Photo: Homes on Main Street, Allentown Historic District, Allentown, NJ
The Allentown Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [‡] .
The Borough of Allentown is a well-preserved, cohesive, district of residential, commercial, and religious structures from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early-twentieth centuries. These buildings continue to exist and stand as a record of the development of a small residential and commercial New Jersey town which has served as the hub of the surrounding agricultural areas throughout its history. Allentown has continuously attracted enterprising citizens who, in turn, have made their contribution to the borough in the areas of architecture, commerce, education, industry, invention, politics, religion, transportation and social/humanitarian.
Allentown developed along one of two Indian Paths which connected the settlements in East Jersey (of which it was a part) to those in West Jersey. The route became known as the "Lower Road." It led northward from Bordentown in Burlington County to the northeast, through Crosswicks and Allentown, to the Millstone River where it gradually bent northward, reaching the Upper Road (which originated from the falls of the Delaware River — now near Trenton) somewhere below the Raritan. The Lower Road was eventually called York Road.
In 1690 Robert Burnet, a Scottish Quaker Proprietor of East Jersey, patented 4,000 acres on the north side of Doctors Creek. In 1706 Nathan Allen, a son-in-law of Burnet, purchased two parcels of lands from his father-in-law. One parcel included 110 acres on Doctors Creek and on both sides of York Road. He built a grist mill and a fulling mill on the banks of Doctors Creek before 1738.
By the mid-eighteenth century, well-traveled roads facilitated a stagecoach route between Philadelphia and New York. The trip took between two and three days. Taverns, or ordinaries as they were called, were established in Allens Town along the route to serve the travelers and the many farmers who frequented the mills and shops. Still in existence are some of the buildings which housed these taverns including The Lower Tavern (27/31 South Main Street), possibly the oldest, Cunningham's Hotel (1/3 North Main Street), which was in existence during the Revolutionary War, and The Upper Tavern (32 North Main Street) in a much altered form. A fourth ordinary, Holloway's Tavern, stood on South Main Street on the site of the Presbyterian Manse (118 South Main Street). Part of the foundation of the tavern was incorporated into the basement of the present building.
The post office was established in Allentown during George Washington's presidency. A mail route then extended from Trenton to Freehold passing through Allentown.
Most of the architecture in Allentown Historic District can be defined as either Vernacular Traditional or Vernacular Victorian in form and style. Allentown is unique, though, in its abundance of fine examples of these and 19 other architectural styles including exemplary, well-detailed representatives of Federal, Georgian, Greek Revival, Roman Classic Revival, Italianate, Carpenter Gothic, Colonial Revival, and Bungalow forms.
The overall level of maintenance of the architecture is extremely high, unusual in an age where look-alike housing subdivisions and strip shopping centers have virtually taken over. Together with the lush, tasteful landscaping of the yards and roadside, the architectural collection of Allentown presents a picture-book history of American architectural development.
From the mid-nineteenth century through the early years of the twentieth century, Architect/Builders came to Allentown, filling the empty spaces between the earlier buildings with proficiently detailed and varied forms. The first major building period of Allentown's architecture spanned the years 1760-1830, a period of 70 years which contributed 13% of the existing building stock. The second era of major building activity occurred from 1830-1860 spanning 30 years during which 34% of the architecture was constructed. The third major period of construction began around 1860 and continued to 1910, 50 years which contributed 38% of Allentown's architecture. The fourth and final period of historic activity overlapped the third and spanned the years between 1900 and 1930, erecting 15% of the total number of properties within the Allentown Historic District.
A number of Architect/Builders are worth noting. One was John Bower (or John Bowes) who erected many Vernacular Traditional styled houses during the mid-nineteenth century. An apprentice of Bower was Elias B. Rogers, who arrived in Allentown in 1852, and with his brother Benjamin built some of the finest Vernacular and high-style Victorian houses in Allentown. They were also known for their ability to move structures from one site to another. Their moving skills were marketed all along the East Coast. In Allentown, this skill contributed to the preservation of many old houses which occupied prime lots. They were usually moved to a less desirable street or location and updated.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Charles D. Knowles of Crosswicks, another Architect/Builder, erected over twenty-five houses in the Bungalow, Bungaloid and Colonial Revival styles, many of pattern book origin. Other builders of this era were Abijah A. Anderson, Judson Harris, Emlin Hutchinson and Harry H. Williams, Jr.
Allentown has served as the commercial and industrial center of the surrounding agricultural region since the early eighteenth century. Besides the mills, taverns and hotels, and building activity, various other commercial and industrial ventures attracted business to Allentown. As early as 1754, a Dr. James Newell practiced medicine in the town providing an additional magnet to draw people from the surrounding areas. The Middleton Tan Yard was the first of many tanneries and was established in 1743. It was in continuous operation until 1885, a span of 142 years. There were boot and shoe makers, tailors, hat makers, and a number of coopers, or barrel-makers. During the 1840's an iron foundry was in operation on Main Street. An important industry the early-nineteenth century was the manufacture of household furniture. In the late nineteenth century, Allentown was particularly known for stencil-decorated slat back chairs with rush seats, along with other less-favored designs. There were several wheelwright and blacksmith shops. The sorghum industry developed in Allentown during the Civil War years. Sorghum was a species of sugarcane from which a fair quality of molasses and sugar could be obtained. According to the 1861 map, Dr. William A. Newell and Dr. A.A. Howell were practicing medicine in Allentown at this time. There were also harness-makers, a carriage shop, and various merchants of meats, groceries, drugs and hardware. The Allentown Creamery was built in 1880 and cheese was made here until about 1900.
Allentown bred two inventors who must be noted. Josiah Robbins invented a potato planter in the late 1880's which was very popular and as many as 2,500 a year were manufactured. Hillis Jones was a natural mechanic and he used his talent to manufacture agricultural machinery, carriages, an ice-loading machine, a gasoline traction engine and a force spray pump for agricultural use.
Allentown is particularly noted for the birth of the Allentown Sober Society, one of the first temperance organizations in the United States, established in 1805. Other lodges and societies which have existed throughout Allentown's history include the Odd Fellows (I.O. of O.F.) instituted in 1841, The Women's Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) established in 1887, the Daughters of Liberty (D. of L.) organized in 1897, The Grange, instituted in 1875 and a long-lived Colored Beneficial Society (42 years).
The woman who organized the Allentown Sober Society was Maria Frelinghuysen Cornell, a Presbyterian, who also established one of the first Sunday schools in the country in 1808. The Presbyterians had built their church on High Street in 1756 and shortly after built and established an academy. For the next 100 years most of the village youths received at least part of their education there.
Many of the settlers who arrived in the village after Allen were Quakers, but by 1720-1730 two other faiths were represented and churches were built; the first Presbyterian Church in 1720, a short distance above Allen's Mill, and the Episcopal Church in 1730, on Lakeview Drive where the Old Burying Ground remains.
Allentown opened an Academy in 1782 with a curriculum of "The Latin and Greek Languages, Arithmetick, Mathematicks, Bookkeeping, Geography, English Grammar, and such other branches as are usually taught at institutions of the like nature." In 1876 the first public school was erected on N. Main St. The Methodists ran an academy for awhile on Church Street. In addition, there were various small private schools including the Ely Institute, 1873, located on Church Street. The African Methodist Church built a school for colored children at 20/22 Hamilton Street in 1858. This building was later used by the Colored Beneficial Society.
Allentown was the focal point for a wide area of southeast New Jersey in the early 1880's. It yielded considerable political influence and produced six congressmen and one governor. The Gov. William A. Newell House (81 S. Main Street) was the home of William A. Newell, who was Governor of New Jersey from 1857-1860. He also served as Governor of the Washington Territory from 1880-1884. In addition, he served three terms in Congress. William A. Newell was also a physician, and was one of the first physicians to successfully complete a skin graft. As if that were not enough, William A. Newell is often referred to as the father of the U.S. Coast Guard. He invented a life-saving device which fired a projectile, with a cable attached, from a cannon on shore to a sinking ship. The cable was attached to the ship and the passengers and crew were transferred to shore in a life-car which moved along the cable.
Allentown was not a battleground during the Revolutionary War, but Colonel Cadwallader of the American army marched his troops through Allentown on December 29, 1776 and then back to Trenton. In June 1778 the British Army led by Sir Henry Clinton marched through Allentown two days before the Battle of Monmouth. In addition, courts of admiralty were held in Allentown to divide the spoils of captured British vessels. "One court was held there in 1777, and six in 1778. At its peak, in 1779, it held fourteen sessions there and disposed of twenty-six ships and their cargoes."
Boyd, Monograph of the Imlay House. In possession of the Monmouth County Historical Association.
Ellis, Franklin. History of Monmouth County, New Jersey. Philadelphia R.T. Peck and Co., 1885.
Gordon, Thomas F. A Gazetteer and History of the State of New Jersey, Trenton, 1834.
Keasbey, Edward Q. Courts and Lawyers of New Jersey 1661-1912. Vol. II. Published 1912.
MacDonald, William H. Central New Jersey Chairmaking of the Nineteenth Century.
Matheson, Rev. James A. History of Allentown Presbyterian Church, 1925.
Pitt, Reverend Sherman G. History of the Allentown Methodist Episcopal Church. From its Organization till 1897. published by Monmouth Democrat Print, 1898.
Snyder, John P. The Mapping of New Jersey. The Men and the Art. New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1973.
Storms, F. Dean. History of Allentown New Jersey. Published by the Borough of Allentown, 1965.
Storms, F. Dean. History of Allentown Presbyterian Church, 1720-1970. Published by the Allentown Presbyterian Church, 1970.
Blumenson, John J.G. Identifying American Architecture: A Pictorial Guide to Styles and Terms. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1977.
Whiffen, Marcus, American Architecture Since 1780: A Guide to the Styles. Published by M.I.T., 1969.
‡ Cynthia Martin Goldsmith, Historic Preservation Consultant, Allentown-Upper Freehold Historical Society, Allentown Historic District, Monmouth County, NJ, nomination document, 1979, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
Church Street • Hamilton Street • High Street • Lakeview Drive • Maiden Lane • Main Street North • Main Street South • Mechanic Street • Pearl Street • Route 524 • Route 526 • Route 539 • Waker Street • Yardville Allentown Road