After The Hickories: Roosevelt Park

Mar 15, 2013

The extensive exhibit After The Hickories: Roosevelt Park that graced the Durand-Hedden House for most of 2012 traces the transformation of one hundred bucolic acres in the foothills of Orange Mountain from pre-Revolutionary farmland to their days as a grand 19th century country retreat to their new life as a fashionable early-20th century neighborhood still thriving today. The story of this land mirrors the development of Maplewood, a railroad suburb long known for its intriguing local history, well-designed neighborhoods and attractive natural setting.

The Smith family

The Smith family was part of the second generation of early Newark and Elizabeth settlers who arrived in the late 1660s and by the mid-18th century had moved west to the foothills of Orange Mountain to establish farms or plantations.

On the c. 1815 Cyrus Durand map of Jefferson Village (then this area’s name), four properties of this extended family (Capt. I[saac] Smith [Jr.], William Smith, C[aleb] Smith, and I Smith) can be seen along what is labeled “Grub Street,” now Ridgewood Road. The Smiths owned more than a hundred acres of property stretching up the side of the mountain. Captain Isaac Smith Jr. (1737-1823) served with distinction in the Second Regiment of the Essex Militia in the Revolutionary War.

From farmland to country estate: The legacy of CVS Roosevelt in Maplewood, 1855-1902

There are only snippets of information about the enigmatic gentleman who chose to build his country home in Maplewood in the mid-1860s. He was the middle son of wealthy merchant and banker Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt Sr. and his wife, Margaret Barnhill, grandparents of the future President Theodore Roosevelt. Cornelius Jr. lived from 1827 to1887, and married Laura H. Porter in 1853.

In 1855, when Maplewood was still a remote country town, Cornelius’s father purchased the first of two parcels of land on Ridgewood Road from the heirs to the estate of Captain Smith. In 1857 Cornelius Sr. deeded the property to his son “for and in consideration of Mutual love and affection and the sum of one dollar lawful money of the United States.” Further purchases of adjacent land were made in the next few years, eventually totaling about a hundred acres, extending from what is now Curtiss Place to Durand Road, and from Ridgewood Road up the mountain.

The gates at the entrance to the estate, named “The Hickories,” were erected about 1862 using stones from a building on the Isaac Smith farm. One of the stones on the south pillar facing Ridgewood Road bears the inscription I.S. 1766. The lane (now Hickory Drive) led up to the mansion and continued around it to the carriage house that still stands on Durand Road.

Not far inside the gates stood a small schoolhouse dating from the early 1830s. Cornelius Roosevelt purchased it from the town in 1869 for $2,000 and had it moved behind his estate superintendent’s cottage (formerly Caleb Smith’s home), which still stands at Curtiss Place and Ridgewood Road. (The town soon built a new, much larger schoolhouse at a cost of more than $7,000.)

A nature preserve for nephew Teddy

Since the property had been farmland, it appears that Cornelius spent considerable money and effort on landscaping, creating a park-like setting with large trees, gardens, a pond and orchards, where he and his wife and their visitors – including his young nephew Teddy and his siblings – could enjoy nature. As described by the superintendent’s daughter Bessie Sharp, there was

…A picturesque mountain stream…, its banks studded with wild flowers of many kinds, and mingled with ferns. Two rustic bridges crossed the brook and led to beautiful beds of roses and other flowers in the midst of a velvety carpet of grass.

Maplewood Past & Present, Helen Bates, ed., 1948

Teddy’s sister, Corinne, wrote of their excursions in a letter:

… our childhood visits to my Uncle at Maplewood. My brother, Colonel Roosevelt, my other brother and I delighted in the “old timey” feeling of the old home and dear little brook by which we always played with eager delight when the first Spring flowers could be picked.

The young Teddy kept numerous notebooks and diaries on his natural history findings and travels. In one notebook entry of 1872, referring to his Uncle Cornelius’s estate in Maplewood, he wrote,

Mr. C. Roosevelt informed me that a goshawk once swooped down on a rooster that was right by his house, seized it by the back and carried it up about fifty feet in the air, when he shot at it. It then dropped the cock (who was not seriously injured) and made off.

Cornelius Roosevelt built a large, ornate mansion on the property in about 1863-65. According to a 1905 news account, “the house was a great rambling structure, with labyrinthine halls, in which it was easy to get lost. It was finished in old woods and, in its day, was a fine mansion. Theodore Roosevelt was a frequent visitor there in his youth, and occupied a room in the northeast wing of the house. After the building passed out of the hands of the Roosevelt estate, the brass bed he slept in was frequently exhibited to the curious as ‘the bed that Teddy slept in.’”

The renowned Hudson River School artist Asher B. Durand, whose property abutted the northeast edge of the Roosevelt estate, was a neighbor and undoubtedly a friend to Cornelius. One can imagine the two, with a shared love of nature, the out-of-doors and art, taking walks through the woods and mountainside surrounding their homes.

Cornelius Roosevelt was a merchant in his father’s company and an engineer. Upon his death, The Holland Society of New York, of which he was a member, issued a commemorative letter noting,

Personally, he was one of the most amiable and genial of men, making happy as far as he could those within his reach. He was modest, cheerful, contented with his lot, very happy in his domestic relations, and was a good citizen in the fullest and broadest acceptation of the term….He was naturally social, entertaining largely at his country home, which he had occupied for many years.

The Roosevelts attended Holy Communion Church, a short carriage ride up Ridgewood Road. Upon Cornelius’s death, an elaborate brass and wood pulpit was presented to the church in his memory, probably by his wife, Laura. It remains to this day.

Cornelius Roosevelt died of apoplexy (stroke) at his Maplewood estate in September 1887, having enjoyed his country life for more than 20 years.

By the time Laura Roosevelt died in March 1902, a trend was emerging for city dwellers to move to suburbs like Maplewood that were well connected by the railroad. Business promoter William H. Curtiss was quick to see the potential of the large Roosevelt tract and Roosevelt Park soon had its beginnings. The destruction of the mansion by fire in 1905 sealed the fate of the land in this new incarnation.

From Gentleman’s Estate to Suburban Neighborhood: Roosevelt Park Emerges

The executors of the C.V.S. Roosevelt Jr. estate were enmeshed in a long dispute over his will after his 1887 death, but upon its resolution, William Howard Curtiss of Ralston Ave., South Orange, purchased the grand house and its land in March 1902.

The Roosevelts had been a prominent family in New York for most of the 19th century, but their celebrity had reached new heights at this time: on September 14, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, nephew of CVS, was sworn in as President of the United States following the assassination of William McKinley. The nation instantly warmed to the enthusiastic and personable man and his engaging family.

Fascinated with the activities of the vivacious First Family, Americans wanted to know the most intimate details of their lives. Reporters even tried to pry information about his father’s latest escapades from Quentin [TR’s youngest son]. Guardedly, the boy replied that he saw the President occasionally, but added that he “knew nothing about his family life.”

The Roosevelt Chronicles, Nathan Miller, 1979

For the developers of the Roosevelt property, given the fact that TR had visited his Uncle’s estate in his youth, the opportunity could not have been more welcome. Roosevelt Park it became, and the names of some roads, as they were created over the next years, were linked to the family. Although Hickory Drive drew its name from the estate as the main access road to the mansion, Roosevelt Road was cut through, and small connecting roads were named for his sons Kermit and Quentin. Sagamore Road, named for TR’s estate on Long Island, was created above Wyoming Avenue.

On December 5, 1904, Curtiss sold a large parcel of the former Roosevelt estate for $116,830 to Thomas Benton Ackerson, a successful developer from Queens, N.Y. known for high standards and good quality. The T.B. Ackerson Company soon was incorporated in New Jersey, with an office listed on Ridgewood Road. The company created a brochure and promoted the sale of lots, some featuring model homes.

Ackerson focused on the overarching structure of Roosevelt Park, planning its roads, utilities, and subdivisions and providing home designs and financing. The new homes featured the "latest" utilities (city sewer, electricity, and gas) and were eclectic in design. Area builders, including most prominently the West Orange firm Wolfe, Jilson, Douglas, acted as subcontractors.

Lot sales proceeded quickly, with house construction following episodically. By August 1908, 100 of 125 plots had been purchased by home builders or investors.

Real estate literature is often full of hyperbole, and Ackerson's brochure, Roosevelt Park: High Up Among the Oranges at Maplewood, NJ, is no exception. Still, the brochure painted an alluring picture of a “healthful and picturesque” location which, at an “elevation of 300 feet offers an unobstructed view of the picturesque surrounding country for miles..." Such attractions drew many early 20th century families away from the city to the new American suburb, far from the “factories, smoke, tramps, and nuisances" of city life.

Seeking to promote an upscale image at Roosevelt Park, Ackerson retained the original c. 1862 sandstone Roosevelt estate entry gates at Hickory Drive, the meandering drive itself, and kept the pond and ornamental trees planted by Cornelius Roosevelt. Rusticated stone entrances at Curtiss Place and Roosevelt Road provided grand statements. The private field club on the grounds was an extra amenity until it moved to Baker Street.

The Hickories burned to the ground on November 24, 1905, but this left the company more land to sell. And the carriage house and gardener’s cottage soon enjoyed new lives as renovated suburban homes in the Roosevelt Park tract.

Diversity in Domestic Architecture

The majority of the houses in Roosevelt Park today were built in the first decades of the 20th century. They formed the core of the development and set its tone. The wide range of architectural styles reflects the variety of historical influences that were incorporated into American domestic architecture of the time. Most of the houses are quite large, with generous rooms, prominent entrances, sweeping porches and strong rooflines.

Colonial Revival was the dominant style used for residential architecture in the Northeastern United States from the 1890s through the 1930s, and it was also the primary influence for houses constructed in Roosevelt Park. Many of the house designs, however, incorporate elements from a variety of styles from medieval Europe, France and the Mediterranean.

Typical Colonial Revival elements are a symmetrical façade with side-facing gable or gambrel roof and details derived from Classical Greek and Roman architecture, such as denticulated cornices, columns and Palladian windows. The houses are predominantly clapboard, but many are faced in stucco or brick. Some houses in Roosevelt Park reflect Craftsman elements, which were popular from the late 1880s to the early 1920s. These include low-pitched, hipped roofs with wide, projecting eaves, shingle or clapboard siding, and low and horizontal dormer windows. Houses inspired by the buildings of 15th and 16th century Europe have “picturesque” elements, such as steeply pitched roofs, “half-timbering,” multiple wall surface materials, bay and projecting oriel windows and decorative chimneys. These houses are typically asymmetrical in form.

And into the 21st century

Roosevelt Park has changed little since the mid-20th century. In 1941, the large Tudor-style home of George Low, built in 1905, which faced Ridgewood on property reaching from Curtiss to Hickory, was torn down and replaced by half a dozen smaller, mid-century Colonial Revival houses. A few other lots were subdivided to make way for additional houses. But for the most part, Roosevelt Park residents, like the rest of Maplewood, have eschewed the “tear-down” philosophy of other towns, and have focused on maintaining and enhancing their homes, their neighborhood, and their town.

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