Edward Balch: Builder and Visionary in Early 20th C. Maplewood

Feb 16, 2010

Edward C. Balch, who lived in Maplewood from 1890 until his death in 1934, was one of the most prominent builders of the time. Durand-Hedden volunteers have been poring through town and county archives to identify the 175 houses he built, mostly on the western side of town, and to put together an exhibit that will open at the Durand-Hedden House on Sunday, Feb. 21 at 1:00 pm. 

The personality of Maplewood was apparent even in those times. Emerging from a collection of family farms and homes of local merchants, this was not going to be the site of random, rapacious development, but a carefully planned town where lots of various sizes would provide housing for people of a range of income levels but common goals – to live in an attractive, pleasant and safe town with a good school system.

A City of Homes

In a 1936 article for a local magazine, Meador Wright wrote, “Maplewood is a city of homes. In this sentence is encompassed its whole economy and culture, its past and present and future.” He added, “Maplewood zoning ordinances are as unalterable as the laws of the Medes and the Persians.”

It was to this nascent community that Edward Balch moved with his wife and three children in 1890, after their initial venture across the Hudson to East Orange. Balch discovered Maplewood when he visited as part of a local amateur baseball team.

Balch’s first entrepreneurial venture, begun soon after he moved to Maplewood, was as a manufacturer of women’s waterproof raincoats, cloaks and suits in New York. That evolved into a retail business making finely tailored women’s costumes for a clientele all over the Eastern seaboard, from Maine to Georgia and west to Pittsburgh.

The Balches first rented a small house on Mountain Avenue near Ridgewood Road, and then built a larger one on the corner. In 1899, with a family that had grown to include five children, Balch built a large and gracious house on the southeast corner of Ridgewood and Mountain, where he lived until his death. This new home was his masterpiece, a blend of Shingle, Queen Anne and Colonial Revival. The foundation, piers and porte cochere were of Indiana limestone carved by stone masons right on the property. Mahogany beams crowned the living room and hand-carved mahogany and marble fireplaces graced almost every room.

This experience in home building piqued his interest, as in 1900 there were large tracts of land in the town that were ripe for development – many of them visible from his front porch. He saw the potential of Maplewood as a residential suburb populated by like-minded people – young families with a commitment to the community. Little by little, over the next 20 years, he went on to build about 175 houses on the slopes of South Mountain, including Clinton Avenue, Curtiss Place, Durand Road, Euclid Avenue, Mountain Avenue, Ridgewood Terrace and Winthrop Place.

Balch built virtually all the houses on Ridgewood Terrace, most between 1908 and 1910. Setting a precedent that remains to this day, each house looked different, each contributing to the character of the neighborhood with its broad front porch and welcoming façade. Four or five basic floor plans were used for the interiors.

Many of the houses could be called “four-squares,” but Balch also built gambrel-roofed clapboard houses, center-hall Colonial Revivals, and some that evoked the Bungalow or Arts and Crafts styles. Building permits list no architect for these lovely homes and the names of those who drafted the plans may never be discovered. Builders like Balch could select plans from illustrated catalogs or even purchase “kit houses.” Balch was not a trained designer or architect, but probably had a hand in some way in the houses’ design.

Balch was a religious man and active in Morrow Methodist Church, helping in its growth from a small one-room building on Claremont Avenue (then Bear Lane) to its present imposing stone edifice on Ridgewood Road.

In a biography in The Story of New Jersey, published in about 1944, it was said that “he made it unusually easy for young couples” to buy his houses if he thought they would be good citizens for Maplewood – and especially if he thought they would become members of the Morrow Church.

In turn, these young families held him in high regard, thinking of him as “a personal friend and not just a builder from whom they had bought a home.” He built houses for his children in the neighborhood as well, to ensure that they remained part of the community. Balch was a major patriarchal figure in the civic development of the town he loved so well, playing an important role in the establishment of Maplewood’s bank, country club and centrally located park, the building of schools and libraries and the running of Maplewood’s “Safe and Sane” Fourth of July celebration.

Perhaps as an outgrowth of Balch’s homebuilding business (and certainly as further evidence of his entrepreneurial spirit), he started the Orange Screen Company in 1911. It was located in West Orange initially, but within a few years he built a new building for it on Valley Street, where the company grew and prospered for many years. The building was later taken over by the Hammond Map Company.

The Orange Screen Company was later headed by Balch’s son Everett Purdy Balch, and broadened its product line from wood screens to aluminum screen and storm windows and enclosures. During World War II, the company operated 24 hours a day, making radio and radar equipment and a variety of aluminum and bronze window sashes for fighter and bomber planes, hospital trains and transport ships and earning the Army’s award for excellence three times.

The Durand-Hedden House is indebted to the numerous people who contributed reminiscences about Edward C. Balch and his houses, including Balch family members Peter Sickley, Robert Sickley, Susan Sickley, Jean Ward, and Miriam Weiland, and house residents Claire and Charles Burkelman, Jacqueline Faupel, Lydia Lacey, Louise Noll, and Susan Weisner. Thanks also to Thelma Hadley, who urged Durand-Hedden to explore this builder’s history, and to Marley White, who took many photographs of the houses.

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Architecture Houses Maplewood History

Next Event

June 19, 2021, 11:00 AM

Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom

Juneteenth will be celebrated at Durand-Hedden on Saturday, June 19th, as part of a MAPSO-wide program, in collaboration with the SOMA Community Coalition on Race. Come to see historical reenactors from the Civil War era, be inspired by a group of Black poets, and visit the exhibit on the History of Slavery in New Jersey.

You can make a reservation for a one-hour time slot between 11 am and 2:45 pm for free through the Maplewood Township Recreation Department.

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