Mays Landing Historic District
The Mays Landing Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
The Mays Landing Historic District is a large section of the town of Mays Landing, the county seat of Atlantic County, New Jersey. The Mays Landing Historic District is significant for its association with the political, economic, and social history of Mays Landing between 1837 and 1935. The town's designation as the county seat in 1837 and the establishment in 1865 of the local cotton mill, known as the Mays Landing Water Power Company, were largely responsible for the growth and prosperity of Mays Landing for nearly one hundred years. When the New Jersey Legislature formed Atlantic County in 1837 and designated Mays Landing as the county seat the town became an important political center. The local cotton mill was the town's largest and most important employer for nearly a century after 1865 and its economic and social influence equaled that of the county government.
The architecture within the Mays Landing Historic District includes the buildings directly associated with the county government and the cotton mill. These include the government buildings, the mill, homes of attorneys, politicians, tradesmen, and mill workers as well as the churches, schools, and commercial buildings that made up the community. Large houses in Second Empire, Greek Revival, and other styles mix with smaller, less ornate vernacular Victorian houses, cottages, and bungalows. Only one prominent architect, Thomas Ustick Walter, is represented in the Mays Landing Historic District, and only in one minor commission. However, a variety of building types and styles blend together to retain the late nineteenth and early twentieth century village atmosphere of Mays Landing.
History and Background
Before 1837, Mays Landing had been a minor crossroads hamlet on the main route between Philadelphia and Great Egg Harbor (now Tuckerton), which was the major coastal destination in the vicinity before the emergence of Atlantic City in the 1850s. Mays Landing was significant for its advantageous location at the head of sloop navigation on the Great Egg Harbor River, which was an ideal place to load the lumber, cardwood and products of nearby iron furnaces that comprised the bulk of local shipment. It was also known for ship building, which flourished as a consequence of its location. Little of Mays Landing in this period, however, is reflected in the community today.
Local business interests provided the land for the courthouse and other government offices when Atlantic County was created in 1837. Largely made up of people from those same businesses, the Board of Freeholders first met on May 10, 1837 at the home of John Pennington in Mays Landing. Among the first members were Pennington's brother-in-law Lewis M. Walker, owner of Walker's Forge, and John Briggs, manager of the Weymouth Ironworks. Briggs worked for Samuel Richards, owner of the ironworks and a close friend of Walker's. Both Pennington and Richards offered, land to the county for the new buildings; the Board accepted Richards' offer. Soon a courthouse, jail, and offices for the sheriff, clerk, and surrogate were constructed on the site. The 1840 courthouse, with its pyramidal roof and octagonal belfry stands between the clerk's office and the surrogate's office.
The now-vacant but intact jail dates from 1840 and is attributed to Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-1887), one of America's prominent mid-nineteenth century architects. In 1861, as architect for the federal government, Walters did the work for which he is most famous: the expansion of the U.S. Capitol and the completion of its present dome. Earlier in his career he designed Girard College in Philadelphia, one of the nation's most important Greek Revival buildings. Walter also designed several prisons, including Philadelphia's County Prison and Debtor's Prison. Although the small rectangular hip roofed brownstone jail in Mays Landing is not one of Walter's major works, it is the work of an important architect and attests to the importance of the county seat designation in the development of the town. The building served as a jail for about a century.
The designation of Mays Landing as the county seat brought hotels, law firms, and all the business of the court to the town. Mays Landing took on a political and commercial importance that it still retains. In order to profit from the influx of travelers, Samuel Richards built the American Hotel at the corner of Main Street and Farragut Avenue. As Josephine Di Stefano Kapus has written in The Proud American, the hotel was part of the Weymouth iron operation and was strategically located between the county courthouse and George Wheaton's wharf. The hotel opened for business in 1840 with William Wescoat as the first operator. He called it Wescoat's Hotel or Mays Landing Hotel. Wescoat advertised the hotel as having an ideal site, excellent food, and fine accommodations. When it was built, the American Hotel was one of the largest buildings in Mays Landing, just as it is today. It almost immediately became a stop on the U.S. Mail stageline between Philadelphia and Great Egg Harbor.
Lewis Walker, an iron forge owner, became the county's first representative in the State Legislative Council. In 1841 he was commissioned a judge, and he subsequently served in the state senate from 1848 to 1850. The establishment of the county court soon brought lawyers to town. Several attorneys from various parts of New Jersey moved to Mays Landing, but it was not until Joseph E.P. Abbott was admitted to the bar in 1865 that a native of the town practiced law there. Abbott's house, built in Second Empire style, still stands at 320 West Main Street.
The population of Mays Landing grew after the town became the county seat, and in addition to new housing, the residents required new churches. In April 1841, local Presbyterians laid the cornerstone of the Mays Landing Presbyterian Church. This is the oldest church in town and has been in continuous use since its dedication on December 4, 1844. It is individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is historically significant for its association with Reverend Allen M. Brown. This well-known evangelist was pastor of the church from 1846-1854 and 1862-1872 and helped to establish many Presbyterian churches in New Jersey. Samuel Richards donated the land for the church. The land for the nearby parsonage at 100 Cape May Avenue and the cemetery on Cape May Avenue were gifts of Richards' son-in-law, Stephen Colwell.
The Methodists built a church in 1846 that burned in 1877 and was replaced by the present church. The circuit riders and ministers who first brought Methodism to Mays Landing used the house that still stands at the intersection of Mays Landing-Somers Point Road and Atlantic Avenue for their headquarters and parsonage. The congregation built its present parsonage, the large white house on Park Place, in the 1870s. The Wescoat Free Burying Ground between the Presbyterian and Methodist churches contains many old graves, including that of Daniel Frazier, a Revolutionary War veteran who died in 1791. Richard Westcoat donated the land with the stipulation that it become a cemetery for people of all religious denominations.
The Census of 1850 does not differentiate residents of Mays Landing from those in other parts of Hamilton Township, but it does give some information about township residents known to have lived in Mays Landing. The Iszard family operated a forge in Mays Landing; later, members of that family became farmers, merchants, county clerks, and large landholders in Mays Landing. Ambrose Pancoast was a wealthy farmer in 1850; John Pennington and Daniel Frazier were seamen. Farmer Hosea Joslin, physician Thomas Gill, and merchant Elisha E. Hudson were other Mays Landing residents in 1850.
One of the foremost early figures of Mays Landing was William Moore. In 1846 while the nearby Weymouth Furnace was still in operation, he became its manager. However, the southern New Jersey iron business did not last long once the availability of anthracite coal in Pennsylvania led to the development of competitive new forges there. As the local iron business came to a halt, the Richards family heirs had little need of their holdings such as the American Hotel, which had really been an extension of the iron business. Moore, an enterprising individual whose net worth had increased from $1,000 to $25,000 between 1850 and 1860, bought the hotel in 1864. By 1870 his estate was worth over $46,000. In order to appreciate how wealthy Moore was, one must consider that the average person earned less than $300 a year. Conservatively speaking, Moore was a multi-millionaire by today's standards. His home, now the Sugar Hill Inn, was a two-and-a-half-story building with elaborate trim and an iron fence around a generously sized lot. It stood in sharp contrast to the small two- and three-bay wide houses on tiny lots scattered through Mays Landing. His prominence was further cemented by politics. Moore, a Republican, served two terms as a Congressman from 1867 to 1871, then returned home, serving as a State Senator from 1872 to 1874.
Congressman Moore's son, William Jr., shared his father's prominence. He became an attorney and lived after 1870 in the large Italian Villa style house on the north side of Main Street near Farragut Avenue. Moore's law office, constructed in 1872, still stands at 44 West Main Street and is the town's only example of a nineteenth century building used exclusively as an office. It is also one of very few New Jersey examples of a nineteenth century building type almost exclusive to rural county seats: the one-room lawyer's office.
In the 1850s, the railroad era in Mays Landing began. The first railroad came to Atlantic County in 1854, taking tourists to the new resort of Atlantic City. Mays Landing was not on that route, but a spur line from Mays Landing to the line at Egg Harbor City was soon developed. This short line lasted only for about twenty years, but in 1880 the railroad came to Mays Landing in earnest. The Newfield branch of the West Jersey and Atlantic Railroad Company was completed through Mays Landing that year. The line eventually merged into the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad and continued to operate until the mid-twentieth century. Although the railroad no longer serves Mays Landing, one small station of the West Jersey Line remains at the foot of Taylor Avenue. It actually dates from after the time when the Pennsylvania Railroad took over the line and in 1929 agreed to close its grade crossings in Mays Landing. The railroad station was part of a project that included a new railroad bridge over Route 50.
According to the census of 1860, Hamilton Township had a total population of 1,945. Although more maritime tradesmen were listed in the census than were farmers, the sailors and seamen included many young men who were not heads of families and did not own property. In contrast, the farmers were nearly all heads of families and on average were much wealthier than those involved in the maritime trades. Those listed as farmers included such well-known local names as Joseph B. Walker, Henry Steelman, the Campbell family, James Steelman, John Abbott, and Hosea Joslin. A large number of residents were laborers, but there were also several innkeepers, teamsters, stage drivers, teachers, ministers, and merchants, as well as the county clerk, surrogate, jailer, and doctor, as might be expected in a small community.
With a railroad link in place, cotton milling was begun in Mays Landing in 1865, and it continued to be the economic mainstay of the town for over eighty years. The Mays Landing Water Power Company cotton mill at the corner of Mill Street and Harding Highway joined the county government as a powerful force in the community. The oldest remaining building from that mill complex appears to be the three-story rectangular one in the center of the present Wheaton Industries complex. The exterior is of brick laid in plain bond with tie bolts showing. The mill and the modest company-owned houses in which the workers lived still stand. Many workers lived in houses that were constructed by the company in the blocks adjacent to the mill or on the north side of the Great Egg Harbor River. The company also moved houses into Mays Landing in the 1920s. The group of one-and-a-half-story houses on Longwood Avenue are workers' houses that originally stood in nearby Belcoville.
The mill was owned by R.D. Wood, a Philadelphia businessman who also owned a cotton mill in Millville. When the mill opened it immediately became the town's largest employer, giving work to roughly a quarter of the town's residents. In 1880, it employed 42 men, 57 women, and 29 children, more people than were employed in any other single profession or business in Mays Landing. There were still some farmers and sea captains in Mays Landing at the time, but there were also many young people, not heads of families, at work in the mill. In this respect, Mays Landing was like many larger industrial cities. As the nineteenth century advanced, the number of farmers fell and the number of industrial workers, including women and children, steadily increased. By the late 1880s, the plant employed over 200 men, women and children, a figure that rose to approximately 300 throughout the 1890s. By the late 1930s about 25 percent of the town's workforce still worked there.
In addition to living in company-constructed housing, the workers bought many of their necessities at the company store (now a Masonic Lodge) and coal yard. Their electricity, which was shut off at a specified hour each evening, was provided by the company's powerhouse, built in 1920. When the power to the homes was shut down the electricity generated was sold to the Atlantic City Electric Company. It is not difficult to imagine the degree of control over labor that this system gave to the company, especially in an era when the balance of power between labor and capital decidedly favored capital.
The system did provide inexpensive, well-maintained housing and a measure of security in times when work was slow. William Hoover, who lived through the Depression in Mays Landing, explained how the factory kept the workforce afloat: "People could charge at the [company] store on charge accounts that would be taken out of their pay from the cotton mill. They were allowed books, four or five dollar books. That's what they were allowed for the week and they had to make them last until the following week when payday came around. There were no other jobs in Mays Landing for them to work at except the cotton mill. They depended upon the cotton mill for everything, and the [company] store."
Despite the apparent advantages of the system, many found it despotic. The worker could not only be fired, he could also be evicted from his home. Debts that he owed after buying merchandise on credit could be called in at any time. The system also prevented the workers from accumulating capital in the form of home equity. It is hardly surprising that the New Jersey legislature abolished these arrangements by law shortly after World War I. It is perhaps more surprising that there was little evidence of labor unrest until World War II.
In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the cotton mill attracted eastern European immigrants to join its workforce. Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and Italians came to work in Mays Landing. They organized the St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church, and Bishop McFaul dedicated the present house of worship on Cape May Avenue on June 28, 1908. Until that time, the nearest Catholic church had been in Egg Harbor City, on account of its large German population.
During the same years, construction of houses and commercial buildings continued in the area bounded by Main Street, Mill Street, and Cape May Avenue. The Coleman Mansion, a large hotel, started operation at 44 Main Street near the turn of the century. George Jackson, a brickyard owner, bought this hotel about 1903 and renamed it the Jackson House. In its history, it has had several names, including the Madison Hotel, the Homestead, and the Central Hotel. An important landmark in town, the hotel operated for many years and undoubtedly accommodated some of the people who came to Mays Landing for the business of the court.
A growing population required additional services, and a brief spurt of public building occurred just after the turn of the century. Two schools, a waterworks, Hamilton Township Hall, and a new sheriff's residence date from that time and are all still in use. The town built the J. Harold Duberson School on Farragut Avenue in 1928, after the State Board of Education complained that the schools of Mays Landing were so grossly inadequate as to be endangering the future welfare of the students attending them. The school is an example of the Neo-Classical Revival style very popular for schools at the time. In the 1920s, Mays Landing also built a red, one-room schoolhouse which is still in use today on Mill Street.
Near the turn of the century, the town set aside public land which is today Memorial Park adjacent to the courthouse complex. Local philanthropist, John W. Underhill, who for many years was the town's only black resident, left his estate to Hamilton Township in 1925, since he had no heirs. Part of his bequest funded a fountain, trees, walks, and other improvements to the park. The park is a pleasant open space in the center of town and now includes park benches, trees, and war memorials. Atlantic County purchased land along the Great Egg Harbor River for public use in 1928. Eventually the county created Gaskill Park, named for an early Mays Landing shipbuilder. By partially filling in the river, the county government has created a place for people to enjoy the waterfront.
The architecture of Mays Landing exhibits two characteristic features of the community: the lateness of its major economic developments, and the conservatism with which they were expressed. The more-or-less Federal-style design of the courthouse probably represents one of the last times that style was employed in an important public building in New Jersey. The arrival of the railroad in the 1850s took place two decades after railroads came to advantageously located towns and cities of the New Jersey corridor. The opening of the cotton mill by a water-power company in the 1860s repeated the experiences of Trenton and New Brunswick in the 1830s. The town's nineteenth century hotels show little, if any, architectural evolution from high quality taverns of the late eighteenth century. The domestic, commercial, and ecclesiastical architecture of Mays Landing exhibits local preferences for established styles over new ones, as in the continued use of the Italian Villa and Gothic Revival styles after the Civil War. The general absence in the town of architect-designed buildings is consistent with this conservatism.
Government buildings form Mays Landing's most conspicuous architecture. The county courthouse and adjacent jail constituted the necessary beginnings for the county seat. Both have been enlarged and altered as their improvement became necessary to a growing Atlantic County. The Sheriff's house is an unusual feature, and one that suggests both the power and prestige of the sheriff's office in New Jersey generally and in Atlantic County in particular. The largest houses in town belonged to people whose activities centered around the county government. This feature is perhaps best exemplified by the Abbott House on Main Street, a local landmark in the Second Empire style, and the home of the town's first native-born attorney. At the time of its construction in the 1870's the house probably created an even stronger impression on Main Street than it does today. William Moore Jr.'s law office is another building that contributes to the town's identity as a county seat.
Mays Landing's other public buildings, which include schools, a town hall, and a waterworks, are in various styles, but most incorporate the classical elements deemed appropriate to public architecture in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Other non-domestic buildings in the Mays Landing Historic District include hotels, stores, and an industrial complex. Three small churches are in different styles. The Presbyterians chose the Neo-Classical in 1841, the Methodists selected Gothic in the 1880s, and the Catholics built their church in the early twentieth century in a mix of styles. The American Hotel and the Rape House, which later became a hotel, are simple gable roofed buildings typical of the first half of the nineteenth century. The Coleman Mansion/Jackson House which dates from later in the nineteenth century has the large rectangular shape and spacious porch typical of hotels of its time. The Mays Landing Water Power Company is a large brick industrial complex that has expanded from a typical 1860s factory. It now includes larger brick buildings incorporating clerestories and other features of the later nineteenth century and a commercial style building of the twentieth century.
Many of the smaller houses in the Mays Landing Historic District are not in any particular style, but are vernacular houses displaying some elements of the styles that were popular at the time they were built. Thus, simple ell-shaped houses or two-story cottages may have Stick style or Italianate trim, or occasionally no trim at all. Most of the houses are undoubtedly the products of local builders who decked some of the houses with their own variations of "gingerbread" trim. Elements of the Stick and Eastlake styles appear individually and in combination in the porch trim of many houses. Although an architect's design in the Stick style would typically be a very tall house with verandas, carved bargeboards, and porch posts with open brackets, local Mays Landing carpenters freely combined these elements with the Eastlake style.
Few residents of Mays Landing could afford to emulate the owners of large Second Empire or Italian Villa style houses, but they did select the popular styles of their day. Although there are no high style Gothic Revival buildings in the Mays Landing Historic District, many houses, large and small, are embellished with steep pointed cross gables, and windows with pointed arches. These versions of the Gothic style remained in favor in Mays Landing through the last half of the nineteenth century.
The Bungalow appeared as frequently in Mays Landing as it did throughout the rest of the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. When the population in Mays Landing grew, bungalows filled lots between older houses. The large wooden Bungalow on Acorn Street is an outstanding example of the style. Early twentieth century cottages, simple one-story houses with gable roofs that have their ends toward the street, are also numerous in Mays Landing.
A number of buildings in the Mays Landing Historic District have been moved. Owners of the cotton mill brought houses to Mays Landing from Belcoville, a nearby town. Other buildings, including some on Pennington Street, were moved from the path of the new section of Cape May Avenue. Nearly all were moved during the period of significance, and because of their close ties to the mill or the development of the town, are considered to be a part of the historic fabric of the district. The Frazier house which was moved was the home of a locally important person.
Heavy traffic on Main Street, Cape May Avenue, and Somers Point-Mays Landing Boulevard are a threat to the district. Escalating real estate prices which encourage the sale of property for development, and the need for the county government to expand are also threats. At present, strip development and new housing developments have been kept out of the Mays Landing Historic District.
The high percentage of old buildings, and the fact that the town's main historic landmarks — the courthouse, hotels, churches, and cemeteries — cluster here, distinguishes it from its surroundings. The Mays Landing Historic District contains the largest concentration of buildings that reflect the history of Mays Landing. The area outside the district contains mostly newer buildings. The Mays Landing Historic District contains the tangible evidence of the town's status as a county seat and its historical experience as a mill town.
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† Priscilla M. Thompson, The History Store and R. Craig, ONJH, Mays Landing Historic District, Hamilton Township, Atlantic County, NJ, nomination document, 1987/1989, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.