what Somerville would be is evident. Somerville remains the cultural, financial and social center of our county though for a while with the Bridgewater Mall and other locations, we were not the same shopping destination as years ago. But every Main Street’s function – though they are an American fixture even replicated at Walt Disney World – changed for modern life, with more restaurants and activities. We are thriving as a center for people to come together and experience life in the town. The Second Story Tour gives you a flavor of this, and how we have changed over time. That’s the ambiance and second story we celebrate,” Sullivan noted.
‘National Register Bookends’
Two and a half years ago the PNJ quarterly newsletter featured the Gothic Revival Daniel Robert House at the west end of Main Street, built in 1887. Somerville’s Main Street is bookended by the Somerset County Historic Courthouse at 35 East Main St. and 1909 Courthouse Green at the corner of Grove Street – the location where our PNJ Tour will start on June 11th – and the National and State Register-listed Daniel Robert House at the borough’s west. The core of Somerville from about 1800 remains the historic Courthouse Green, occupied by both the former First Dutch Reformed Church and Somerset County administration, judicial and governmental buildings. Somerset County has continued its work to preserve four Tiffany stained glass windows inside the Church, which still serves as the public Somerset County Jury Assembly Room.
“The county has spread across Grove Street with the new construction County Administration Building (20 Grove Street) and Veterans Plaza, which sits on the site of the former National Guard Armory located in Somerville before the Civil War. By 1910, Senator Frelinghuysen gained funding to construct the armory directly across the Courthouse Green and that armory served the community as a gathering space. Prior to World War I it was the Army’s recruiting station and later Red Cross trainings took place there. For a while it was the location of the County Sheriff and Emergency Services’ offices. When a decision to demolish the Militia building came up in the late 1990s the Somerville Historic Advisory Committee asked the county to preserve the shields mounted on either side of the door. Somerset County cooperated in doing so to make the space an amphitheater and beautiful monument to veterans as it exists today. The original militia (National Guard) shields are mounted in the middle, and the role of the armory here is recognized. The other shield went to the National Guard Museum in Sea Girt,” Sullivan explained.
At the other end of Main Street, the Robert House now houses the Somerville Borough Hall, municipal offices and meeting space as well as the Somerville branch of the Somerset County Library System. In September 2020 a history book, “The County's Handsomest House: The Story of Somerville's American Gothic Classic” was published by the Somerville Historic Advisory Committee with much of Sullivan’s input. Preservation NJ BIN member firm, Princeton-based HMR Architects, has shepherded the Somerville Borough Hall through phases of preservation.
Sullivan reported a mid-2023 update on the Daniel Robert House: The building is the recent recipient of grants from both the New Jersey Historic Trust and Somerset County’ Historic Preservation Grant program. Three grants from the county, approved for FY’s 2015, 2018 and 2021, were for sums close to $125,000.
Last fall, as part of the NJ Historic Trust’s approval of over $15 million in 2022 grant recommendations from the Preserve New Jersey Historic Preservation Fund included a Level II Capital Preservation Grant (for amounts between $150,001 and $750,000) to the Borough of Somerville for Borough Hall of $218,907.
A renovation project for conserving the front portico of Borough Hall is slated to begin this summer. Exterior stonework and the driveway which carriages would pull up to in the 1890s and early 1900s is in need of restoration. The project will also fix masonry on the building’s southern exposure.
Visiting the Division Street Arts & Cultural District
Part of the appeal of Somerville has been its transportation to cities like NYC with the NJ Transit Raritan Valley Line station, and the cobblestone Division Street was designed as the access to the station. It functioned as that for many years but as rail but as cars became the preferred method of transportation the vitality of Division Street was diminished.
The local governing body came up with the goal of turning the street between Main Street and the former South Street into a pedestrian plaza, to draw the foot traffic back.
The Victorian Train Station, a Register-eligible building, can be seen from Division Street. While it’s under renovations it’s already been rejuvenated with new dining spots, two of which are open now.
“That corridor is revitalized as it contains a key number of interesting historic buildings – some are on Division Street and some border it. At the foot of Division close to Veterans’ Memorial Drive there is Somerville’s post office from the Great Depression era. It is a mission-style structure commissioned as a ‘New Deal’ Public Works Administration project to employ out-of-work people in the building industry. The nationwide goal of constructing post offices in towns that did not have them resulted in Somerville having an identical post office as Rapid City, South Dakota’s downtown! They were done in the exact same style in that era,” Sullivan said.
Popular shops and venues include Ambee Coffee Company at the corner of Main and Division; Origin French Thai restaurant; YESTERcades video game arcade; Board and Brush, Incogneeto vintage clothing, ‘From the Hive’ honey shop and Fresh Tiki Bar.
Many Downtown Somerville Alliance-sponsored programs and events are organized with a portable stage set up on Division Street. For June, free public concerts as well as Pride month festivities, including a Family Pride Night June 29th from 6 to 9 p.m. featuring glow games, live music and entertainment.
Summer Friday nights in Somerville are a smashing success for most of the restaurants and shops with the largest Cruise Nights on the East Coast. Classic vehicles and hot rods are parked on Main Street, every Friday between Memorial Day and Labor Day from 6 to 9 p.m.
Somerville is also becoming well-known for its new construction, multi-family unit housing structures which will offer transit-oriented development. Sullivan says there is a fine line for preservation of the borough, though throughout its history Somerville has always seen development. She believes the Borough Planning Board has been very careful to permit development and redevelopment in certain parts of the town.
“We went from a simple crossroads of the county and state, to a village plus the historic Courthouse and Church were located here in the 1800s. The original Somerville village was a housing development called the Somerset House Company and over the years Somerville has grown and reinvented itself many times. Most of the housing development projects we see today are on properties that were underperforming or old, industrial sites that no longer had a modern use. To stay viable you need some quality development – the trick is in finding the balance between what’s developed and what you keep. We have had a lot of growth with these new buildings without really needing to demolish things. But the Borough is only two square miles and there is not a lot of land left for buildout! We believe the Planning Board will continue to be thoughtful and careful in its reviews and decision making on what makes sense for Somerville,” Sullivan said.
Another consideration about seeing many new housing units in town, which translate into newcomers for Somerville, is the chance to educate residents about the historic county hub and hometown they’ll become a part of.
“Through the ‘Second Story’ tour and HTA programming it is up to us to tell Somerville’s story and to encourage new residents to embrace the community, and to become part of the fabric of Somerville themselves. What makes us great stems from all the ideas, collective spirit and investments in our community from people who have lived within these two square miles. People who have lived here and chose to stay here have loved this borough, and we need to make sure we invite new residents to also develop strong feelings of attachment,” Sullivan said.