Llewellyn Park Historic District
The Llewellyn Park Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
Llewellyn Park, begun in 1853 by businessman Llewellyn Haskell, is the first romantically landscaped planned residential community in the United States. Indebted to English antecedents, its design was influenced directly by Alexander Jackson Davis, architect of a number of houses there, and indirectly, at least, by the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing. Haskell's Park, in turn, influenced the taste of Frederick Law Olmsted and a whole generation of town planners and landscape architects. Its design virtually intact today, Llewellyn Park stands as the chief surviving exponent of how mid-19th century picturesque ideals might be transformed into reality.
Evolution of the Park
The genesis of Llewellyn Park can be traced to 1850 when Llewellyn S. Haskell (1815-1872), a prosperous drug importer with offices in New York City, first met the architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892). Haskell engaged Davis to design a villa for riverfront property he owned in Belleville, N.J. and the two men became friends, their love for nature a common enthusiasm. Prompted by reasons of health and personal circumstance, Haskell sought property elsewhere for a new home, and in 1852 was introduced by Davis to a picturesque tract of semi-wilderness and farmland on the southeastern slope of Orange Mountain in what is now West Orange.
The beauty of the land and the vistas it commanded inspired both Davis and Haskell to build houses there for themselves. The initial vision of a private country retreat soon expanded, however. Whether prompted by his intense sensitivity to the transcendental qualities of the landscape, by investment potential or by Davis's enthusiasm for a development he might fill with his own designs for cottages and villas, Haskell soon began buying land in large parcels with the express purpose of creating a residential park.
By 1857, Haskell had amassed 350 acres on the slope "of the mountain below the 65 acres on Eagle Rock where his own villa rustica, "the Eyrie, and Davis's "Wildmont" were built. A Civil War-era account of the land emphasizes its romantic character (as well as the typically romantic bias of the observer), describing it as an "old tangled and disheveled spot ... a wild tract of mountainous land ... covered with thick woods ... threaded by mountain streams, pierced with picturesque ravines, rimmed and ribbed with rocks, monumented with venerable trees as old as the Pilgrim Fathers, and altogether diversified with a beautiful brokenness of scenery."
The existing features of the land suggested its manner of development. Natural terraces climbing the slope of the mountain were suitable for building sites and a deep ravine became the centerpiece of a 50-acre parcel intended as the focal point for the individual lots. This park within the park was first known as Llewellyn Park. Not until 1860 was the overall acreage identified thusly, at which point the ravine lands became known as the Ramble.
The single most important event that guaranteed the future stability of the residential community was one that gave a legal basis to the shared aesthetic that had become Haskell's development premise. On February 28, 1857 he and his wife deeded to three trustees all of the lands eventually to be known as the "Ramble," for use as "a private pleasure ground ... to be freely ... used and enjoyed, as a place of resort and recreation" by the separate owners of the villa sites. It was further specified that maintenance of this "pleasure ground," together with the public roads in the larger park, was to be accomplished by annually assessing the owners of the villas $10 per acre. Management of roads and the Ramble was put in the hands of a committee elected by the owners.
By 1860 Llewellyn Haskell's holdings had increased to 500 acres and he had spent the enormous sum of $100,000 to lay out villa sites and clear the tangle of underbrush, establish a pattern of curvilinear roads and implement a great deal of the overall landscape plan. His improvements also included the erection of a gatehouse designed, by Davis in 1857 and a collection of rustic-work fences, bridges, kiosk, etc., also from Davis' hand. As the physical appearance of the park was beginning to approach its mature state, the details of organizing and carrying out its management were proceeding apace, sometimes by trial and error.
The greatest damage to the Park's integrity came about in the 1960s when Interstate 280 was routed across the top of the mountain, slicing off substantial acreage on the western boundary. Not only land but houses were lost. Although invisible from most of the Park, noise, air pollution and vibrations carry beyond the right-of-way, views from certain portions of Tulip and Mountain Avenues are impaired and Castlewood, one of the few surviving buildings by Davis, stands perilously close to the highway. The insensitivity of the route is matched only by Interstate 287 in Morristown, where it runs within a hundred feet of the Jacob Ford Mansion, a National Historic Landmark.
The depredations of Route 280 and other forces reduced the Park's acreage from its 19th century high of 700+ acres to a present total of approximately 420 acres. Fortunately, all of the existing total consists of the central and most significant portions envisioned by Haskell and Davis. Of the Ramble, the Glen, the Forest and the Hill, only the last has been reduced in size.
If physical change marked the transition of the Park into the 20th century, human and social change did as well. In 1901 Daniel Heald died. One of the six men who attended the first meeting of lot owners on January 11, 1858, he served from that time until his death as Secretary of the Board of Managers and was recognized as the Park's "oldest constant resident. 1907 saw the death of two others intimately connected with the Park's nascent years, Orson D. Munn, publisher of The Scientific American (a Park resident since 1870) and Wendell Phillips Garrison, founder and editor of the Nation. Garrison was the third son of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who settled in the Park with his family in 1866. Because they carried forward Llewellyn S. Haskell's altruism, dedication to preserving natural beauty and an appreciation of the land as more than a commodity, these men and their contemporaries bequeathed to the Park a rare sense of purpose and continuity, more than merely institutional, that has lasted to this day and still informs the judgment of its directors.
Distaff participation in Park affairs grew in the 20th century as well. The Ladies' Association existed in the 19th century and by 1914 had two representatives on the Board of Managers for the first time in the history of the Park. The women of the Association enjoyed a large role in grounds maintenance, not simply choosing and planting flowers, but suggesting and raising money for improvements not covered by the regular budget. It was they who first suggested, in 1900, that the Park hire its own constable. In 1921 four women served on the nine-member Board of Managers. During the 1930s and '40s the Proprietor's and Manager's minutes reflect the cohesiveness of a small community. They contain much humor, often genteel but barbed wit, often expressed by the women, and often at the expense of their spouses. In 1936, for example, at a January 13 meeting of the Board of Proprietors, Mrs. Russell Colgate, reporting on proposed improvements to pedestrian paths, confessed that "she had been advised that a path two feet wide was sufficient for two people if they were not married but if they were married, four feet wide would not be too much ...."
Llewellyn Park was not the seminal event for American romantic architecture that it was for landscape design. The reaction against classically inspired architecture was already well established by the time Llewellyn Haskell began to implement his plans. Downing's Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850) were only two of the more important theoretical and practical books to popularize romantic domestic architecture. During the 1840s and '50s public enthusiasm for the picturesque was stimulated by a host of architect-authors, including Gervase Wheeler, William Ranlett, John Warren Ritch, Edward Shaw, Calvert Vaux and Samuel Sloan, all of whom had published at least one book before 1857 — by which date A.J. Davis had already made his name as the pre-eminent designer of romantic cottages and villas.
So if the dwellings that began to rise beside Haskell's towering trees were fashionable and up-to-date, they were not revolutionary. Among them were Gothic Revival, Italianate, Swiss and, after the Civil War, Second Empire designs (a "Turkish" villa designed by Davis was never built). One of the precepts of the Romantic Movement in architecture was the integration of picturesque man-made and natural forms — the design of a house should respond to an appropriately evocative rural site. Since American landscape design had not kept pace with architectural design this was not so easy to achieve. Many, if not most, of the newly romantic houses were built on small lots in small towns or villages on gridded streets antithetical to the ideal picturesque situation. Exceptions can easily be mentioned, of course, like Vaux's "Olana" and Davis' "Lyndhurst," but they were designed for clients who commanded more than middle-class means.
Llewellyn Park became the first concentrated collection of picturesque dwellings appropriately sited in a picturesque environment where a successful interaction of art and nature might be achieved without the expense of owning fifty acres.
† Robert P. Guter, Historic Preservation Consultant; Jane B. Davies, Historical Consultant; Donald C. Richardson, Landscape Consultant, Llewellyn Park Historic District, Essex County, NJ, nomination document, 1984, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.