At Jersey St and Catherine St, there are signs that proclaim it “The Corner that History Made”.On one corner is the Nathaniel Bonnell House (1682) which is the oldest surviving home in the city. In order to envision what the house was like 300 years ago, you have to look beyond many 20th century additions like window mounted air conditioners, a fortified storm door, an asphalt roof, and a cheesy aluminum perimeter fence.Across the street there’s the Belcher-Ogden Mansion which bears similar scars of modernization, even though it was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
But the coup de grace in the Elizabeth Historic District is Boxwood Hall.In April, 1789 George Washington visited Boxwood Hall for a luncheon in his honor en route to Federal Hall at Wall Street in lower Manhattan, where he was sworn in as the first President of the United States.Boxwood Hall dates back to 1750.The Boudinot family that owned the house during the American Revolution housed Alexander Hamilton when he was enrolled at Elizabethtown Academy.Boxwood Hall has been operated as a museum by the State on New Jersey since 1940.Prior to that it was a girls’ school and a women’s retirement home.There is one boxwood hedge left at in the backyard of Boxwood Hall.There’s a wooden handicap ramp occupying a large swath out back, instead of the namesake hedges.The building is intact, but is fraying at the edges and seems to be in need of a lot of attention.
Immediately next to this touchstone of American History is the Efficiency Inn.Now as I read Alexander Hamilton’s writings, he says the efficiency of government is really important.However, I’m hard pressed to make the connection from Hamilton to the red and white signs hawking “brand new” (maybe when the signs were new?) efficiency apartments that rent by the day or by the week. The juxtaposition of these two buildings is jarring as a first time visitor to Elizabeth’s Historic District.But I’ll need to come back to this point in a bit…..
After Hamilton’s demise at the hands of Aaron Burr at Paulus Hook (Jersey City) in 1804, Elizabeth grew to be the 4th largest metropolis in the state, riding a wave of industrialization in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Singer sewing machine opened in Elizabeth 1863 and grew to be the world’s largest industrial employer by 1873 with 6,000 workers in the city.For 100 years it made more sewing machines for home use than any other manufacturer in the world. The Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal is one of the busiest ports in the world.Newark Liberty Airport, one of the 30 busiest airports in the world is located in Elizabeth as well as Newark.The Conoco and Bayway refineries are located along the edge of Elizabeth and Linden.All of those factories, refineries, airports and ship terminals required a lot of labor through the years.
The Statue of Liberty is only about seven miles from the Elizabeth Historic District.The demand for labor was filled by waves of immigrants who landed on Ellis Island and found opportunities for work in New York and in nearby cities in North Jersey.So perhaps it is fitting to have the Efficiency Inn in the Historic District adjacent to Boxwood Hall, after all. Although this isn’t what Jane Jacobs had in mind when she extolled the virtues of mixed use neighborhoods in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” 60 years ago, the Historic district has living history as well as preserved history side by side.
After my visit to Elizabeth I recognize the importance of the arrival, assimilation and citizenship of so many generations of people through the City- new arrivals who continue to need temporary housing like the Efficiency Inn!After finding a place to land they raise families and get established in a place of their own.Their story is just as vital to understanding American History as visiting the party house of our forefathers when the nation was new.
Peter Evans NJ Elizabeth Aug 17, 2022 Architecture Economy History