Cattell Tract Historic District
The Cattell Tract Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. 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 Cattell Tract was the initial enclave of suburban residential development that made Merchantville, New Jersey, one of Camden County's most desirable late-nineteenth century communities. Its evolution to this status illustrates classic forces of suburbanization, including transportation systems, real estate speculation, and financial and promotional mechanisms. United States Senator Alexander G. Cattell, an investor and visionary, laid out this tract in 1869. The resultant streetscapes are lined with fashionable middle and upper middle class Victorian homes which in their well-preserved state, continue to dominate Merchantville Borough's cultural identity. As the nucleus of Merchantville's growth into a commuter suburb, as the culmination of Alexander G. Cattell's plan, and as an ensemble of period architectural styles, the Cattell Tract is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The period of significance for the Cattell Tract Historic District begins in 1869 with Cattell's plan for building lots and ends circa 1925 when the limits of the Cattell Tract were completely developed and further suburban growth in the Borough could be attributed solely to the automobile age.
The second half of the nineteenth century was a period during which the railroad linked the two coasts of the United States and joined rural or suburban residence with the urban workplace. It was a time when the industrialized cities became increasingly congested and dirty, when popular literature advocated the moral and health advantages of family life outside the city, and when a rising mercantile and industrial middle class could afford a suburban house and a daily commute to the city. This phenomenon of suburbanization took place throughout New Jersey and other industrialized states that sprouted residential enclaves along train lines to their respective cities. The Cattell Tract made Merchantville into one of many commuter suburbs of Camden and Philadelphia that relied upon the advent and ongoing operation of the railroad. Merchantville was accompanied or followed by numerous other bedroom communities. These included Moorestown on the easterly extension of the same train line, by Collingswood and Haddonfield on the Camden and Atlantic Railroad, and by Blackwood on the Gloucester Branch of the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad, just to name a few. Typically, these former villages grew into suburbs not only from the railroads, but also from financing mechanisms such as building and loan associations, speculative building by ambitious contractors, and real estate promotion by shrewd businessmen.
Located five miles east of Philadelphia, Merchantville was a sparsely settled agricultural community until the mid-nineteenth century. On April 1, 1851, the gravel-surfaced Moorestown Pike, later known as Maple Avenue, was opened along a former Indian trail. The road, which connected the village to Camden and the ferries to Philadelphia, initiated Merchantville's "period of transition from a strictly rural area to a select suburban site." Shortly thereafter, four Philadelphia land speculators, who happened to have been merchants — hence, "Merchantville" — founded what would become a suburb through a series of land purchases from farmers. These first speculators, Patrick Cunningham, Samuel McFadden, John Loutey, and Frederick Gerker, anticipated construction of the Camden and Pemberton Agricultural Railroad, a line chartered to connect Camden, Merchantville, Moorestown, Mount Holly, and Pemberton in 1854. However, no construction ensued and their land eventually was offered for sale to a second generation of speculators, including Alexander G. Cattell.
Alexander G. Cattell (1816-1894) was the mover and shaker behind the development of the 79 acres that were to form the late-nineteenth century residential core of the Borough. Cattell was born in Salem, New Jersey, where he engaged in mercantile pursuits until 1846. During that time he also was elected to the New Jersey Legislature at the young age of twenty-four and was clerk of the House in 1842-43. In 1846, his mercantile and banking interests took him to Philadelphia where he was a member of both branches of Council, one of the early presidents of the Corn Exchange Association, and in 1857 organizer of the Corn Exchange National Bank for which he served as President for thirteen years. Cattell moved to Merchantville in 1863 and three years later was elected to succeed Hon. J.P. Stockton as the United States Senator from New Jersey. Cattell, a personal acquaintance of President Grant, served two years in the Senate before accepting a one-year appointment in London as the Financial Agent of the United States. Due to ill health, Cattell did not seek another term in the Senate, but instead, returned to his Maple Avenue mansion in Merchantville (since demolished) and filed his 1869 plan of building lots for the real estate parcel he had been assembling.
With his brother, Elijah G. Cattell, Alexander G. Cattell had acquired the real estate for his suburban development from earlier speculators Samuel McFadden and John Loutey. Cattell purchased their land by 1865, cleared the wooded area known as "Coopers Woods," and laid out speculative building lots which he filed with the County in 1869. By 1866, the Camden and Burlington County Railroad had been organized and ground was broken for Merchantville's link to Camden and Philadelphia. The right-of-way for the railroad extended along Chestnut Avenue, bordering what was to become the Cattell Tract. The Cattell, Stetson, Homer, Cunningham, Morris, and Curtis families donated much of the land needed for construction of the railroad. Train service officially opened October 21, 1867, and in 1868, the Camden and Amboy leased the line. In 1872, soon after Cattell filed his plan for building lots and began to sell properties, the West Jersey Railroad, a division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, leased the line from the Camden and Amboy. Not coincidentally, Alexander G. Cattell also served on the Board of Directors of the West Jersey Railroad.
The improved transportation facilities brought several well-to-do Philadelphia families to summer homes in Merchantville in the late 1860s and early 1870s. This wealthier class typically built their homes along Maple Avenue, although there was some early construction in the Cattell Tract, including the homes of lace importer Edward M. Furber (1869), wholesale dry goods merchant Christian E. Spangler (1872), and cloth manufacturer Joseph Bayliss (circa 1873), all on East Walnut Avenue. In 1874 this early building activity and promise of prosperity led to the incorporation of the Borough, formerly part of Stockton Township, and enactment of ordinances.
If Cattell provided the physical framework for a commuter suburb, others provided the financial mechanisms. In 1867 David S. Stetson started the first of several building and loan associations in Merchantville. A building and loan association provided a long-term financing package for people who sought to buy into the community by selling shares in exchange for loans with a mortgage as security. Various promotional tools attracted people to buy real estate in Merchantville. These included summer boarding houses such as the Oak Grove Inn on Maple Avenue (since demolished) which hosted vacationers by 1874. It offered a relatively inexpensive escape from the hot city and an introduction to the town during its peak season of social activity; Merchantville also served as a place to stay during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Those who enjoyed renting rooms in the summer theoretically would return to rent or purchase a cottage for summer or year-round residency. Two such summer cottages for rent were the circa 1880 dwellings at 23 and 27 West Walnut Avenue. Real estate agents augmented this marketing effort with their flowery promotional literature and catalogues that advertised houses for rent or sale and lots to purchase. William Longstreth, who established the Merchantville Real Estate Exchange in 1890, was one of the earlier and more successful brokers of lots in the Cattell Tract and elsewhere in Merchantville.
Between 1880 and 1910, Merchantville's population increased from 440 residents living in 73 households to 1,996 residents within 446 dwellings. As early as 1880, a wide spectrum of occupations ranging from a wheelwright to the British Vice Consul was represented in the Borough. But, the people drawn to Cattell's speculative development were predominantly the new manufacturing middle class. In 1880, Walnut Avenue, located in the heart of the Cattell Tract Historic District, boasted manufacturers of frames, envelopes, dental instruments and hosiery. Park Avenue, too, was the home of middle class merchants and manufacturers. Chestnut Avenue and other areas of the Borough with smaller scale houses, tended to have a higher concentration of foreign-born, laboring class residents. Most new residents came to Merchantville from Philadelphia and Camden.
The new suburbanites represented various religious denominations including Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Catholic, and Baptist; the Baptists built the only church located within the Cattell Tract. Merchantville's Baptists first met in a member's home in 1889, then organized as a Baptist Church in 1890. They initially looked at a site for their own structure at Rogers Avenue and North Centre Street. However, the rapid growth of the congregation, a result of the 1890s influx of numerous middle class Baptists to the Cattell Tract, warranted a larger site and building. Between 1904 and 1906, the present stone Gothic Revival style church was erected at the corner of E. Walnut Avenue and N. Centre Street.
By 1877, approximately 17 houses had been built in the Cattell Tract. Many more properties were sold in the 1880s in a general pattern of settlement northward and westward from the original railroad station (E. Chestnut Avenue near Gilmore Avenue). Although Chestnut Avenue largely was built up by 1887, the busiest decade of building activity took place in the 1890s. The houses in the Cattell Tract Historic District represent a full spectrum of Victorian domestic architecture, both high style and vernacular interpretations, as well as a few examples of early-twentieth century styles. Amidst the many styles present, including the Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Shingle Style, and Colonial Revival — the Queen Anne clearly dominates the architectural character of the Cattell Tract.
The majority of the houses in the Cattell Tract Historic District are builder-designed adaptations of the period's high styles. Some are distinguished by their forms or roof configurations while others have elaborate porches or picturesque turrets and bays. Though Merchantville interestingly developed into a concentrated residential enclave of Philadelphia and Camden architects such as Thomas Stephens, Arnold G. Moses, Isaac Pursell, Harry E. Stephens, Henry Alexander Macomb, and Arthur Truscott, relatively few identifiably architect-designed houses stand in the Cattell Tract. Those of note for their individual architectural significance are: the National Register-listed Centennial House (17-19 E. Chestnut Avenue), a mansarded Stick Style double partially rebuilt by John Crump from building remnants from the Centennial Exposition; the Shavian Queen Anne style house at 101 E. Walnut Avenue and the Queen Anne/Shingle Style house across the street at 100 E. Walnut Avenue, both attributed to Isaac Pursell; and "Nethusa," the Tudor Revival style home at 25 East Cedar Avenue, designed by Philadelphia architect Charles Z. Klauder.
What distinguishes the resources in the Cattell Tract Historic District is their cohesiveness as streetscapes of well-preserved, suburban domestic architecture, each house on its standardized lot size laid out by Alexander G. Cattell in 1869 and shaded by mature trees. Overall, the houses display a high degree of architectural integrity, many having been restored to their former grandeur. In addition, the buildings form a concentrated enclave with minimal intrusion of resources erected after 1925. The Cattell Tract also has a distinct identity within the Borough. As it essentially comprises the entire northern portion of Merchantville above the former railroad line, it is geographically set apart from the commercial district and other areas of residential development. Despite scatterings of early mansions along Maple Avenue and turn-of-the-century homes along Maple Terrace, Franklin, Springfield, and Linden Avenues, the Cattell Tract clearly stands out as the Victorian core of the community.
In summary, the Cattell Tract Historic District stands as a well-preserved representative of the Victorian commuter suburbs that sprouted in the second half of the nineteenth century. It marks the successful investment and development efforts of U.S. Senator Alexander G. Cattell, a locally, if not statewide and nationally renowned figure. Comprised of streetscapes lined with handsome late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century homes illustrative of American suburban domestic architecture, the Cattell Tract also conveys a sense of time and place. For these reasons, the Cattell Tract Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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† Carol Benenson Perloff, Principal, Carol A. Benenson & Associates, Cattell Tract Historic District, Camden County, NJ, nomination document, 1993, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.