Blackwell Street Historic District
The Blackwell Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. 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 Blackwell Street Historic District is the commercial and civic heart of Dover, New Jersey, the most important 19th century industrial town in Morris County. The institutions, businesses and architecture found within the district illustrate the lifestyle of a working class community from 1827 through the first third of the 20th century. From the beginning of its history, Dover's most important stores, banks, hotels, theatres, churches and public buildings have been found within the district, a concentration resulting from the planning efforts of the Town's founders, New York entrepreneurs Blackwell and McFarlan. The Blackwell Street Historic District served as the center for popular entertainment in Morris County, has been associated with four significant transportation phenomena and includes a variety of buildings spanning 100 years of American architecture. These buildings contribute to an understanding of vernacular commercial architecture in New Jersey.
Settlement and Community Planning
The roots of the Blackwell Street Historic District can be traced to the economic depression following the War of 1812, when Canfield and Losey, owners of the Dover Furnace since 1792, fell into debt and were forced to relinquish their holdings. In 1817, New York businessmen, Joseph Blackwell and Henry McFarlan received about 450 acres to settle accounts due. The land they acquired included all of the present central business district, although the village itself numbered no more than 12 dwellings and the iron works.
Announcement in 1824 of plans to build the Morris Canal raised Blackwell and McFarlan's hopes for their investment. In 1825, they commissioned a map of the community. It included all buildings then standing (naming only two commercial establishments) and extrapolated new streets from the existing pattern, thus enabling the partners to draw building lot lines and to incorporate in the following year. In 1827, they advertised in the Palladium of Liberty that building lots were for sale. In an effort to stimulate development, their terms included: "Ten per cent on the day of sale; 40 per cent on Nov. 1; 50 per cent on May 1, 1828...If improvements valued at $800 are made during 1827 one-half the amount paid for the lot will be refunded. If improvements are made in 1827 and 1828, then 1/4 will be deducted from the cost of the lot."
In 1829, McFarlan, who appears to have been the more philanthropic and public-spirited of the two partners, had erected at his own expense the Town's first general-purpose public building, still situated on its original lot on the north side of East Dickerson Street between Morris and Essex Streets. it was known as the Stone Academy (25-27 East Dickerson Street) and housed the first religious services of both Presbyterians and Episcopalians, a school, and various public meetings. During this period, McFarlan's other civic projects included the planting of shade trees and the distribution of paint to owners who agreed to paint their houses.
In 1831 the Morris Canal was completed to Newark, giving Dover a competitive advantage over Millbrook, then the leading industrial village in the vicinity. Blackwell and McFarlan's lots began to sell and Dover grew, steadily. An 1832 map by E.H. Van Winkle shows the downtown street grid in essentially its present pattern. A map of Morris County published by J.B. Shields in 1853 depicts only two town plans in detail, those of Morristown and Dover, attesting to their importance and relatively large size. According to Shields' map, approximately 60 buildings stood within the present Blackwell Street Historic District boundaries, with as many as 60 more scattered throughout the rest of the village; the greatest concentration of buildings were clustered about the intersection of Blackwell and Sussex Streets. Shields identifies ten "stores," a bakery, confectionary, furniture store, two hotels and a bank. Public buildings were limited to the Presbyterian Church, public school and the Stone Academy. Measured solely by the increase in dwellings and commercial establishments, Blackwell and McFarlan's promotional and planning efforts must be judged successful. The presence of three iron furnaces and a rolling and slitting mill proves that hopes for a revival of the iron industry were realized as well. Henry McFarlan's personal commitment to Dover is evidenced by the large parcel he received for his residence on the north side of Blackwell Street west of Warren Street.
Between 1853 and 1887 the residential neighborhoods north and southwest of the business district were gradually filled with houses, but the Blackwell Street commercial area did not outgrow its original boundaries. The 1868 map published by Beers represents little change from the downtown of 1853. Development remained clustered around the Blackwell/Sussex intersection with some increase in density. An additional north/south street was cut through to the east and names redesignated, so that the former Sussex-Essex-Bergen Street sequence became Sussex-Morris-Essex-Bergen.
By the time Robinson's Atlas of Morris County was published in 1887, Sussex Street north to Clinton Street had grown into a subsidiary commercial street, but the original Blackwell and Sussex axis continued to dominate the commercial sphere. Blackwell west of Warren Street remained residential, anchored by the estate of Henry McFarlan. It was not until the turn of the century that the district underwent its final urban metamorphosis, with uniform commercial and institutional development lining Blackwell Street, except for a few remnants of "Doctor's Row" at the west end. Charles D. Platt commented on the change when he wrote in 1922, "The McFarlan regime lasted about half a century. Then it ceased. McFarlan Park, the pride of the village, was sold and soon all traces of the old gardens on both sides of Blackwell Street gave way to the show windows of thrifty storekeepers, the billboards of the Baker Theatre, the Hoagland Memorial Church."
The growth of the Blackwell Street Historic District is in large measure a result of improved transportation systems. Because Dover's history began with forge operations to smelt iron ore mined from the surrounding hills, the earliest roads were routes from mine to forge. First references to Dover roads appear in the Book of Roads A, found in the County Clerk's Office. Two roads surveyed in 1792 cite Beeman's Forge, an early Dover landmark, as a reference point.
Shortly after 1800, New Jersey began to charter turnpike companies to build or improve roads. Two of these turnpikes ran along the edges of the boundaries drawn to define the present Blackwell Street Historic District. The Union Turnpike (1804) followed the approximate course of modern State Route 15, meeting the district boundary at Clinton and Sussex Streets. The Washington Turnpike (1806), ran from about the intersection of Blackwell and Prospect Streets to U.S. Route 46 and then west along the path of that highway.
Although these roads were important to Dover's early development, it was the Morris Canal that first sparked significant industrial and commercial expansion. Blackwell and McFarlan's previously-cited advertisement of 1827 mentioned the turnpikes, but emphasized the Town's location on the canal (still under construction), the Lehigh coal it would make available, and the improved access to eastern markets. In time the Canal did more than run through Dover. Its largest basin was built at the terminus of Essex Street (site of the present-day Commons Park) where boats were docked and loaded and unloaded with raw materials or finished goods. Around its banks were scattered several iron works, smithies, and a boat yard. The Canal required five locks to traverse Dover, and intersected Sussex Street and the Rockaway River within the boundaries of the present district. By stimulating industry, the Canal necessitated the commercial support system which developed into a center for goods and services.
In 1848 the Morris and Essex Railroad was extended west into Dover, further stimulating the town's growth into a central marketplace, and rendering the Canal increasingly obsolete. Produce came from as far away as Sussex County to be shipped to Newark and other points east. Freight tonnage had so increased by 1881 that the Central Railroad of New Jersey (Henry McFarlan, Jr., one of its organizers) extended its line to Dover with limited passenger service added. In 1901, the importance of the district as a commuter and freight point was underscored when the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western (successor to the Morris and Essex Railroad) built an imposing new station.
The last mode of transportation to impact Dover's growth was the Trolley. The Morris County Traction Company, incorporated in 1899, ran its first car through Dover in 1904 along Blackwell Street. By 1911, through-service was available from Elizabeth to Lake Hopatcong, eventually on a half-hourly schedule.
In addition to the obvious impact of canal, railroad and trolley line on Dover's prosperity, each introduced workers who lived or laid-over in town, thus swelling the local consumer market. In 1922 about 450 employees of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (successor to the Morris and Essex line), and more than 100 employees of the Morris County Traction Company lived in Dover.
The canal and trolley have vanished, but 1,500 passengers depart from the Dover Train Station daily, and the Central still carries freight. Four county bus routes, one regional (Lakeland) and one national (Greyhound) ran through Dover; Blackwell Street is a county road; and four State, and Interstate roads run through Dover or near its boundaries.
Four church buildings survive within the boundaries of the Blackwell Street Historic District, three of them belonging to the town's first three denominations — Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians.
L.B. Magie, writing in 1895, observed that, "For one hundred and thirteen years after the first settler built his house and his forge within the limits of what is now Dover there was no church organization here." Presbyterians were the first to find a home in Dover. They organized in 1835, under the jurisdiction of the Newark Presbytery, four years after completion of the Morris Canal through the town. Until 1842 they worshiped in the Stone Academy (25-27 East Dickerson Street). In that year, with a membership of about 40 persons, they dedicated their first church, a small wooden building, at the southeast corner of Prospect and Blackwell Streets. It was moved, and replaced on the same lot in 1872 by a larger wooden building. In 1899, Hudson Hoagland, whose mother had been a founding member of the congregation, offered to pay for a new building as a memorial to his recently deceased wife. His offer was accepted and the congregation occupied its limestone Romanesque Revival church in 1901. It occupies a lot on part of the Henry McFarlan Estate, opposite the site of the two earlier churches. As late as 1905, all three buildings stood within view of one another.
The First Methodist Episcopal Church traces its roots to the Millbrook M.E. Church. It was the first congregation in Dover to have its own building, constructed in 1838 at the corner of North Sussex and McFarlan Streets. In 1872 the congregation divided, and one group built a stone church near the corner of North Essex and Blackwell Streets. It served the congregation until 1907, when a new church was added to it, the old building becoming a Sunday School annex.
Like the Presbyterians, Episcopalians in Dover first met in the Stone Academy. The year was 1849 when Bishop Doane placed Dover under the charge of the Rector of St. Peter's Church in Morristown. The congregation grew slowly, but in 1866 was large enough to commence work on a building of its own, presumably designed by Richard Upjohn (St. John's Episcopal Church; south side of Blackwell Street between Bergen and Essex streets). Funds were quickly exhausted, however, and construction was halted until 1870. The following year the congregation was able to leave the Stone Academy and occupy its new Gothic Revival church, constructed on a choice piece of meadowland donated by Henry McFarlan, Jr., who had been appointed a lay reader by Bishop Doane.
In the same year that the First Methodist congregation dedicated its building (1872), the Free Methodists erected a small stone church on a lot donated by Manning Searing. According to Platt, the Free Methodists advocated inexpensive buildings, and spent $5,000 on the Sussex Street Church (First Free Methodist Church; 51 North Sussex Street).
The last group to establish itself in the district was Adath Israel of Dover. In 1917, 32 charter members organized an Orthodox congregation that met at 6 West Blackwell Street in a hall over Pierson's Clothing Store where services were held in Hebrew.
Religious trends in the Blackwell Street Historic District parallel those statewide during the same period: Presbyterians enjoyed an early ascendancy, being the most numerous of northern New Jersey denominations in most instances; strong evangelical campaigns gained converts for Methodism in the middle of the 19th century; the lingering taint of Toryism after the Revolution slowed the recognition and growth of Episcopalianism until mid-century; and outside of the larger urban centers, organized Judaism made scant progress until the twin stimulus of continued urbanization and Eastern European immigration before the First World War.
For the most part, the history of education in Dover transpired in places outside the district with the important exception of the Stone Academy (25-27 East Dickerson Street). The construction of that building by Henry McFarlan, Sr., in 1829, coincided with the introduction of an Act of Legislature to establish the first comprehensive school law.
Although Mr. McFarlan's specific intent regarding the educational use of the Stone Academy is not recorded, he apparently meant it to replace the old school building which had stood on the south side of Dickerson Street since the 18th century. Controversy arose over abandoning the old building, however, with the result that new and old schools held classes concurrently, sometimes sharing teachers. Because of McFarlan's generosity, Dover for many years had two "Academies," neither lacking for scholars. His interest in education is typical of the period, when approximately one fifth of New Jersey's voters were illiterate, and the lack of a general public educational system meant that religious and benevolent institutions and local interests assumed the responsibility for operating schools.
The Stone Academy also housed a number of parochial school classes during its years as a public building. In 1880 the McFarlan estate sold the Academy, which was then converted to a double dwelling house.
From the time of Blackwell and McFarlan's first map in 1825 until the Shields map of 1853, Dover experienced its most dramatic commercial growth. In 1825, it was hardly a village, with only one store to serve the iron workers; in 1853 Shields identifies 13 commercial establishments of various sorts, plus two hotels and a bank. By 1868, at least 20 businesses can be identified. After that date some marginal commercial activity develops elsewhere, but the commercial core remains concentrated on Sussex Street south of Clinton Street and on Blackwell Street west of Bergen Street.
Hotels, boarding houses and places of popular entertainment were numerous, partly as a result of Dover's position as a transportation hub and trans-shipment point. Searing's Hotel (58-60 N. Sussex Street) (later the North End Hotel) together with the Mansion House and the Park Hotel were three early hostelries followed by the Central Hotel (40-42 N. Sussex Street), opened in 1872 by Leopold D. Schwartz. The Mansion House was demolished in 1936, the Park Hotel in 1929.
Typical of the period, businesses were specialized. A few prosperous merchants built stores expressly for their own use, like the Berry Building (15 East Blackwell Street) and Harris Building (19 E. Blackwell Street), but most commercial structures were built as speculative space. The three largest 19th century commercial buildings, the Richards Block (1-5 West Blackwell Street), the Baker Building (16 W. Blackwell Street) and the six-unit row (6-16 E. Blackwell Street) were occupied by a succession of small businesses.
A bank had existed in Dover as early as 1831 but subsequently ceased operations. In 1872 the National Union Bank was chartered and occupied 7-9 W. Blackwell Street together with the U.S. Post Office. In 1929 the bank moved to its new building (24-26 W. Blackwell Street) erected on the site of the Park Hotel. A competitor, the People's National Bank, was established in 1898 and first occupied the Baker Building (16 W. Blackwell Street). In 1902 it was succeeded by the Dover Trust Company, and 13 years later moved to a new building (15 W. Blackwell Street) at the northeast corner of Blackwell and Warren Streets. The present-day successors to these two banks still occupy the 1915 and 1929 buildings, which, with the Baker Building, make the Blackwell and Warren intersection one of the prime commercial locations in the district.
From the mid-19th century to about 1930, the Blackwell Street District was the pre-eminent place in Morris County for popular entertainment. The three most important theatres still stand.
Built about 1860, Moeller's Opera House (16 N. Sussex Street) is described in Munsell's 1882 History of Morris County as "Moeller's Opera House and Orchestra Hall." It appears to have operated unrivaled until 1884, when William H. Baker built the Baker Opera House, a combined commercial block and auditorium (16 W. Blackwell Street). The Baker Building, or Baker Opera House, as a gathering place for civic and recreational purposes and as a physical landmark has been an important part of the town's central business district since it was constructed. It remained the center for performing arts in town for 25 years, contributing to Dover's longstanding claim as the show business capital of Morris County.[25, 26] Today, it is the most imposing commercial building of its era to have survived in Dover and serves as a pivotal landmark on Blackwell Street. By 1906, Baker's growing ambition resulted in construction of the Baker Theatre (39 W. Blackwell Street) with the largest seating capacity of any auditorium in the county. It presented vaudeville and motion pictures, but specialized in lavish productions of legitimate plays brought on tour from New York City with their original casts.
In addition to the three principal theatres was the Bon Ton, which showed movies, and a number of dance halls, bowling alleys and fraternal halls which, together with the hotels and their bars, provided ample diversion for ordinary citizens as well as the canal and railroad crews that laid-over in town.
The commercial buildings of the Blackwell Street Historic District illustrate the difficulty of applying strict stylistic labels to urban vernacular architecture. The following analysis is one way of approaching the diversity of styles found in downtown Dover, although other observers might choose different nomenclature.
The first four categories occur in roughly chronological order; the fifth can be found at various times. Since only a few buildings are architect-designed, all of the categories are essentially "vernacular," the high style labels meant to denote influences at various removes. The categories include: Italianate; Second Empire; Renaissance Revival; Neoclassical; Eclectic Commercial.
Searing's Hotel (58-60 N. Sussex Street), built c. 1850, is a simple wooden structure with low-pitched roof and bracketed cornice, now faced with brick veneer and shorn of its wooden porch. It may be the earliest surviving building constructed expressly for a commercial use. A more explicitly Italianate building is the Schwarz Block (30-36 N. Sussex Street), built c.1870, also denatured by brick veneer and altered storefronts. Nominal Italianate influence can be found in several buildings with unornamented facaded and bracketed cornices, like #4 Blackwell Street. Heavy cornices, like that at #8 Blackwell Street common in some areas, are not the rule in Dover.
Second Empire buildings in the Blackwell Street Historic District exhibit none of the plasticity and complex facade rhythm typical of the style's more monumental examples. In Dover they are likely to be simple boxes with Italianate cornices, identifiable as Second Empire only by their mansard roofs. Moeller's Opera House (16 N. Sussex Street), probably built c.1860, and the Central Hotel (40-42 N. Sussex Street) of 1872 are the best examples.
Renaissance Revival facades are found in only three instances. The National Union Bank Building (9 W. Blackwell Street) of 1871 is the most sophisticated, with pedimented window surrounds and other detailing of pressed metal. Its original entrances, framed with freestanding columns, were replaced c.1929 with a facing of glazed terra cotta. The six-unit row (6-16 E. Blackwell Street) built between 1868 and 1887 achieves a Renaissance quality through the repetition of round-arched windows and a unifying cornice. Cast-iron rosettes punctuate the ground-floor fascia. About 1910 a small, one-story facade of pressed metal (28 N. Sussex Street) was added to the Schwarz block. The use of pressed metal for facades of this sort is rare in Dover, despite the location of the Dover Boiler Works' iron products industry in town. Tin ceilings are very common on building interiors here. The Schwarz example, with its rounded arches and clustered columns is probably closer to Romanesque than Renaissance proto-types.
During the first third of the 20th century, neoclassical motifs enjoyed popularity in Dover. Often the references are restrained — little more than classical moldings, symmetrical fenestration and rusticated keystones. Two outstanding examples of this type are 7-11 South Warren Street and 27-29 East Blackwell Street. By 1915 when the Dover Trust Company was built (15 W. Blackwell Street), the classical vocabulary was being used in a more self-conscious manner. Like the National Union Bank of 1929 (24-26 W. Blackwell Street), the Dover Trust is obviously an architect-designed building. The facade of 31 East Blackwell Street is a more naive expression of the neoclassical mode, in which a tetra-style temple front appears to be pasted on an ordinary brick facade. The 1936 U.S. Post Office (22 N. Sussex Street) brings the neoclassical chapter to an end, its boxy, rather brutal forms decorated with abstracted classical ornament typical of pre-war architecture in the United States and Europe.
Perhaps the most interesting architecture in the Blackwell Street Historic District, difficult to pigeonhole stylistically, is the last category, eclectic commercial. Most popular in the 1870's and 80's, it can be identified by its inventive use of paneling, corbeling and other brick ornament, the models for which appear to be largely ahistorical. The two best examples are the Richards Block (1-5 W. Blackwell Street) of 1869-1872 and the Baker Building (16 W. Blackwell Street), c.1885. Less ambitious, but part of the same strain are 75 West Blackwell Street and the trio adjacent to the Baker Building, one unit now altered (10, 12 and 14 W. Blackwell Street) and (21-23 W. Blackwell Street).
Another motif evident in the Blackwell Street Historic District from about 1800 to 1920 is the use of rock-faced stone for sills, lintels and keystones. Probably attributable to the influence of H.H. Richardson, it is found in both vernacular and high style buildings, like the 1901 Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Station (North Dickerson Street) designed by F.J. Nies.
Residential and religious architecture account for a small percentage of buildings in the Blackwell Street Historic District. The two best churches are St. John's Episcopal Church, designed c.1865, probably by Richard Upjohn, but not completed until 1871; and the Hoagland Memorial Presbyterian Church completed in 1901 to designs by Newark architect Paul Botticher. St. John's is a representative of the ecclesiologically correct bell-cote type based on English parish models. The Hoagland Memorial, notable for a beautifully detailed sanctuary, is typical of the late Romanesque Revival, modified in color and ornament by the return to classicism.
Number 58 Sussex Street and the small house (fronts Clinton Street) attached to Searing's Hotel are the oldest dwellings in the Blackwell Street Historic District, dating from the first half of the 19th century. They are typical of the three-bay, side-hall New Jersey plan which persisted in numerous variations for more than 100 years. The remaining houses include the turn-of-the-century Pierson Block (79-89 Blackwell Street), a six-unit apartment eclectic in ornament and materials, and the Dr. Condict House (55 W. Blackwell Street) from the same period, built in an eclectic Colonial Revival style with vernacular brick decoration, and (Dr. William J. Farren House, 44 W. Blackwell Street) and (48 W. Blackwell Street).
Unique in the Blackwell Street Historic District is the Stone Academy (25-27 East Dickerson Street), a two-story rubble stone building dating from 1829. In its symmetrical composition and lack of ornamentation it is representative of vernacular New Jersey architecture in the first third of the 19th century.
† Robert P. Guter, Consultant, Dover Redevelopment Agency, Blackwell Street Historic District, Morris County, NJ, nomination document, 1980, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.