The Clinton Historic District [‡] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original noination document.
The Clinton Historic District comprises almost all of the Town of Clinton. It is located in the north central region of Hunterdon County at the confluence of Spruce Run and the South Branch of the Raritan River, both southward-flowing bodies of water. Beaver Brook, a tributary, flows westward through the town, paralleling its main streets, before joining the river beyond Leigh Street. Most of Clinton is part of the Reading Prong and rests on Cambro-Ordovician limestone and dolomites. Bordering Spruce Run on its west are limestone cliffs. The topography gently falls off from the east bank of the South Branch (north of the confluence) at first, but the angle of decline increases into a final deep down slope before reaching Beaver Brook, leading to a degree of embankment for many buildings. Continuation of the cliffs on the west side of the river beyond the dam has also contributed to the need for embankment along West Main Street.
The Clinton Historic District is roughly shaped by intersecting strokes of an X. Its two major streets, each of two segments, Center Street — West Main Street (running east-west) and Halstead Street — Leigh Street (north-south) intersect each other. Center Street and West Main Street have a long history going back to an 18th-century highway turned into the New Jersey Turnpike c.1816. Halstead Street originated as a proposed segment of the Spruce Run Turnpike of the same period, which was never fully built, and Leigh Street was the creation of the town's leading citizen, laid out on his farm in the 1850s, perhaps based on an earlier road. One other important road in Clinton's history provided its commercial row, running a straight course from the river bridge and mills, at right angles to the turnpike for two short blocks — Main and East Main Streets. These few streets constitute the historic town in almost its totality, with but a few houses on Hancock Street not included for lack of integrity. Beyond the Clinton Historic District's boundaries these streets continue with relatively short new extensions for modern suburban housing and utilitarian shopping strips. Additionally two new streets have been added that climb upward on the limestone cliffs, and a few others north of Center Street at its end. Clinton is a small town, in which it is possible to walk from one end to the other. Elevated Highway 78 and Route 31 are the main arteries, apart from Route 173 (Old Route 22), that border Clinton and incorporate it into a regional transportation network. The open countryside of the fertile valley still largely encircles the town. Broad vistas of rolling hills and farm fields lie between Clinton and its neighboring communities.
A feel for the long past of the town is obtained from the crowding and siting of the earlier dwellings, which were the more serviceable homes for those just getting a start in business, perhaps even the housing for the workforce. This is the case in sections of all the streets excepting Leigh Street. Overall, Clinton's buildings are representative of styles from the 1920s to 1930, with the greatest concentration exhibiting Greek Revival and Italianate features of the Early Victorian decades.
In general, the town is built on small lots, with little front yard area, and frequently little side yard also. Those marking the early development of Center Street have short rear lot lines at river's edge. The buildings of the remaining early decades of town history, 1840s-70s, are for the most part traditional but styleless vernacular dwellings, of frame construction, single depth, with pitched roofs, paired fixed sash in gable apices and internal end chimneys. A number have exposed chimney backs of rubble stone and 9/6 window sash. Houses making a greater presence have tidier exposed chimney backs of brick. Among the simpler earlier dwellings is the second house at 7 East Main Street, noteworthy for its small size and its siting back from the street on a hill slope.
Stone masonry, a popular choice in this part of Hunterdon County, survives only in the Dunham/Parry Mill (7 Lower Center Street), the German William Garman's embanked 1830s house (faces Center Street but has Route 32 address), and the one-over-one (room) dwelling, now vinyl-clad, in the laboring-class section at 58 Halstead Street. Stone was a choice here as in other rural areas for more utilitarian buildings. The record indicates stone construction for a mill of the 1780s, the first merchant store, c.1809, and the schoolhouse of the 1820s. It should be noted, however, that in the nearby countryside, large handsome classically designed dwelling houses of the Federal style period are of masonry, some of which exhibit dates in formal circular windows in gable peaks. These doubtless represent replacement houses of early settlers or of their children, after they had become established on the soil and had a comfortable living.
Brick construction was not particularly in fashion for house building during Clinton's period of growth, and therefore it was clearly a choice for making an impression. A large house at 53 Center Street in Italianate style built as a summer residence, stands out for this reason. Another instance was the same choice for a Tuscan villa (43 Leigh Street; now Municipal Building) made by John T. Leigh, an early merchant and later banker, sometime mayor, and prominent property investor. Public buildings such as the tavern/hotel on Center Street, c.1832 and the Clinton National Bank, c.1856- 65 (2-8 Main Street) are the only other examples of brick construction until the end of the century.
The town is compact, with but an insignificant number of vacant building lots. Main Street has remained the street of commerce, now with several shops appealing to the frequent visitors who are a major part of today's economy. Almost all the buildings represent replacements following the Great Fire of 1891. Apartments are found on upper stories over shop fronts that in some cases have been modernized. New buildings like the former post office of one story height (22-24 Main Street) and the 1975 stylistically complementary building at 33 Main Street can be said to be "weathering" and gaining acceptance in streetscape composition. An unusual building with eye-compelling details including iron balcony rails on the upper story was erected by the Elks.
One side of Upper Leigh Street (between Center Street and East Main Street) had become home to shops and physicians' offices in dwelling houses much before I860, some before 1820, and on the other side, Jacob Corson's hotel and courtyard with livery, was well established in the 1840s, and was a neighbored in time (as indicated on maps of 1860 and 1873) by a saloon, newspaper office, and corner store. This block still retains most of these buildings, including the large store (25-27 Leigh Street), still filling this role, the current library, converted from a general store (6 Leigh Street), the newspaper office (21-23 Leigh Street), and hotel (32 Center Street). Houses still remain as well, used today as offices as they were historically.
The "service center" of town by mid-19th century consisted of two locations: the mills, which offered sawing and plaster as well as oil pressing, wool treatment, and wheat grinding; and across the bridge opposite the Clinton House Hotel on West Main Street, wheel making, carriage building, and livery. These last buildings are gone, because of the great changes brought about by the arrival of a branch of the Lehigh Railroad in the 1880s. The train depot (W. Main Street), Music Hall (23 W. Main Street), a lumberyard and Agway have replaced them.
The mills function today as part of the current economy, one as historical museum and complex, the other as an art center, they, along with the Main Street Bridge, anchor the town. The Italianate Parry Mansion (12 Center Street) built by later mill owner Samuel Parry fronts the former Dunham Mill at 7 Lower Center Street (first block from Main Street). It replaced the house of mill owner Ralph Hunt dating back to 1800 or earlier. The landscape is fairly open up to the c.1840-50 "long house" and adjoining cater-cornered building (19-23 Lower Center Street and 27 Lower Center Street) at the Upper Leigh Street intersection, which helps to convey a feeling of the origins of Clinton.
Center Street, as colonial highway, and later turnpike, became the principal street at first, followed by the turnpike segment beyond the river crossing named West Main Street. The north side (river side) of Center Street marches outward from the intersection with Upper Leigh Street with side-by-side buildings, some intended as ground-story shops, some as double houses, with barns and outbuildings, including ice storage, for at least a block before yielding to dwellings on larger lots with setbacks in styles current in the decades of 1850s-70s. This in turn yields to still later and larger residences beyond the early (1830) site of the Presbyterian Church and cemetery, which long marked the end of town. The additions are Victorian houses in Queen Anne style, with overtones of Eastlake, followed by 20th century Revival styles and bungalows. The prominent brick Union Hotel (known as Jane Smith Building), begun 1832, on the southeast corner of Center and Upper Leigh Streets probably helped establish an elitist tone to Center Street. A delightfully ornamented Italianate mansion (38 Center Street) built by the hotel owner Jacob Corson next to his establishment contributes to that impression. There are in the same block on the south side of the street going eastward away from the mills a number of corner-pilastered I-style houses with rear ells on small lots with small setbacks and perhaps one or two gable-front buildings before reaching the final two houses (64-66 Center Street and 60 Center Street, The Kline House), which are surprisingly much earlier. These two similar houses, enlarged from one-over-one plan, with exposed chimney backs, definitely date to the 1830s and one, at least, is thought to be much earlier (72 Center Street). Deed-searching places them in the period of large-track ownership, seemingly before lots were divided off. Opposite them is one of the earliest and grandest houses of its time, Dr. Henry Field's house of 1832 (61 Center Street), which for decades claimed a large sweep of property (almost 6 acres) up the Presbyterian Church.
Clinton's oldest buildings, the two mills that caused the town to come into being, date c.1810 for the Red Mill on the west side of the millpond and 1836 (rebuilt) for Dunham's on the opposite bank. (Both are on the State and National Registers.) The former is a wooden structure, the latter of stone, displaying more awareness of style with segmental brick arches, a Gibbsian-type oculus for date and information, and a gambrel roof. The use of this means of dating buildings, as noted, appears to have been a popular local device. It is seen near Flemington and in neighboring Franklin Township.
The records tell of the existence of more dwellings and shops than are to be seen today, but those few that are extant reveal the simplicity of a one-over-one plan with large cooking fireplace within. (One advertisement for the mill property in the 18th century mentioned, however, a farm dwelling with separate kitchen, which is certainly a familiar pattern of that century.)
There are three other houses of this same era that indicate some residents knew about architectural styles and had a standard of living that called for their adoption. One was the house built in 1832 and taken over by Dr. Field the next year (61 Center Street). Two others were built in the open meadows lining the turnpike as it headed west after crossing the millpond (49-51 W. Main Street and 64 W. Main Street). These houses have traceried windows or fanlights at their entrances and elaborate mantelpieces within, as well as paneled stairways or stair-end scrolls. Dr. Field's house further reflects the Federal mode with segmental quarter fan windows flanking a tall and round-headed window, the lone central part of a Palladian composition.
As housing was added to streets, West Main in particular, it fell to right and left of an earlier farmhouse, here and there, set farther back from street line (40 West Main Street, for instance, a typical side-hall box with lateral two-story wing). The new housing, set close to road edge, and to each other, observes the usual conventions of uneven fixed sash, 9/6, and exposed stone chimney backs. Siting may also have been dictated by the topography, which falls southward from the limestone cliffs, necessitating the embankment of a great majority of the town's buildings. Some of the oldest houses, I-style, are found on the south side of this street near its end. An early cluster of development, as already noted, was a stone's throw away from the bridge crossing the mill dam and originated with the tavern that Bray and Taylor opened c.1830 (2-6 W. Main Street, Clinton House). One building near it — now squeezed by later taller buildings crowding its sides — has the appearance of an early date because of its small scale and story and a half height (14-14-1/2 W. Main Street). On the opposite side of the road, where artisans once plied their trades, there still remains the gable-fronted house/shop of the blacksmith Polhemous, begun before 1850 and enlarged with rear extensions (33 W. Main Street). The main body of buildings in Clinton, however, reflect the taste of mid-century, with architectural flourishes in late Greek Revival and early Italianate combinations. Several are 2-1/2 stories on the principal facade, with a deep frieze (attic course) in which equidistantly spaced small rectangular openings are found, filled in some instances with iron grilles fabricated with a Greek anthemion motif. These facades usually have a slightly raised, centered (Gothic-inspired) cross gable with an oculus or circular window, divided into multi-panes in various patterns. This architectural form expresses Greek Revival themes in some instances, combined sometimes with corner pilasters and trabeated entrances, and in others Italianate, with brackets separating plain or louvered "eyebrow windows," under an extended eave. This design is found over and over again on different streets, with identical grilles, suggesting that the house model was much admired and there was a convenient source for ironwork down the road where iron forges had been at work (on and off) for a century. Or possibly the grilles could have been obtained from Hiram Deats, foundry owner in nearby Pittstown, who also sold wares in two Clinton shops in the 1840s.
A Gothic Revival imprint is not noticeable in Clinton. This style is mainly limited to the almost ubiquitous cross gable on the large facades of houses of otherwise Italianate feature. Board and batten siding is not seen at all except for utilitarian outbuildings. Gothic bargeboard per se also had no followers, except in an isolated instance where the owner of a house of gable-front-and-wing plan added it along with pointed-arch windows (49 Leigh Street). A few houses on West Main Street dating to the latter decades of the century also added rectilinear board trim with a cutout design or Eastlake applique. A few gable apex windows have a Gothic rather than Italianate head.
Of the Folk styles, most are simple gable-front houses of the 1860s and onward, which sometimes are flanked one or both sides by an intersecting projecting cross gable (15 W. Main Street). Another version is the gable-front-and wing plan, of which there are a considerable number on the residential streets, excepting Halstead Street (67 Center Street; 60 Center Street, Governor Foster Voorhees Residence; 105 Center Street, former Presbyterian Manse, for example). They are usually ornamented in the prevailing Italianate idiom.
Clinton is also known for its collection of Victorian buildings spanning three decades. Leigh Street was primarily developed by the property owner, a well-to-do banker, who erected the imposing brick house with belvedere, now the Municipal Building (doubled in size with new mirror image at back, 43 Leigh Street, John Taylor Leigh Mansion), and several houses for members of his family. Three neighboring each other, using Italianate vocabulary (48, 50 and 54 Leigh Street), were similar if not identical at first. Mr. Leigh also contributed the land for the Baptist Church, (55 Leigh Street). A pair of houses in Second Empire style neighbor each other at the end of the street (66 and 70 Leigh Street). While these examples of the style, also seen in Flemington, were beautifully executed with a wealth of decorative features, it seemingly did not appeal to townspeople, or perhaps it was thought too expensive to erect.
Most of the vernacular housing stock of this time frame has the footprint of the Georgian rectangular box, with single or double file of rooms. Bays number 3, 4, or 5, but none appears to be of side-hall plan. A few dwellings on Halstead Street have only two-bay facades. In several instances, houses were made two-family, and an extra bay may appear or a window change into a doorway. There is scarcely a house without a porch, and these are almost always additions in Italianate style, with chamfered posts and ornamental brackets, though an alternate choice was a Tuscan column. All were trimly built with piers and deck under-surface concealed with latticework or slat-filled frame.
Toward the end of century, there appears to have been almost a sudden leap by a handful of the affluent, and doubtless prominent, to have very large houses, to be articulated in the multiple veins of Victorian eclectic, without actually too much departure from the traditional box. These grandiose houses are Queen Anne, however, in the mix of fabric, asymmetry of facade, advanced and receding, with more than one level of upper story, single floor and full-height polygonal bay windows, some serving as corner towers with variously shaped caps and in extensions at one or another side with much ornamented wraparound porches, some making graceful circular turns. Railings show imagination as well from the plain square spindle to turned baluster to Chippendale-style fretwork. A great many porches have sawn brackets and spandrels of different geometry, arched, curved, arcaded, scalloped, slender, broad. Several have friezes of spindlework. Large windows have borders of tiny panes, often of colored glass, doors that are generally double-leaved have heavily trimmed wood panels, combined with round-arched glass panes, and frequently broad transoms. A seeming fad was the application of a shouldered architrave as door surround. A lesser number have Eastlake details in applied ornamentation on vergeboards, porch posts and fascias, and gable trusses or covers (93, 100, 109, 110, 114 and 116 Center Street). There may be more examples of Eastlake in Clinton (and perhaps Flemington) than in any other community in this New Jersey region. It must have been a craze for much of the same stock was used to update the more vernacular houses of earlier decades, especially on West Main Street. One imposing Classical Revival has Art Nouveau panes of glass over banded windows and at entry (110 Center Street).
The 1880s mansion at 93 Center Street, said to have been built by a Kline (the Klines represented the town's "aristocracy"), is a rather wondrous collection of projections on front and side facades, with front porches or balconies on all levels of the principal facade leading to a steep narrow tower, with its own openings. Eastlake and other stylish features commingle, along with a mix of fabrics. A few doors beyond this attention-commanding residence are two others of the same eclectic impulse but smaller in size on smaller lots (109 and 131 Center Street). They both have complex planes, projecting and receding with protuberances from towers to dormers, side walls breaking out, and multiple rooflines to which are added further distractions in the form of porches and Eastlake ornamentation.
Sometime after 1900 — in Clinton as well in most towns — new post-Victorian architectural designs became the pattern of choice. A return to the balance and calm of classical facades found its expression in the "Four Square" [see American Foursquare]. A dominant early 20th century style in every community, it is seen here, to, in the final expansion of Center Street, which in reality was the only street that could be expanded within the established town boundaries. (Leigh Street trailed off into Goosetown.) Some are of larger scale than usual and are almost unrecognizable because of side wings and other additions such as wraparound porches. The dormered hip roof, however, remains the hallmark. Other forms of Colonial styles also became part of the limited new construction of the first quarter of this century. There are three Colonial Revival houses in this final block, perhaps chosen from a mail-order catalog, since two seem to fit the illustrations quite well — Sears model, "Lexington," 1928, for instance — down to side (screened) porches, gable-pedimented entry porticoes on slim columns, and fan windows in gable. One Colonial Revival house has a second-story sleeping porch. This may have inspired homeowners of two or three older houses on West Main Street to add make-shift upper-story porches. There are also two residences in Dutch Colonial style. (125 and 130 Center Street).
Bungalows were also a part of the changing ideas about house design, influenced by outside movements such as the Arts and Crafts. There is a cluster of bungalows interspersed among the Colonial Revivals on Center Street. These clearly follow the dictates of the style, one or more exhibiting stone (for cobblestone) porch piers and exterior chimneys, tapered posts, widely overhung roofs of two kinds, either extended over the porch in a single slope or having two independent hipped roofs. Knee braces and exposed rafters appear on two bungalows. One reminds of the popular Pomona model of the Aladdin mail order catalog (134 Center Street). Three bungalows were also built at the end of Leigh Street. A less conventional bungalow is seen at 70 West Main Street, set amidst some of the most distinguished residences on the north side of the street at its end. It is an anachronism in that it has lost much of the straightforward simplicity of the style to a multitude of details, including pointed-arch upper sash and ribbon windows. It extends back twice the common depth, but perhaps that occurred at a later time. Quakertown Village, about five miles away, also boasts one unique version of a bungalow. Possibly they represent early experimentation with an incoming style.
As a town, the number of farm structures was limited, even though it was reported by the County Historian James P. Snell that there were still eight farms within town boundaries in 1880. A few wagon houses, barns, and miscellaneous sheds remain in backyards put to other uses but basically unaltered. The two-story barn backing upon the river behind 45 and 47 Center Street is interesting in that it has a place for ice storage on the far side. Most outbuildings were constructed in the latter part of the 19th century and have track doors. One small gable-front building still retains iron strap hinges (17 E. Main Street). There were no privies to speak of, nor well-kerbs, but two outdoor water pumps remain in situ. The most recent outbuilding seen is atypical with three vehicular doors, and its purpose is unknown. Elongated side-wise under a flattened gable roof, it displays a date stone of 1926 on a marble slab. (72 W. Main Street)
Some garages appear to be vintage one-car shelters. Some are converted wagon houses. A few match the houses for which they were built, sporting pyramidal roofs. No common design prevails but mail-order catalogs also furnished a variety of plans. After 1900 there appears to have been a growing use of concrete block for outbuildings, including garages. Some garages of single bays have been included when they suggest an early period of automobile ownership.
An integral part of the built environment of Clinton has always been a means to cross the river and mill pond. The town's origins are usually identified as located on the west bank of the river backed against the lime cliffs. Gone are the traces of this: the first mill, artisans and craft shops, furniture making, weaving houses, and tenement houses. One advertisement mentions a farmhouse and barn. There have been a succession of bridges to cross to the second mill on the east bank. One early truss form can be seen in an 1842/44 lithograph. County records reveal that in 1859 there was a version of an iron-truss bridge, replaced in 1870 from a design of Lowthorp's, executed by Lambertville's expert fabricator, William Cowin. The Main Street Bridge is notable today for its rarity as one of Lowthorp's designs and for certain features in its construction. A crossing over the river at Halstead Street was first accomplished with a covered wooden bridge and afterwards with an Ithiel-Town type lattice bridge. The current bridge represents the technology of the 1930s and is a familiar form in New Jersey.
Clinton has a long history of church buildings, with three edifices still extant. Of these, only the Baptist Church of 1872 (55 Leigh Street) represents the original house of worship (now in other use). This is an eye-catching composition whose source of inspiration is not immediately evident. For an American house of worship it seems strange to have mushroom-sided turreted spires and a flavor of the Orthodox Catholic if not Indian chorten. Asymmetrical towers mark corners of the broad facade which also hints at a Palladian window enclosed by a flat, plain wood surround. This same plain trim is at doorways. One tower rises in stages from square base to diminished octagonal-shaped unit to belfry turret and spire.
The Presbyterians in 1830 and the Methodists in 1839 formed congregations and proceeded to put up buildings. The Presbyterian Church edifice (Center Street) of today represents a replacement following a fire of 1845, which was remodeled in 1864-68 in the conventions of mid-19th century for ecclesiastical structures when not temple style, and given major transformation in 1890, after losing its steeple in the Blizzard of 1888. The church was widened and an entire new facade laid over the old with asymmetrical towers of different heights but otherwise with similar fenestration and moldings. A congregants' building committee apparently reflecting the taste of the times approved Eastlake ornament from newel posts and railing to surface appliques, which seems to confirm the powerful attraction of this decorative motif in this town. The church is also noted for the fine stained glass windows on nature's themes in the Pre-Raphaelite style installed in the next decade, also a unique choice for the time when churches were usually seeking Tiffany glass with Biblical scenes.
The church cemetery where the town's prominent are buried, including Governor Foster Voorhees, dates from the time the original building lot was obtained from land developers Bray and Taylor in 1830. It lies on both sides of the church, and is bounded in turn on the right (east) by a nondenominational town cemetery. The church's graveyard contains not only the impressive monuments to two of the Taylor family brought here for burial after losing their lives as officers in the Civil War, but also interesting ornamental sculpted tombstones, some with a late use of the weeping willow motif, a departure from the usual flat-surfaced slab, and some for little children with head and footstone, roped together, creating a feeling of their being at rest in their little beds.
The extant Methodist Church (12 Halstead Street) dates to 1863, when the congregation replaced their first building. It is in the popular Italianate idiom for such buildings at this time in rural communities, with advanced bell tower and spire centrally placed on facade, and the rounded window forms and moldings associated with this style, as well as classical moldings at frieze and pediment, and stained glass windows.
Two other church-related cemeteries have been included. One (St. Mary's Cemetery) records with a street sign, as well as gravestones and monument, the once active Roman Catholic congregation of St. Mary's, where a church had been founded and edifice built on the house lot of a member of the Mulligan family while another Mulligan donated his lot for the cemetery. (The church membership was later transferred to another town and the building razed.) The cemetery flows without distinguishable physical boundary line into the adjacent nondenominational later burial place first used by the Methodists connected with the church at the foot of the same street. The Union Cemetery at the intersection of Leigh Street and Alton Place has Baptist origins — land provided by the same Leigh who provided the church lot — and the first interment was for a pastor in 1880.
The commercial core, as noted, dates to the start-up of the village, a plan developed by the firm of Bray and Taylor. A c.1830 survey map of stub streets from the mill on the east side of the millpond indicates minuscule lots (that would turn out to be tiny fractions of an acre) shown as already assigned or still available. The first lot (49-51 Main Street) went to Adam Stiger. Across from him Hoffman obtained the stone store building, which became part of a much larger emporium, burned out in 1891, and represented today by the "Duckworth Building," so-called (42/46 Main Street).
Almost nothing survives of the 19th-century shops and service buildings on Main Street. This is in part because of the Great Fire of 1891 that destroyed all but the end buildings of Main Street. The block is largely filled with end-of-century buildings, and these offer an astonishing view of the inventiveness and freedom of design available for this purpose. Shop fronts continue to use the formula of the 1850s with display windows flanking a recessed entrance, and frequently have transom windows above all. The new buildings, now of masonry, rise to three stories or more, and mix fabrics and features with the true abandon of Queen Anne eclecticism. The fact that all post-1891 buildings are raised by a flight of steps (interior or exterior) is perhaps unique to this street. It reflects response to negative experience with flooding from the South Branch River. At the far end from the river, however, there are a few small wooden-framed buildings, besides the brick bank, that escaped the inferno. In their basic simplicity, apart from a bracketed cornice on two narrow tall structures, they offer a great contrast to the buildings of a later era and record the street's earlier history by their survival.
Earlier commercial buildings that remain on Upper Leigh Street have previously been mentioned.
The train station of the 1980s, now gone, as seen in photographs and illustrated on the 1886 Bird's Eye Map, was typical of its era, basically similar to the scale of stations seen in nearby towns like Flemington. Separate sex waiting rooms were provided. The station and its tracks were on the west of the depot and closer to the street. An oval-shaped fence-enclosed green lay in front of the station, a good Victorian touch, a manifestation of civic pride because the town attracted a great number of visitors and summer residents. The depot itself remains intact along with indications of the train tracks.
The main residential streets are tree-lined, where space allowed planting. This feature, along with flagstone walks on sections of streets, hitching posts on Center Street, and two outside water pumps for private houses, strongly evoke the Victorian era in Clinton when the town was at its height. A buttonwood tree, referred to in a deed of the 1830s and shown as a mature tree near the Main Street Bridge in a sketch of 1844 still stands in a setting that has hardly changed.
Many of the buildings have been resided and reroofed with synthetic materials. Slate roofing, however, probably survives on at least 50 per cent of the building stock. It can be noted that in most cases the introduction of modern materials can be reversed, though their prevalence suggests that their installation had an economic basis. If it had not been for additions for needed living space, almost always tacked on to ells at the rear, there doubtless would be far fewer of ordinary dwellings still remaining. These additions, sometimes multiple, with a variety of rooflines, are unprepossessing but "genuine vernacular," and common to all old buildings.
Daniel Hunt had two sons, Ralph and Benjamin, "merchants of Lebanon," to whom he passed along 385 acres in 1803. The former took over the mill operations on both banks and built a stone structure near the corner of Lower Center and Main Streets used for a store and at times for housing millhands. (This store was incorporated into the large "Duckworth General Store" on the corner of Lower Center and Main Streets [42/46 Main Street] until destroyed by the 1891 fire. In the next two decades, a blacksmith, a cooper, a tailor, and a tanner opened shops in the near vicinity of the mill. A land sale in 1823 of a large tract referred to a few small buildings near the mill. It is in this period that the primitive one-over-one house (later enlarged), speculatively identified as the Dr. Benjamin Hunt House, was probably built. In 1817, legend has it that a school house was started in an existing shop on Center Street, and the next year a post office opened, indicating a population in town. At about this time, the colonial artery leading past the mills was being made over into the New Jersey Turnpike (New Brunswick to Easton), and this action, along with another to create the Spruce Run Turnpike between Flemington and the Union Forge, fueled a developer's spirit in John W. Bray.
Bray was just one more of a number of entrepreneurs attracted to the potential of the mill location. He was brother-in-law to Archibald Taylor of the family of Taylors of this vicinity, son of Robert, who took over the Union Forge foundry at High Bridge. The moneyed Taylor lived in a house called "Solitude" where High Bridge is now located, a few miles distant. He had two sons John B. and George W. Bray started a store or improved upon Hunt's store by the mill about 1825 and soon conceived the idea of a business partnership with Archibald's son John B. Bray talked Archibald Taylor into buying half his general store inventory to make his son an equal partner in the business. The firm of Bray and Taylor was formed in 1828. A survey of the streets by the mill was ordered with the intention of selling off minuscule building lots for trade and housing. At the same time, Bray succeeded in getting Hunt's Mills renamed "Clinton" after Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York State, who had just died. Governor Clinton was generally admired by the public for his accomplishments in office and for the creation of the Erie Canal. An idea had been afloat locally to have a canal dug from town to the Delaware. Bray and Taylor also started a new tavern/hotel, the Clinton House (2-6 W. Main Street), though there were others just outside of town. Bray also took over as postmaster in 1828. In 1830, the firm gave a building lot on the turnpike to the newly formed Presbyterian congregation for a meeting house, when Ralph Hunt, now a J.P., became tired of debts and continuing law suits, he decided to sell the mill property and join his brother in Miami, Ohio, in the new settlement opened by Judge Symmes. Bray then persuaded Archibald to buy the mill property as a profitable long-term investment. Bray also ran up huge debts backed by bank notes signed by Archibald in ignorance. The firm folded in 1832."
Much had been accomplished, nonetheless, in setting the village on a course of planned development. Archibald Taylor wrote to his other son, Midshipman George W. Taylor, "Clinton now looks perty(sic). You will hardly know the place when you return." A map of building lots was drawn and sales took place, first by this team and afterwards with Archibald involved. This offering served as a magnet to industrious Germans living in the region, and it is to their presence that the town owed its somewhat systematic growth. The new residents and shopkeepers had such names as Young, Stiger, Hoffman, Garman, Kline, Fisher. Another early primitive house was built on a lot purchased in the 1930s from Bray, and Taylor by a German. It is of stone, steeply embanked (faces Center Street but has Route 22 address). Near it was another like it, on land owned by a Hoffman, since demolished. This vernacular form was not uncommon for this period when newcomers were arriving as settlers. A third house like it, built for a laborer at 58 Halstead Street, perhaps even at a later date, also follows this convention.
One other property sold by this firm backed up on the mill dam and fronted on the turnpike with almost 6 acres. This was in great contrast to the Germans' small lots and was indeed intended for a privileged citizen coming to town to set up a medical practice, Dr. Henry Field (47 W. Main Street). In that same year, another hotel was started on one of the new lots, this building to be in brick (32 Center Street). As the turnpike continued across the river under the current name West Main Street, some development also occurred on its route. To this day, one farmhouse (40 W. Main Street) survives on a small portion of its tract; and two other houses more or less opposite each other at the outer end of the street so differ from the plain modest houses that appeared spottily on the street that they must have been the homes of well-to-do farmers of the 1830s. They wear the refinements of the Federal era of building (64 W. Main Street and 49-51 W. Main Street).
Although the names of Kline, Hoffman, and Young were added to the list of large property holdings as time passed, the German culture did not leave any mark in material ways. The churches that were founded in the decade of the 1830s all represented faiths appealing to individuals of English stock. These were the Presbyterian, the Methodist, in 1839, and the Episcopal in 1837 (which died out shortly, and was replaced by a private academy).
Barber and Howe in their Historical Collections (1842, 1844) saw Clinton village as set "in a delightful champaign valley" advantageously located on a river with great water power, an important post road, and only 10 miles distant from Flemington, the county seat. Claiming the village had very few buildings in the 1820s, and those being generally associated with the operation of the two mills, they noted its spurt of growth in the next two decades. Listed were 3 mercantile shops, 2 large mills, one also having an oil mill, 3 taverns, about 15 mechanic shops of various kinds, a brickyard, a substantial limestone quarry, 3 churches, 62 houses, and 520 inhabitants. One of the two schools was a grammar and classical school.
The Nehemiah Dunham family, represented by Charles and James, continued to live at Hunt's Mills, and after the collapse of Bray and Taylor, James took over with George T. Taylor. They also bought the mill on the east side of the river from Archibald, and when it had to be rebuilt in 1836 after a fire, James Dunham alone assumed ownership. Meanwhile, in 1836, Archibald Taylor disposed of four tracts of land to another potential developer, Caleb Halstead, of New York and New Brunswick, who afterward acquired additional land between Spruce Run and the river from James Dunham, where the street now bearing his name lies. In the 1940s, this newly arrived developer hired a surveyor to map out more than 80 diminutive building lots.
Just about this time, another nationality was about to make an impact on the town's economy and growth, bringing its hard labor, skills, and energies to the operation of a profitable business of mining the limestone cliffs. As a result of the famine in Ireland, enterprising young men had been making their way to America, among whom was Francis Mulligan, who arrived in Clinton in 1840. He was followed by brothers Patrick and Terence. They worked at the quarry which was then owned by the miller J.W. Snyder, bought a small lot from Halstead and put up a house in 1845 shared by all three families. The mill alone was sold in 1847 to the German J.S. Stiger, and the brothers then seized the opportunity to buy the quarry the next year.
Additional Irish arrived in town, taking up work at the quarry and elsewhere, but choosing to huddle close to their own nationality in houses on upper Halstead Street, which led to its labeling as Irishtown. Together, these Irish were interested in having a Roman Catholic Church, and services were begun in the barn on Francis Mulligan's property. This was eventually replaced by a church building in 1879 and no longer stands. Another Mulligan gave a lot he owned for St. Mary's Cemetery. The original three brothers sold the quarry eventually and left town. A fourth brother, James, remained, and the quarry was purchased all over again on three acres. Originally in 1848 it had cost $600; in 1866 it cost $5,950. James' son Michael is perhaps best known in local history as the proud Irishman who wanted to prove he was as good as the oldtimers in town, and made his point by buying a house with a prestigious address directly opposite the Presbyterian Church (78 Center Street).
The cemeteries associated with the Presbyterian and Catholic churches contribute to the district in recording the town's history of families through burial sites. Clearly, the Presbyterian Cemetery is most significant as the favored place for respectable prideful people to rest in peace and be remembered. Graves of three of the Taylor family, all in military service, make it important. The local childhood resident, Foster Voorhees, later Governor of New Jersey, is also interred here. The cemetery is also noteworthy for its funerary art on grave markers for leading families, including the Klines and Shipmans. In the same manner, the later-opened Baptist Church and cemetery, both on land provided by wealthy congregation member John T. Leigh, record another aspect of the town's history.
Incorporated at Maturity
In 1865, the Town of Clinton became incorporated as a separate entity. Those chosen as officials were Morris S. Stiger as mayor, and as councilmen John B. Weller (innkeeper), John T. Leigh, John A. Young (lime kiln owner), James P. Hoffman (merchant). Nathaniel W. Voorhees was made Treasurer. It may be coincidental that just before this time the first bank, Clinton National, was founded in town by a Board of Directors, with Robert Foster president, and Nathaniel Voorhees, father of the future governor, cashier. This building (2-8 Main Street) is fitting for its purpose, being of ample proportions with a fine array of features in Italianate style. It is still in business. A second bank was formed in 1875, meeting in Weller's brick hotel on Center Street.
Maps of 1860 and 1873 show Clinton growing apace, with its present outline not yet achieved, and considerable available land held in a few private hands: Leigh, Polhemous, Race, Young. They also reveal a number of rental houses, some owned, for instance, by the physician Sylvester Van Syckel, a Princeton graduate and native son. Widows occupy some of the small I-style houses. A directory of 1860 lists Holt's private academy on East Main Street. In this period, the Methodist Church replaced its first building with a larger more fashionable one, (12 Halstead Street) and the new Baptist Church was added to Leigh Street. The Bird's-Eye Map of 1886, however, shows the Town of Clinton in full bloom, with train station, newspaper office, Presbyterian Church (before its face-lift of 1890) and a number of fanciful tower-bedecked Queen Anne formal residences. It also shows the popularity of false fronts of parapets on buildings, especially commercial operations, but there were some on houses which still remain in place.
The popularity of iron grilles in fascias, nicely worked into classical Greek design, has been commented upon. It suggests the availability of a source. Hiram Deats, well known for his plow improvement, had a foundry in Pittstown, but five miles away [see Pittstown Historic District] and also sold his wares in two shops in Clinton: metal and sheet iron at A. Stiger and Son and at Hoffman, Foster and Company.
Up to this time, the bridges crossing the South Branch at two locations — between the mills and over to Halstead Street — were periodically replaced by the Freeholders, who sometimes chose interesting new designs. The Main Street Bridge, raised in 1870, is of special significance because of its early date, very few of its type now surviving in America. Designed by Francis E. Lowthorp, it is based on the pony truss web system patented by Caleb Pratt in 1844, featuring diagonal members in tension and simple pin joints. Lowthorp obtained his own patent in 1857. This bridge has been described as "an outstanding example of the early use of cast and wrought iron in truss bridges." The bridge is also significant for its important role in carrying the former New Jersey Turnpike across the river, allowing commerce and trade to flow in and out of town to great advantage.
The Town of Clinton was at its high point of achievement by the 1980s. It was picturesquely located in a rich agricultural district with almost inexhaustible limestone quarries, according to County Historian James P. Snell, who found the "village handsomely laid out" and commented that it had "mercantile trade of considerable importance." It had two grist mills, one with a woolen operation as well; two banks, two hotels, and a newspaper. At the time it also had four active churches, the most recent being the Roman Catholic, and a fine public school. The school was built atop a hill on John T. Leigh's farm, on land he provided, and it was in design far more impressive than the usual rural school, judging by its representation on the 1886 Bird's-Eye Map of town. It was lost to a fire. A new school now occupies its site.
In 1881, a branch line of the Lehigh Valley Railroad was brought to the very edge of West Main Street into the service area traditionally serving the Clinton House Hotel across the road. Although the station is gone, photographs of it, as also a sketch on the 1886 map, indicate that it was on the same scale as the station in Flemington, the county seat, and provided with a parklike setting. Prior to this, a coach carried passengers to the station in Annandale [see Annandale Historic District], a few miles away, to travel on the New Jersey Central line. With its own connection, a more sophisticated life became possible, with easy travel to distant towns, including New York City. And in turn, it made it possible for entertainers, salesmen, and others, including city folk escaping the summer heat, to visit. The depot, which continued in operation until recent times, was equally important to the lifeblood of the town, having three platforms for shipping of various kinds: produce, livestock, ice, lumber and coal among them.
Next to the station a hay storage facility was first converted into a small entertainment hall, which was twice replaced, the town finally gaining a building worthy of the name Music Hall, which still stands, a large tall brick gable-fronted structure (23 W. Main Street) whose original appearance unfortunately has been marred by changes after its original use ended. The Music Hall presented circuses, plays, choral societies, light musicals, dramas, benefit programs, local talents, and eventually silent and talking movies. Traveling actors came in by railroad and stayed at the two local hotels.
Shortly after the 1886 map was completed, disaster struck Clinton. On October 30, 1891, a devastating fire swept across Main Street. The results were crushing to a small town. The Clinton Democrat, a thriving newspaper (established 1868), said simply, "All is lost." There was no fire department; the townspeople fought hard to save the houses and stores of Main Street, but the damage, when calculated, included 17 businesses destroyed; and a total of 23 buildings and 18 families left homeless. The estimated loss was $125,000. (Houses were then valued at $1,500 to $4,400; businesses from $1,200 to $7,000.) By the following October, Main Street had been rebuilt, but the fire had changed Clinton forever. As the merchants put up their buildings, they used brick or stucco. There were fewer private houses, the residents finding housing on other streets. The Clinton Fire Department was organized in April of 1892 and many of the forty charter members were the merchants who had suffered losses. The opportunity to rebuild made it possible to raise the ground above street level by a flight of steps to overcome a former problem with periodic flooding from the South Branch River.
The Great Fire of 1891 turned into an opportunity in the end to erect far larger buildings in totally new end-of-century styles. These buildings still serve the locals but also draw a wide variety of visitors, contributing to a new source of income for the town. As a streetscape, it offers an interesting combination of buildings, the fire survivors themselves reflecting the commercial enterprise from the small combination house with store front (1 Main Street, Sometime Millinery Shop), the final building by the bridge, which still has a Greek Revival in antis entrance (49-51 Main Street) and 1860s buildings (including the first bank). The Stockton Hardware Store at 43 Main Street has a datestone, 1892. The Elks building is another example of unique design. The Duckworth Store at the bridge corner, as illustrated in the 1886 Birds-Eye Map, was a prominent building offering stylistic interest; its rebuilding/replacement (demolishing the c.1809 stone store attached to it) took on decided turn-of-century features in fenestration and roof treatment (42/46 Main Street).
Turn of Century Growth: Commerce and Cultural Activities
By July of 1895, the streets were lighted with electricity. A local electric company, privately owned, was housed on the present grounds of the Red Mill complex. In 1898, using funds from the estate of Daniel Grandin, and land purchased by the citizens of Clinton, the Grandin Library building on East Main Street was erected. Also as a gesture of civic pride, it boasted having main facades of cast iron, a building fabric not often seen in country towns of this size. It continued into use until 1966.
By the turn of the century, telephone and telegraph were in use, and in time both water and waste-water companies established and run by the town until present times.
The Hunterdon County Directory of 1914 gave the population of Clinton as 836. Interestingly, many residents whose names were listed gave their occupation as farmer. The directory also contains advertisements run by Rittenhouse & Co. Clothiers and Outfitters, and Daniel Fox for coal and lumber (sash, blinds, moldings, builders' hardware, slate, cement, etc.). There were as many and more boxed advertisements for similar and additional services in all the nearby towns of the region, indicating lively competition for survival.
With the increasing use of the automobile, Clinton won out as the hub of Northwestern Hunterdon County, quite possibly because of its size and the number of shops it had. Main Street remained the merchant center with grocery, shoe, drug, clothing, bakery, dry goods, hardware, and paint stores well into the 1950s. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, barbers, beauticians, and others offering like services could be found on Main Street. A car dealership was opened off West Main Street (Route 173). The hitching posts, like those still remaining around the corner on Center Street, were eventually removed as vehicular parking replaced horse tethering.
During the decades of the teens and twenties, the final house building occurred, and it was as up to date in current taste as the changes on Main Street, reflecting new ideas in architectural design. These bungalows, foursquares, and other manifestations of classical or traditional forms, added the final layer of building choices, representing still another generation in a vibrant town. Building came to an end about 1930, with the onset of the Depression. Clinton had reached its final form.
The mills closed and became cultural centers. The Red Mill, on the west bank of the Raritan, is now the Historical Museum, privately owned, and Dunham's stone mill on the east bank, the Hunterdon Art Center. Both continue as landmarks and add to Clinton's cultural life and visitor attractions. The 1970s truss bridge still spans the river for vehicular and pedestrian use, while providing a similar view of Main and Lower Center Streets as depicted by Barber and Howe in 1844. As part of that historic center is the Clinton House, of same vintage, which remains in operation, modernized at ground story, where it has a large restaurant. The historic core of Clinton, the town, is still intact.
Overall, most of the town's buildings are well preserved and have not been subject to restoration. There is the feel of authenticity, which is underscored by the various additions, mostly at rear, and a degree of eclecticism in combinations of architectural detail applied over the years. Many homeowners have been lifelong residents and have a regard for the town based on close association. There is as much civic pride today as there always has been, and this has been a factor in the successful ongoing life of the town. A great number of "hometown" activities are held each year sponsored by the town and various organizations.
People of consequence have been associated with the history of Clinton. These include rugged individualists and pioneers like the Hunt family that ran the mills opposite each other at the confluence of two streams of water for so long in the 18th century that the village's first name was "Hunt's Mills." Then there is the Taylor family in its several branches, most of whom were mill owners, as here too, but also connected with the iron forge operation three miles distant on Spruce Run known as Union Forge during the Revolution. Robert Taylor was its superintendent. Archibald, Robert's son, bought up 600 acres of land between the streams and his son John went into partnership with John Bray in opening a merchant's store opposite the mills, then starting a hotel, Clinton House. The Taylor name, much familiar to local history, appeared again when the new Presbyterian Church opened a graveyard and received the body of Midshipman Robert Taylor for first burial (re-internment). Later, two military figures were brought home to this cemetery.
Another family of local stature was headed by Nathaniel Voorhees. He filled the second position, cashier, of two officials, after the first bank was founded in the village and then, under different circumstances, decided to head his own bank, thus forming the First National Bank. He also served in various positions in the local government. His son was Foster Voorhees.
Foster McGowan Voorhees, the Governor of New Jersey, 1898-1902, was born in Clinton on November 5, 1856 (69 Center Street). His father, Nathaniel, was related by marriage to the prominent Leigh family of the town. He was educated locally and at Rutgers University. Voorhees became a lawyer through study in the office of William Magie, the Union County Republican State Senator.
In 1888, Voorhees was elected to the New Jersey Assembly, and headed the Republican minority. In 1893, he was elected to the New Jersey Senate, and served as majority leader. In 1896, after re-election, he became Senate President. Upon the resignation of Governor Griggs, Voorhees became in 1898 the state's first Acting Governor. In October of the same year, Voorhees resigned his Senate seat to escape the state's law that a governor could not succeed himself. Consequently, in November of 1898, he was elected Governor. Among his accomplishments were the opening of the State Village for Epileptics at Skillman, NJ, which represented an advance in the care and treatment of sufferers from this malady. He also appointed a Children's Guardian Board for foster care. In other areas, he acted to open the Rahway Prison, to construct sewer lines in Newark, and to initiate revision of school funding.
In 1902 he left government service and became President of Banker's Life Insurance Company. In 1925, illness caused his retirement to his farm near High Bridge where he died in 1927. The farm property was willed to the State of New Jersey and is now Voorhees State Park. He was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Clinton.
Clinton also had its professionals, 19 who were the well-educated physicians who lived in town, invested in rental properties, and most of all took care of the residents' health. Dr. Henry Field was among the earliest, living on what then was considered an estate in a house that he brought to Grecian stylishness. Dr. John Manners, who had more than one career, filling elected office at one time, was another. Dr. Sylvester Van Syckel was a graduate of Princeton. But a person who gained celebrity status was a woman, Anna Case, who became an outstanding opera singer.
Anna Case was born at 15 East Main Street, on October 29, 1889. Her father was the local blacksmith. When she was young, her family moved to South Branch, Somerset County. She assisted her father by collecting bills and cleaning up his shop.
Anna seemed to have a natural gift for music, and at 15 she became the organist and choir director at Neshanic Dutch Reformed Church, earning $12 a month. She had no formal piano or organ lessons. Anna Case began to take voice lessons from Katherine Opdycke of Somerville, until Opdycke revealed that she did not have the capacity to teach Case and took her to Madame Ohrstrom-Renard in New York.
On November 20, 1909, at the age of 20, Anna debuted as a cast member in "Lohengrin" at the Metropolitan Opera. Six months later her first solo came in the opera "Werther."
Anna Case was the first American singer at the Metropolitan Opera who had no European training or international reputation. She remained at the opera house from 1909 until 1920, and traveled on concert tours extensively. Case married Clarence Mackay in 1931. He was a millionaire who had founded a postal telegraph system, which later merged with Western Union. They had no children (Mackay died in 1938), but she became stepmother to his three children from a previous marriage. One of his daughters, Ellen, married Irving Berlin.
Although she retired at the time of her marriage, she continued to write songs. None of her 50 songs is familiar today. There is a plaque dedicated to Anna Case in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House.
George W. Taylor, son of Archibald Taylor, sometime mill owner, was raised at "Solitude," a special elitist residential area that became High Bridge. His family was wealthy. His education included training as a Navy Midshipman. For whatever reason, Taylor transferred to the Army, and in that service built a reputation as a strong disciplinarian during the war against Mexico. It was in that area that he met Philip Kearny, the "Jersey Devil." When the Civil War broke out, Governor Olden appointed Taylor to command the First New Jersey Brigade. He was joined in the military by his son, Archibald, as his aide-de-camp, and by his nephew, a captain in the Third N.J. Infantry.
Taylor, a brigadier, led his brigade into McClennan's Peninsula Campaign. At the second battle of Bull Run, Taylor's unit came up against the larger forces of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. In the fierce battle, Taylor was mortally wounded. His body was accompanied to Clinton Station (now Annandale) on the Central Railroad by his nephew. There had been double tragedy for New Jersey, for Kearny had died in battle the same day at Chantilly.
The Daily Advertiser (Newark) published the account of Taylor's funeral. The people of Clinton, respectful of his patriotism, followed the elegant flag-draped casket from the railroad station to the Presbyterian Churchyard, where burial took place.
One year later, the nephew was killed at Chancellorsville, and he was buried beside his uncle in the cemetery. Archibald survived the war, and continued in the military over a long period of time. George W. Taylor was Hunterdon County's only Civil War general.
The Clinton Historic District, like many other districts in New Jersey, could be described as chronicling the growth of a crossroads hamlet on a major turnpike that grew up in the 1940s and continued into the post-Victorian era. From this general origin of villages, Clinton can now be distinguished from other villages by the fact that its particular location at a great source of water power with major limestone cliffs inviting to quarry operation, was always attractive to entrepreneurs — originally Englishmen, later Germans and Irish — which led to the development of a substantial town, flourishing as agricultural and mill center and later as cultural center and visitor attraction.
Hunterdon County Court House, Hall of Records, Flemington, N.J.; Deeds, Road Returns, Freeholder's Minutes.
New Jersey State Archives, Trenton, Survey Maps of Spruce Run and New Jersey Turnpikes.
‡ Adapted from: Ursula C.Brecknell, Consultant, Clinton Town Historical Preservation Commission with Linda Hulsizer, Clinton Historic District, Hunterdon County, New Jersey, nomination document, 1994, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Center Street • Halstead Street • Leigh Street • Lower Center Street • Main Street • Main Street East • Main Street West • Route 173 • Water Street