Photo: Street in the High Street Historic District, Burlington. The District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Photographed by User:Magicpiano (own work), 2012, [cc-4.0], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed May, 2023.
The High Street Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡] .
The High Street Historic District is the core of the original capital of West Jersey, its major street pattern virtually unaltered since 1677 when the City of Burlington, was founded. Despite architectural change over a period of more than 300 years, the 18th and 19th century mercantile and residential significance of the High Street Historic District can be read clearly in its standing structures. Like Perth Amboy, its East Jersey counterpart, the district is a tangible link to one of New Jersey's earliest urban centers, and reflects the impact of English Quakers on the architecture, planning and governmental attitudes of West Jersey.
Shortly after acquiring the western half of New Jersey from Lord Berkeley, William Penn and other prominent Quakers began planning for the region's settlement. A frame of government commonly referred to as "The Concessions and Agreements...," was drawn up. Shares, or the rights to the land, were sold to investors and potential settlers. The prospect of establishing a new colony where their own principles would govern was particularly appealing to English Quakers, who sought to escape intolerance and persecution at home.
The first group of emigrants was recruited largely from the cities of Yorkshire and London. The initial plan called for the settlement of two tracts of land along the Delaware River. The Yorkshire Quakers were to settle the northern section, or tenth, while their counterparts from London were to take up the southern tenth. However, when they arrived in August 1677, the small contingent soon realized that their best interests lay in establishing a single town. Chygoes Island, or Burlington, was selected as the site of the new settlement.
If the opinion of John Cripps, a proprietor, was representative, the builders of the new city were enthusiastic about what they found. Writing to a friend in England, Cripps reported that people who could not live there could hardly live anywhere, and that the Delaware was "as good a river as most in the world" — much better than the Thames.
Richard Noble, who had previously served as the surveyor for Fenwick's colony at Salem, was employed to lay out the town. He first surveyed High Street, which was described by Cripps as "a straight line drawn from the river side up the land, which is to be the main street, and a market place about the middle." A second street (Broad Street) parallel to the river and crossing the main street on a gentle rise was also laid out, with its width established at 100 feet. This intersection became the social, economic and governmental center of the new colony.
High Street was officially established as the dividing line between the Yorkshire and London tenths in 1680. The town lots on the east side of the street were taken up by the settlers from Yorkshire, while the London Quakers settled on the west side of the street.
At a town Meeting held on June 18. 1696, Daniel Leeds was directed to produce a map indicating the ownership of town lots. Leeds' map illustrates the extent to which development was focused along the High Street corridor from the river South to present day Federal Street, where many more smaller lots existed. This trend of development, once begun, was to continue well into the nineteenth century.
By 1700, Burlington was firmly established as a capital city. On the east side of High Street were the brick homes of Thomas Wetherill (331 High Street), as well as Joseph Smith (319 High Street) and Dr. Richard Smith (315 High Street), two members of early Burlington's most influential family. On the west side of the street was the "new" house of Thomas Gardiner (228 High Street), Treasurer of West Jersey; a hexagonal Meeting House (on the site of the current Meeting House at 340 High Street), and the early home of Thomas Olive (406 High Street), a key figure in the settlement and administration of the colony. A large, brick Courthouse with an open market area at street level and a legislative chamber and jail above, stood in the intersection of Broad and High Streets.
Scattered throughout the homes of the City's first families were the houses and workshops of the artisans, merchants and professional practitioners who served the region around Burlington. Among the early residents was a blacksmith, butcher, carpenter, cordwainer (shoemaker), hatter, saddler and "taylor" [sic]. All the necessities of life could be found at the door steps of High Street.
Buildings constructed expressly for commercial purposes were generally limited to taverns or inns and blacksmith shops, or those businesses serving visitors to the city. Thomas Budd kept a tavern on High Street as early as 1693. On his property at the Southwest corner of High and Pearl Streets were a malt house and brew house, where the beer sold at his establishment was manufactured. The importance of the early inns is best illustrated in a notice appearing in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751. Fretwell Wright, proprietor of the Blue Anchor Tavern, advertised that a stage wagon ran from his tavern to New York City.
Perhaps the greatest volume of buying and selling in the early city was conducted at the public marketplaces. Two open air markets stood in the center of High Street. The stalls of North Market, the longest of the two, ran from near the town wharf at the foot of High Street over two blocks south beyond the intersection of Pearl Street.
In 1698, Gabriel Thomas described South Market as "a delicate great Market House, where they keep their Market. It hath a noble and spacious Hall over-head, where their Sessions, is kept...." From beneath the Courthouse, the market spread north a short distance. The only map on which these market houses appear is one drawn c.1835, and included in Barber and Howe's The Historical Collection of the State of New Jersey.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the prosperity of the city was noted even by foreign visitors. An English account of 1745 mentions about 250 families, mostly living in well-built brick houses. Throughout the century, Burlington was known for its beauty as well as its mercantile energy. Sarah Eve visited from Philadelphia in 1772, and called the place "an epitome of Town and Country," where large gardens and numerous trees along the streets created a tranquil atmosphere. "It is really excessively pleasant," she concluded, "and pleased me much." The veracity of Miss Eve's account is attested to by the waterfront view published with William Birch's map of 1797. For the first time, building locations are indicated on a map of the City of Burlington. Birch's work confirms the dense development pattern on High and Broad Streets that remains today.
During this century some of New Jersey's most important citizens lived and worked on High Street. Isaac Pearson, New Jersey's first silversmith; international merchant Daniel Smith, Jr. (216 High Street); Charles Read, ironmaster and Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly; Richard Smith, Jr., international merchant and statesman, and his son, Richard Smith, Esq., a member of the first Continental Congress (406 High Street); and John Lawrence (459 High Street), a distinguished attorney and Tory sympathizer, all lived along the main thoroughfare.
By 1800, the Courthouse and South Market had disappeared. A new City Hall and market had been erected at the intersection of High Street and the newly created East Union Street six years earlier. The mercantile traditions of High Street continued well into the nineteenth century, as did the penchant of the wealthy and well-known to locate there.
Nathaniel Coleman (320 High Street), silversmith; James Sterling, a merchant and Mayor of the City; Joshua M. Wallace, a member of the New Jersey convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1787; Joseph Bloomfield (451 High Street), Governor of the State from 1800 until 1812 and renowned Quaker missionary Stephen Grellet resided on High Street.
The tracks of the Camden and Amboy Railroad were laid down the center of Broad Street in 1833, ushering in a period of significant change in city life. The "attention of local activists and reformers turned inward toward the town's various social, political and economic institutions. Even the railroad became a target. Henry C. Carey, (406 High Street) a noted economist and muckraker of the era, attacked the rail company for its unethical practices.
Changes were attempted in other areas as well. Not only was the Blue Anchor Tavern renamed the City Hotel; reformist agitation also caused the building's owner to establish a temperance hotel. And while this experiment was short-lived, the strength of the reformers was undeniable.
A growing concern for the cultural life of the city led to the construction of Lyceum Hall in 1839. The purpose of the building's sponsors was to provide an auditorium for orators, singers, theatrical productions and political speeches and rallies.
The City's Democratic Party also benefited from the upheavals of the period. The local party had been attracting new members in the two decades following the arrival of U.S. Senator Garret Wall (210 High Street) in 1829. A new City Charter was enacted in 1851. Mr. Wall's son, James, was elected Mayor under the new system. To celebrate the changes in City government, Lyceum Hall was given to the town for use as a City Hall (432 High Street).
It was during this period that earlier mercantile practices began to change too. Various views of High Street, drawn by John Collins and published in 1847, show a number of storefronts among the houses that lined the main street. In that same year, Edmund Morris, editor of The Burlington Gazette, wrote of the need for more commercial structures on High Street. He expressed his concern that retail trade was being pushed off High Street due to the heavy concentration of residential structures and the resulting lack of buildable lots. After lamenting the demolition of the Pearson/Sterling Mansion, Morris went on to praise the efforts of a local developer and the construction of 302 High Street. He firmly believed that High Street should remain the City's principal commercial district.
Morris' hopes for a thoroughly commercial High Street were eventually realized. From this point forward, many of the homes that lined High Street were either demolished to make way for commercial buildings, or their first floors were converted to stores. The Hooten/Smith Homestead, was demolished in 1848 to accommodate the construction of a large store on the site (218 High Street). A similar fate befell the former home of Proprietary Governor Samuel Jennings in 1882 (204-206 High Street). First floor conversions took place in the buildings at 301 High Street (1731; converted c.1845), 224 High Street (c.1797; converted c.1869) and the former mansion of Nathaniel Coleman (c.1792; converted 1864).
Accompanying the new emphasis on business activity along High Street was the organization and construction of financial institutions. Mechanics Bank, organized in 1839, opened its new bank at 11 West Broad Street two years later. Burlington Savings Institution began operations in 1857 and opened the doors of an impressive new structure in 1881 (since demolished). In time, two other banking companies located in the business area. The evolving downtown took on the look and feel of a district devoted almost entirely to the delivery of goods and services.
Moreover, the advent of the railroad, with its attendant smoke and ash, and the commercialization of High Street that followed coincided with the mid-nineteenth century taste for villas on romantically landscaped plots; no longer was it fashionable to live conveniently near one's business at the center of town. The 1874 "Bird's-Eye" view map of Burlington reflects this trend. As time went on, fewer town houses were built in the commercial district. Perhaps the last of these was the Cutter Mansion (449 High Street), erected in 1914.
By 1900, very few residential structures remained on High Street, Among the many storefronts that lined the street one could find a handful of offices, banks and churches. The demolition of older structures and the construction of new buildings, or the conversion of homes for commercial purposes continued unabated into the twentieth century. Even the storefronts changed from one generation to the next.
Like most Main Street historic districts, the High Street Historic District includes buildings that reflect the most popular architectural styles in New Jersey during a transitional 18th-19th century period.
The most important architectural component of the High Street District, however, is its predominant building type, the masonry, 3-bay side-hall dwelling. This building type is found throughout New Jersey during the 18th and 19th centuries in many stylistic guises, but its presence as a standard type here in the High Street Historic District helps us understand its origins and genesis in America.
The Great Fire of London in 1666 marked the beginning of a transformation that would result ultimately in the modern metropolis. Under the influence of Sir Christopher Wren and others, rational planning and classically derived architecture began to replace the largely Medieval urban fabric. Masonry construction for residential architecture became the ideal, and symmetrical facades became the norm for dwellings.
Since the settlement of Burlington began only eleven years after the Great Fire, and since a large percentage of its founders were Londoners, it should come as no surprise that the masonry neoclassical ideal of Restoration London is reflected in the architecture of the High Street Historic District.
An abundance of local clay for bricks combined with the suitability of the small urban townhouse for Burlington's symbolic and practical aspirations resulted in the adoption of the 3-bay side-hall masonry house as the standard dwelling type. Houses of this description can be found throughout the High Street Historic District, surviving from the early 18th century and continuing into the first third of the 19th century. Such a long period of popularity enabled builders to apply differing neoclassical motifs, but here in the district the customary distinctions between Georgian and Federal are more often subsumed into a vernacularized generic type.
Characteristic features include a three-bay facade side-hall entry and gable roof of moderate pitch (see 25 E. Broad Street); single or paired chimneys on the gable end (426 High Street); brick walls (a few decorated in Flemish checker pattern, such as 318 High Street); gable dormers (332-334 High Street); simple molded or coved cornices (453 High Street and 25 E. Broad Street); and pent roofs (453 High Street).
All of these features, plus general scale and internal plans were most likely adapted from English builder's guides that would have been readily available to the founders of Burlington. William Halfpenny's The Modern Builder's Assistant and several manuals written by Batty Langley are likely sources. Joseph Maxson's Mechanik Exercises includes an illustration in a Renaissance-derived row house that, broken into separate units, could have served as a prototype for the typical High Street house.
Today, High Street's architecture reflects the many changes wrought in the three centuries the City has served as the central core of a large region. From a street of stately homes and dwelling workshops to a modern, twentieth century downtown, the district continued to serve the social and economic needs of each succeeding generation. Through the process of preservation and restoration the physical images of past decades and centuries remain a part of the High Street Historic District.
‡ Robert Guter, Acroterion, City of Burlington, High Street Historic District, Burlington County, NJ, nomination document, 1986, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Broad Street East • Broad Street West • High Street • Union Street East • Union Street West