Mendham Historic District
The Mendham Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
Throughout its history, Mendham Village has been the focal point for farmers and artisans of the area, and has served the needs of travelers of the principal route between New York City and Easton, Pennsylvania. Milling and cider making took place in Mendham, but other industrial activity was insignificant. As a result, the central character and appearance of the community, which had become well established before 1850, has changed little over the years. It offers today a picture of a significant regional center of the mid-nineteenth century, within which the education, religious and transportation needs of the area were accommodated.
The Mendham Historic District covers the entire village core of Mendham, New Jersey. Its area is the same as that shown on early maps as "Mendham, P.O.," the site of the post office, and of a few stores and homes which served as a local center for the surrounding agricultural community. Mendham has a very high number of historic buildings surviving in the center of the village, and they preserve well the streetscape and milieu of a village or small town that was once commonly found across the state. While there are a few surviving eighteenth century buildings in the village, and a number of interesting early twentieth century structures, Mendham is chiefly a product of the nineteenth century. The buildings are simple, based upon vernacular interpretation of American's various architectural modes.
The earliest land transactions in Mendham date to 1708, but permanent settlers did not arrive until the 1720's. The first settlement was made west of the present Borough, along the stream of Indian Brook. A meeting house was erected there ca.1730, and a grist mill set up along the creek. The settlement called Roxiticus, and now Ralston, remained but a small hamlet. It was soon overtaken in size and importance by a settlement which moved up the hill from the creek and to the east. This was Mendham, which had fixed its center by the early 1740's and in 1749, gave its name to one of Morris County's original townships. The new township encompassed all of present day Mendham Borough, Mendham Township, Chester Township, Chester Borough, and Randolph Township.
Through the 18th century, Mendham (also Mendom, Mondom) was settled by families from New England and Long Island. Indeed, the town received its name from Mendon, Massachusetts, home town of Ebenezer Byram, one of the prominent early settlers of Mendham, New Jersey. [Mendon, Massachusetts founded in 1667, is in Worcester County. There is a town of Mendham in England, the source for the Massachusetts town settlers and its name.] Ebenezer and his family established a tavern, the Black Horse Inn (1 West Main Street), in the center of village. Much enlarged and altered, the Black Horse Inn still stands to mark the center of Mendham, and has been in continuous use as an inn and tavern since 1742.
In 1745, Byram was the leader in establishing a new church or meetinghouse on the site of the present Hilltop Church (20 Hilltop Road). A doctrinal dispute split the congregation meeting at the Roxiticus church, and one part of the congregation regrouped as the Mendham Church (nicknamed Hilltop for its location). The other part of the old Roxiticus congregation went west to found the Chester Church. Byram persuaded John Gary, a carpenter and neighbor in Massachusetts to come to Mendham to build a new church, "for a wage of two shillings and sixpence per day." The meetinghouse he built was the center of town life, and descriptions of it indicate that it was a traditional, square-shaped meetinghouse in old New England tradition. It was used as a hospital for the Continental Army in 1779-80 while Washington's troops wintered at nearby Jockey Hollow. The old meetinghouse was struck by lightening in 1813, and pulled down in 1816 to make way for a new church. Two more fires and reconstructions of the church preceded the present Hilltop Church, built in 1860.
The village of Mendham played a part in the American Revolution, not only in caring for the sick of the army, but in providing supplies. Washington wrote, "provisions came with hearty good will from the farmers in Mendham Township." A village resident, Lebbeus Dod, made and repaired guns for the Continental Army at his home, which still stands west of the Mendham Historic District. Although the house has been greatly altered, it is noted as a New Jersey Historic Site for its association with Dod.
After the Revolutionary War, a generation of relative inactivity and poverty affected Mendham, as much of the country. But as the 19th century dawned, the area began to see more activity. Chester Township split off from Mendham Township in 1799, and in 1805, Randolph Township was established. In 1806, a company was chartered to build a turnpike from Phillipsburg/Easton to Morristown. Known as the Washington Turnpike, it passed through Mendham following the older stage route. The regular passage of travelers and goods over the turnpike prompted growth of the local inn, and Ebenezer Byram's Black Horse Inn was transformed to a gambrel-roofed, Federal style structure.
It was about this time that a post office was established in the village center. Throughout the 19th century, the residents of Mendham Township came into Mendham village to pick up their mail, and buy the few things they could not make themselves, at one of two general stores in the center of town (2 East Main Street and 1 & 3 E. Main Street). Legend says that the post office was located in one or the other of the stores, depending on the political party in office at the time.
Mendham was an agricultural area for most of its history. The real money crop for Mendham was not wheat or peaches, however, but "Apple Jack," distilled from apple cider. This raised the ire of the clergy throughout the 19th century. In the early 1820's, a minister of the Presbyterian Church began to give pointed sermons on the evils of alcohol, and he decried the making of strong drink. After only 18 months at his post, Rev. Hay was dismissed, being told that, "nearly all the money that came into Mendham came from the sale of distilled liqueur."
In 1855, another preacher, Rev. Cox noted of his Hilltop Church congregation, "I had, if I remember right, from 18 to 20 distilleries under my pastoral care, and I found them very impracticable and untoward parishioners." As late as 1895, a local historian claimed to know of three apple jack distilleries in operation, "the more prominent distillery in Mendham...that of Josiah Beach on the road to Bernardsville, just below Hilltop church..."
These same farmers astonished Rev. Dr. Hasting when he arrived in Mendham in 1852 by quoting Latin and Greek in their conversation. This is the story, at any rate, but it emphasizes the importance education held for the citizens of Mendham. Religion and education were close companions in the 18th and 19th centuries, so it is no surprise that the first school was established in the village in 1795 by Rev. Henry Axtell. The school was located north of the Hilltop Church, on a site that has been continuously occupied by a school ever since (Hilltop Elementary School, 12 Hilltop Road). Numerous private academies were established in Mendham throughout the 19th century. These included the highly-regarded academy of Ezra Fairchild, an Amherst graduate; the Rankin School (6 Prospect Street) and the Mendham Institute. Another private school was run by two sisters, the Misses Babbitt, from 1861-1901. Their school was incorporated as the kitchen of the home built on the site in 1901 (18 W. Main Street).
It was in the mid-19th century that the monopoly hold of the Presbyterian Church was broken in Mendham. In 1827-28, a series of revival meetings lead to the formation of a Methodist Congregation. They proposed to build a church in Mendham, but met with great opposition from the Presbyterians, who saw no need for another church in the village. The Presbyterians were having difficulty supporting their own minister, and feared the town could never support two. However, the Methodists did build a church (10 E. Main Street), and the spiritual outlook of the community so improved, that there was an increase in the church-going population. Soon both Methodists and Presbyterians flourished. The present Methodist Church was built in 1893, the original building having been outgrown by the congregation.
The next religion to be established in Mendham was Roman Catholicism. A parish was established in 1853, and St. Joseph's Church was constructed in 1859-1860 (8 W. Main Street). The great Irish migration to America of the 1830's and '40's was reflected in the names of this church's founders.
The Irish in Mendham seemed to blend in with the rest of the population, pursuing their crafts and farming alongside descendants of the English settlers. There was, however, another non-English population in Mendham, less easily blended in: the descendants of slaves, and a few free blacks. They had been in the community since the 18th century. Slavery was abolished in New Jersey in 1846, but a sympathy for the system remained in some. As the Civil War approached, the same tensions that split the country divided Mendham.
Reverend Theodore F. White of the Hilltop Church, a man with strong abolitionist leanings, invited a black man to preach one Sunday. This offended much of the congregation and the abolitionist supporters broke away to form the Second Presbyterian Church of Mendham. The Second Presbyterian Church was located close to the middle of town, and its members were able to construct a handsome house of worship in 1859. The congregations were reunited in 1900, and the Second Church torn down. On its site (8 Hilltop Road) a house was built; and the timber from the Second Church was used to build another house at 14 New Street. The parsonage for the short-lived church continues to be occupied as a residence (9 Hilltop Road).
After the Civil War, an Episcopalian parish was established in Mendham. Originally only a chapel to serve summer visitors, St. Mark's became a "full-time" church in 1908. St. Mark's Church, built 1872-73 (11 E. Main Street) adopted the handsome Federal-style house of the Marsh family as its rectory.
All this church building in Mendham in the 19th century was accomplished by a local carpenter-builder, Aaron Hudson. Hudson was born in Mendham in 1801, and practiced his craft here from the 1830's to his death in 1888. There is very little known about him, or his training, but he built in a number of 19th century "revival" styles, especially the Gothic Revival and Greek Revival. Hudson is credited with the construction of the present Hilltop Church, 1895-60 (20 Hilltop Road), St. Joseph's Church, 1859-60 (8 W. Main Street), the first Methodist Church of 1833, and St. Mark's Church 1872-73 (11 E. Main Street). His own home (11 Hilltop Road), the home of a neighbor in the village (14 New Street), and the portico of the Phoenix House (2 W. Main Street) are wonderful examples of the adaptation of a Greek Revival vocabulary to vernacular buildings, Hudson's work is undocumented, but stylistic similarities of these and other buildings in the surrounding countryside seem to point to a single, talented builder.
A. D. Hudson's residence at 11 Hilltop Road, and the carpenter shop in back, appear on the 1868 map of Mendham by the Beer's Atlas Company. It is the first detailed look at Mendham offered, and it shows a village of some 81 principal buildings, of which 61 are still standing. The business directory accompanying the map lists the occupations of the county village: butcher, blacksmith, pastor, merchant, physician, hotel proprietor, and copper-and-tinsmith. There was a Justice of the Peace and a principal of the "Classical and English School" as well. This school, or seminary as it was called, gave its name to a street (now Prospect Street) which was the first to be laid out beyond the original crossroads of Mendham. Another street was opened in the 19th century to join Seminary at right angles, appropriately called "New" Street.
One other occupation was listed in the 1868 directory — proprietor of a boarding house. There were two boarding houses (with proprietresses, to be exact), and a number of area farms also took in summer boarders. Old timers recall that families from the Oranges in New Jersey came to board in Mendham year after year for country air and leisure.
A century ago, according to the Morris County Directory of 1883-84, there were three boarding houses in operation in Mendham (Phoenix House, 2 W. Main Street and Eliza Thompson House, 29 Hilltop Road). Boarding guests was one of the few "industries" of Mendham in the 19th century. The Phoenix House, originally built as a young ladies seminary, was converted to lodging for Mendham's guests in about 1820. William Phoenix operated a popular inn here from 1820-1857, and from 1857-1907, his daughters Sarah, Julia and Elizabeth ran a genteel boarding house.
Perhaps the most famous boarder was General Abner Doubleday, hero of the battle of Gettysburg, and the man credited with the invention of modern baseball. He first came to Mendham in 1873 upon retirement from the army. He and his wife liked Mendham so much, they built a home on Hilltop Road, and Doubleday died there in 1893. The house was torn down in the 1930's, but its site is within the district, in the side yard of 13 Hilltop Road.
General Doubleday certainly found a quiet place for his retirement. While an 1844 description of Mendham noted that there were two grist mills, one saw mill, one fulling mill, one woolen and one cotton factory, none of these enterprises was located in the village of Mendham. They were in Ralston and Brookside, other villages in the present day Mendham Township.
Mendham Village did have a carriage or coach factory in operation prior to 1860, but the business collapsed with the onset of the Civil War. The 1868 Atlas shows the large "Coach Factory" on East Main Street. The factory building stood, deteriorating, until 1905, when it was torn down. Its demise was hailed as a great "civic improvement." The site is presently occupied by a modern bank (17 E. Main Street).
The 1868 map of Mendham also showed a tannery north of West Main Street, down in a swampy area behind the main part of town. The tannery was a small commercial venture run by Joseph Babbitt, who listed himself in the village's 1868 business directory as a "Leather Manufacturer."
The railroad, that great engine of 19th century prosperity, did not reach Mendham. Relatively-late (1888), the Rockaway Valley Railroad was built from Whitehouse, New Jersey, to Morristown, primarily to carry farm produce from western New Jersey to markets in the east. The railroad passed through Mendham, but the tracks and rudimentary station were well to the north of the village.
As the 20th century dawned, a new wave of activity came to Mendham, resulting in a small "building boom" in the village. At the turn of the century, many new millionaires had country manors and estates built for themselves in the pastoral landscape they found beyond urbanized New Jersey. Morristown was perhaps the starting point, with mansions strung out to the west-southwest, down into the hills of Somerset County, near Mendham, Bernardsville, Peapack, and Gladstone. Many of the residents of Mendham gained a new livelihood as servants or hired help in the nearby estates, and local merchants found themselves supplying the new "carriage trade." The relationship between village and estate seems to have been a mutually beneficial one.
The estates themselves were architectural fantasies in all manner of styles from the past. Most were to be of masonry, a craft which simply did not exist in wooden-built Mendham. John Hoffman, an enterprising general contractor from Mendham wanted to work on the building of the estates, so he recruited masons. The best masons to be found at the turn-of-the-century were Italian, and so Hoffman brought some half-dozen Italian masons and their families to Mendham. Hoffman built simple frame houses for them behind his own, on the site of the 19th century tannery. This "Little It-ly" (as old Mendhamites call it) is now gone, the cheap houses torn down as the occupants made their way into the mainstream of American life. Several settled in Mendham and built their own homes, out of masonry, of course. The Italian workers also built a fire station and social hall (21 W. Main Street), which was nicknamed "Hoffman Hall," and a grocery store (4 Hilltop Road). The grocery was soon rented as a post office, and there Mendham's post office remained until 1977, when a new facility was constructed at the east end of town, near the shopping center.
The fire hall was a great social center, and a symbol of Mendham's status as a Borough. Laws required that a public water system could only be adopted in a borough. A concern for a clean, reliable source of water for drinking and for fire fighting led to the separation of Mendham Borough from Mendham Township in 1906.
Once the water system was established, a number of homes were built in Mendham, filling in the empty lots of the early crossroads plan.
Few changes occurred in Mendham from the time of the First World War until about 1960. The institution of income tax, and then the Depression forced the break-up of many of the great estates. Mendham returned to its life as a sleepy country village. Attracted by this, suburban development came to Mendham in the 1960's. The old village core is virtually surrounded by single family suburban residential development, although there is virtually no visual intrusion of this in the village, due to trees and the rolling hills, Mendham is today a desirable and expensive suburban location, with new development far more extensive than the old. Yet even new residents in new houses are proud of their "historic" village, and this image is in large measure a result of the concentration of older structures in the village center.
Barber, John W. and Howe, Henry. Historical Collections of the State of New Jersey. Published by the authors, 1844.
Boyd, Andrew. Boyd's Morris County Directory for 1883-1884. Boyd Publishing Company, 1884.
Emmons, Catherine M. Through the Years in Mendham Borough. Mendham, New Jersey, 1973.
Honeyman, A. Van Doren. Northwestern New Jersey. Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., New York, 1927.
Hopler, Martha; Roessler, Edward; and West, Wallace. The Mendhams. The Mendham Township Committee, Brookside, New Jersey, 1964.
Mockridge, Ella W. Our Mendham. Edwards Brothers, Inc., Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1961.
Munsell & Company. History of Morris County, New Jersey. W.W. Munsell and Company. New York, 1882.
St. Joseph's Church. Mendham, New Jersey. 60th Anniversary Souvenir Book, 1920.
Titus, Charles A. A History of the Mendham Methodist Church. Privately Printed, October 1893.
Davis, Calvin. Memorandum Pertaining to Mendham, New Jersey, (and)
Davis, Calvin. Some Reminiscences of Mendham. Handwritten ledgers of local history taken from earlier primary sources, newspaper clippings, oral tradition, and the daily events (births, marriages, deaths, house building) Davis witnessed from about 1895 to 1925. Mendham Free Public Library Archives.
Hilltop Presbyterian Church Records. History, reproduction of original session books, anniversary publications, cemetery directory, building history. Morristown & Morris Township Free Public Library, Local History Room.
Talbot, E.B. "Colonial Inns of Morris County, New Jersey 1740-1781" Morris County Historical Society Reports 1947-48. Morristown & Morris Township Free Public Library, Local History Room.
Records of the Historic American Buildings Survey for the Hilltop Church, Wolfe House, Phoenix House, and Aaron Hudson House. From the H.A.B.S. Records, Library of Congress.
1978 Mendham Borough Master Plan. Malcolm Kasler and Associates, Community Planning Consultants. Adopted by the Borough of Mendham October 1978.
Beers, F.W. Atlas of Morris County, New Jersey. Beers, Ellis, & Soule, New York, 1868.
Dolph-Stewart Street, Road, & .Property Ownership Map of Morris County New Jersey. Dolph & Stewart, New York. No date, ca.1930.
Lightfoot, J. and Geil, S. Map of Morris County, New Jersey. J.B. Shields, Publisher, Morristown, N.J., 1853.
Robinson, E. Robinson's Atlas of Morris County. Robinson & Company, New York, 1887.
Interviews with the following long-time residents of Mendham were helpful in preparing the nomination, and their cooperation is gratefully acknowledged: Miss Elizabeth Cacchio, Miss Mary Cacchio, Mrs. Laura Day Dean, Mr. Jack Dormer, Miss Catherine Emmons, Miss Ethel Hill and Mr. & Mrs. Reginald Robinson.
† Janet W. Foster, Historic Preservation Consultant, Mendham Borough, Mendham Historic District, Morris County, NJ, nomination document, 1984, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.