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The Battle for Solitude House

After more than a decade wrangling over one of the state's most historic houses, all parties involved admit they can't work together.

Credit: Solitude House

As a long-settled, populous state, New Jersey has seen many of its historic homes converted into museums. But Solitude House in High Bridge might reverse the process.

Borough officials and nonprofit volunteers agree that the white building on a winding side road in a leafy dell is among New Jersey’s most important structures.

Taking its name from a tract written by William Penn, the house was owned by colonial America’s greatest industrialist, served as a polite political prison during the Revolution, was the birthplace of a Civil War general, and also served as the heart of the continent’s second-oldest continuously operated business.

But that was then. Now, after a decade of trying, the borough council and the Union Forge Heritage Association agree on just one other thing: they can’t work together to preserve it. “It’s been sort of a contentious relationship,” said Michael Gronsky, the association president. “I favored the borough forming a committee for the historic properties, but we never could get on the same page.”

Borough to Find New Tenant

“There’s been a lot of stubbornness on both sides, but the bottom line is that it’s the borough’s property,” said Councilwoman Victoria Miller, who became chair of the oversight committee last year after winning election in 2010.

So when its initial, 10-year lease with High Bridge expires in October, the preservation group will be out on the street, while officials of the scenic Hunterdon County town pursue a bed-and-breakfast or other revenue-generating enterprise as their next tenant.

For a preservation specialist who literally wrote the book on the subject, the issues facing the borough and the volunteers are increasingly common. Towns and other entities that take over historic structures often find that money is tight and need to explore revenue sources, said Donna Ann Harris of Heritage Consulting in Philadelphia.

“Nobody has bad intentions,” but that does not insure against mistakes, said Harris, author of “New Solutions for House Museums: Ensuring the Long-Term Preservation of America’s Historic Houses” and a frequent speaker at New Jersey conferences.

In an era when some historic homes have been converted to non-museum uses, the borough’s intention to take charge of getting grants “makes sense,” Harris said. But the common factor among successful projects is “having a ‘friends of’ group,” she said.

Friendships On The Wane

Maintaining friendships can be a challenge in High Bridge. Set in a dramatic landscape, a rocky bowl along the South Branch of the Raritan below the Point Mountain section of the Musconetcong ridge, the small town is known for its Hatfield-and-McCoy politics. Its historic preservation efforts have continued the pattern.

As the millennium dawned, many residents became concerned about the deteriorating state of its historic structures and threat of redevelopment. They included other homes related to Solitude House and its occupants, as well as the town’s reason for being, a sprawling industrial complex in its heart.

“I was one of more than 1,000 people who signed the petition to acquire Solitude House,” said William Honachefsky Jr.

Buoyed by public support, local officials at the time used eminent domain and Green Acres grants to head off the development threat.

But those measures created backlash, especially once the town found itself with structures in need of repair, including a historic but hazardous dam. While volunteers have remained enthusiastic, for others, the ardor quickly cooled.

“When they asked local groups to manage Solitude House, nobody stepped forward,” Honachefsky said. “That’s why the Union Forge Heritage Association was formed, to operate a museum and finds grants to maintain and restore Solitude House.”

Since 2003, the association has operated a museum on the first floor, open only on Sunday afternoons and for special events, such as holidays or pre-arranged tours. The areas open to the public include the oldest section of the structure, which dates to 1710-25.

A Who’s Who at Solitude House

In that era, northwestern New Jersey was a hodge-podge of conflicting land claims, truculent squatters and some Lenape yet to be pushed aside. In 1742-1752, Philadelphia merchant William Allen and his partner, the sea captain Joseph Turner, bought almost 11,000 acres around Solitude and began establishing farms, forges and furnaces.

But Allen and Turner were just the first famous names connected with the property. The house was named by John Penn, Pennsylvania’s last proprietary governor, sent there as a political prisoner by the Continental Congress.

Robert Taylor, Allen & Turner’s manager, later bought the house and neighboring store and forge. His descendants turned the Taylor Iron & Steel Co. into a powerhouse of industrial innovation and military support.

One of his grandsons, George Taylor was a tough Civil War general, and one of the Union’s better commanders in the early days of the conflict. That is, right up to the point where he led his regiment in a frontal attack on what turned out to be Stonewall Jackson’s entire corps at Second Bull Run.

George’s brother Lewis stayed home and built the company into a dynamo of military and railroad technology, leading it for decades.

Remaining historic structures include old sections of the Taylor Iron and Steel Co. complex, including a 19th Century headquarters on the original site, another Taylor homestead, and the first ever buttress dam, reinforced with steel beams, now the last of its kind in New Jersey.

Volunteers Step In to Restore Historic House

Given the house’s unusual significance, Honachefsky and other volunteers threw themselves into painting and plastering. The group spent $13,000 to upgrade utilities and $9,000 for a historic architect to advise on replacing the deteriorated roof, he said.

They also helped fill the downstairs with relevant objects and displays, according to Gronsky.

“All the furniture and the artifacts in the museum belong to the UFHA,” he said. “They were located or acquired by members and brought in.”

And the group quickly realized the need to address the related structures, such as the TISCO headquarters. But their zeal may have led to the current impasse.

Mayor Mark Desire acknowledged the volunteer efforts, but said local officials became concerned that the operation make progress toward solvency. In his view, the borough offered the association generous terms for a new lease.

The deal would have been virtually free, $1 a year, but with provisions “designed to provide guidance and the accountability necessary” to ensure public control over work on public properties, Desire said via e-mail.

Under the initial lease, “all they have been responsible for doing is operating a museum two hours a week,” Miller said. Borough officials wanted to see progress restoring Solitude House and increasing its visitors, “but there was nothing to hold them to, no benchmarks or goals,” she said.

But the new lease offer also contained a poison pill. Instead of 15 years, the minimum required by most grant agencies, the council offered three, five-year terms, with a provision that it could terminate the deal at any time.

Grant agencies “want to see that you’re in a stable situation,” Gronsky said. “Officials from the state and county explained the requirements to the council, but it didn’t have any effect.”

Grants Now in Jeopardy

Tammori Petty, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, confirmed that Glenn Ceponis of the New Jersey Historic Trust told borough officials that the borough could not revoke a lease at will, and that the term must extend “15 years or more from the date project funds are appropriated by the Legislature and signed into law.”

“They’re going to find that it will be the same thing with any other tenant they recruit, including commercial,” Harris said. “Anybody coming into a building like that needs to have a long enough lease to amortize their investment.”

The trendsetter in the industry is Maryland’s Department of Environmental Protection, which rents houses in its parks, Harris said. Typically, those contracts set terms for renovation or restoration, and in exchange the rent is free, she said.

For a public agency seeking to rent out a historic structure, “you have to decide what your goal is,” Harris said. “Are you trying to maintain or restore the building, or are you trying to generate revenue?”

The latter requires a building already preserved and modified to meet modern codes, such as egress requirements for rooms in a bed-and-breakfast, she said. Typically, that work “is much more intrusive” than simply adapting an old house as an office, she said.

But High Bridge officials can point to progress even as they break with the association.

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