Van Wyck Brooks Historic District
The Van Wyck Brooks 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.
The Van Wyck Brooks Historic District is a cohesive neighborhood of early suburban architecture significant in the historical development of Plainfield as a wealthy commuter railroad suburb during the late 19th century. The structures within the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District represent fine individual examples of residential buildings from the 1875-1925 period. A number of the residences were designed by New York architects and some, like A.L.C. Marsh, who specialized in "country homes," lived in Plainfield. Several houses in the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District were featured in the Scientific American between 1893 and 1905 (216 West 8th Street, 308 West 8th Street, 452 West 8th Street, 718 Madison Avenue, 943 Madison Avenue, 965 Madison Avenue, 721 Central Avenue and 963 Central Avenue). Other homes in the area were singled out in various publications promoting Plainfield. A wide range of late 19th and early 20th century styles is represented in the district, including Italianate, Second Empire, Victorian Gothic, Stick Style, Queen Anne, Shingle Style, Colonial Revival, and Tudor Revival. These are large upper-middle class dwellings, conspicuous symbols of wealth, which are notable for their quality of construction and for their ornamental detailing. The highest overall design quality is exhibited in the Queen Anne and Shingle Style/Colonial Revival houses in the district.
The Van Wyck Brooks Historic District is named for the Pulitzer Prize winning author Van Wyck Brooks, who spent his formative years at 563 West Eighth Street, a home built by his Grandfather Ames. In Scenes and Portraits, Memories of Childhood and Youth, published in 1954, Brooks refers to Plainfield as the "Wall Street Suburb." He goes on to further describe the financial brigands and robber barons who built vast red sandstone castles along the wide tree-lined streets. In addition, however, were "the quiet men of money, unobtrusive often to the point of being mousy, whose dwellings lined the street in our corner of the town." In the 1890's Brooks observed there were over one hundred millionaires living in Plainfield.
The Brooks home at 563 West Eighth Street was as Brooks noted "not without some slight architectural pretensions." Later Brooks describes how the home fell at last into more affluent hands and the new owner, Congressman Percy Hamilton Stewart, doubled the house in size and plastered the interior with the panels and doors from an 18th century Scottish manor house that he purchased from the Duveens in London. After the alteration, one of Van Wyck Brooks' friends dubbed the house "colonial outside, baronial-inside."
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the entire land area of the present-day Van Wyck Brooks Historic District was farmland and woodland. The Manning Stelle Farm (981 Central Avenue, the remaining farmhouse), which had developed from one of the earliest "plantations" established along Cedar Creek in the late 17th century, covered much of the present district. By the 1850's portions of that tract had been sold; development occurred incrementally, with the subdivision of parcels into blocks and lots. On a map of building lots in Plainfield, New Jersey in 1853, sections of Arlington Avenue, Madison Avenue, and West Eighth Street are laid out in paper for subdivision into building lots. The 1862 county map shows scattered houses along what is now West Eighth Street. Plainfield Avenue and Central Avenue are the only other two roads shown in the district.
By the late 1860's and 1870's, many of the projected subdivisions became a reality. The completion of the railroad in 1864, linking the little village of Plainfield and its surrounding farms with metropolitan New York and Philadelphia, coincided with the high point in America's Industrial Revolution when personal fortunes were being amassed with dizzying speed. Wealthy city folk, seeking rural simplicity, began to spend vacations here, either at summer homes or at the five resort hotels built between 1850 and 1878. Vacationers enjoyed such bucolic pleasures as carriage rides through the countryside, croquet on the lawn and boating on Tier's Pond near the millrace. As train transportation improved and travel time fell within the desirable one-hour range, many summer residents returned to build permanent homes in Plainfield, commuting to offices in New York just as many of Plainfield residents do today. With ample funds and space for country estates, these entrepreneurs raised magnificent testimonials to the architectural fashions of the day, and elegant reminders of the Victorian Age still line street after street in Plainfield's older residential neighborhoods.
As early as 1875, E.G. Hussey mentioned Plainfield in his Victorian Home Building, A Transcontinental View of 1875. Hussey says of Plainfield: "This well known city is in the south west corner of Union County, New Jersey, and is one of the most attractive on the line of the Central Railroad of New Jersey." Hussey goes on to say: "Home building in Plainfield has been carried to a degree of perfection highly creditable to the people that abide in the many exceedingly pleasant and attractive-looking houses that stud its shady streets; and, as the place is so short a run from New York, no persons who are awake to the hardships and dangers of 'Home Building' in that or any other great city, and are thinking of retreating to some of the many blessed places of refuge within an hour's ride from New York, should not fail to visit this favored one, on a tour of observation. The people are cultivated, and encourage religious and intellectual progress; are social, and foster that degree of fraternal intercourse which blesses a home and endears it to all hearts."
Like many towns in New Jersey the advent of the railroad changed the face of Plainfield forever. Located at the foot of the Watchung Mountains, Plainfield with its natural springs came to be hailed as the "Colorado of the East" and eventually was dubbed the "Queen City" after Denver. An 1870's newspaper referred to Plainfield as "this popular inland resort." Even after Plainfield's appeal as a resort faded, the City continued to be a desirable place for New York's wealthy to build large and comfortable homes.
An August 26, 1984 article in the New York Times entitled "Plainfield City of Homes" says: "Plainfield is truly the city of homes situated as it is on the line of the New Jersey Central Railroad, only forty-five minutes from New York by express train, it furnishes not only a summer retreat for New York by express train, but an all-the-year-round home for hundreds who do business on Manhattan Island." Further on the article states: "Plainfield is a beautiful city. Situated between the Watchung mountains a portion of the Blue Range and the hills of Netherwood, a pretty suburb, it lies in what was once a plain level field. While it is a level place, the streets are very picturesquely laid out, and its shady drives are the envy of all not fortunate enough to call it their home. Grand old elms touch each other as they overshadow the streets. Fine macadam covers the streets and avenues, making driving a pleasure."
Plainfield became such an active commuter's town that the railroad found it profitable to furnish private club cars just for Plainfielders. A 1965 article entitled, "As It Was Years Ago in Plainfield" by Dale Warren, refers to commuting from Plainfield: "The fatigue of daily commuting was considerable, in spite of relaxing bridge games in the Club Car."
In 1895 Plainfield New Jersey by Ralph Moreton Hooker appeared promoting the attractiveness of Plainfield as a place of residence. Hooker states: "To-day broad avenues over-arched with the intermingling boughs of trees lead past homes which lie with one another in evidences of wealth and refinement."
In the 1930's Federal Writers' Project Plainfield is described as a "busy commuters' town with smart shops and substantial manufacture. Here are all types of dwellings from the huge, French roofed, high ceiled Victorian mansion of the 1870's to the most modern Cape Cod-type cottage."
There are numerous articles and publications relating to Plainfield's vast architectural treasure trove, a tradition continued today by the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District Committee. Various events, tours and meetings are held to promote the neighborhood and its special quality.
In 1982 the Van Wyck Brooks District was designated by the City of Plainfield as a certified local Historic District subject to the City's Historic Review Ordinance. This designation is part of a continuous trend in recognizing the quality of Plainfield's very special housing stock.
Books, Articles, Pamphlets:
Brooks, Van Wyck. Scenes and Portraits, Memories of Childhood and Youth. Button Pub., 1954.
Hooker, Ralph Moreton. Plainfield New Jersey Illustrated. Plainfield, New Jersey, the Plainfield Daily Press, 1895.
Hoopes, James. Van Wyck Brooks. Amherst, Massachusetts, Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1977.
McCabe, Wayne. Historic Tour — Plainfield, New Jersey. 1974.
Ricord, F.W., ed. "Township and City of Plainfield," in History of Union County. Newark, New Jersey, East Jersey Hist. Co., 1897.
Smiley, F.T., comp. History of Plainfield and North Plainfield. Plainfield, New Jersey, Plainfield Courier News, 1901.
Maps and Views:
Bailey, O.H. Bird's Eye View of Plainfield, New Jersey 1874. Camden, New Jersey, M.H. Traubel Lith., 1874.
Dunham, F.A. Map of the City of Plainfield. Philadelphia, A.H. Mueller, 1894.
Dunham, J.R. and F.A. Map of Plainfield, New Jersey. New York, G.H. Walker and Co., 1878.
Union County, 1862. New Haven, Conn., 1862.
Newspapers, Periodicals, Directories:
Plainfield City Directories.
Plainfield Courier News. Miscellaneous Issues.
Scientific American Building Supplements, 1892-1902.
Government Documents and Archives:
Permit Records, Building Inspection Office. Plainfield City Hall.
Plainfield Public Library. The Plainfield Scrapbooks.
† John Grady, Plainfield Planning Division, Van Wyck Brooks Historic District, Union County, New Jersey, nomination document, 1984, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.