From the Courier News, Wednesday, April 9, 2008
By MARTIN C. BRICKETTO STAFF WRITER
SOMERVILLE — A headquarters for George Washington during the Revolutionary War, the Wallace House, is at the center of a new battle these days that could mean the closure of the house and the adjacent Old Dutch Parsonage.
The historic site tucked between Somerset Street and Washington Place in the southwest end of the borough is one of several state parks that would close as part of cost cutting measures under Gov. Jon Corzine’s proposed, $33-billion budget.
“I was just really stunned,” said Marge Sullivan, a long-time board member of the Friends of the Wallace House and Old Dutch Parsonage, a nonprofit support group.
The site, which has one employee, is administratively tied to the Round Valley Recreation Area in Hunterdon County, which is also slated to close. The proposed closures statewide would save about $4.5 million in salary and maintenance costs, according to published reports.
Sullivan and others hope to drum up opposition to the potential shutdown, which they argue would detrimentally affect the borough and beyond.
“It’s a part of the living history of the borough,” Mayor Brian Gallagher said. “These two sites really position Somerville not only regionally but nationally in the history of our country.”
The Old Dutch Parsonage was built in 1751 with funds from three Dutch Reformed Church congregations. The Rev. John Frelinghuysen and his family first occupied the two-and-a-half story structure, followed by the Rev. Jacob Hardenbergh. Hardenbergh would go on to become the first president of Queen’s College, today known as Rutgers.
On land purchased from Hardenbergh, Philadelphia merchant John Wallace built an eight-room, Georgian-style mansion between 1775 and 1776. Washington and his staff shared that home between 1778 and 1779 while his army was encamped at Middlebrook.
The state acquired both properties in 1947. Both the Old Dutch Parsonage and Wallace House are on the state and national registers of historic places.
Students regularly visit the site, not to mention tourists interested in the area’s history, Sullivan said. Sullivan said the site is located in a residential neighborhood and near a downtown which officials have been working to rejuvenate.
“If you close a site and essentially mothball it . . . you’re basically abandoning it and allowing the grass to grow, the snow not be plowed, and that has a detrimental effect on the residential neighborhood that it’s in and it encourages vandalism,” Sullivan said.
Details on the maintenance of the site if it closes and the storage of artifacts there have yet to be hammered out, said Elaine Makatura, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees state parks.
“This plan was just announced a week ago, the plan for closure and impact of services to the public, and the operational details for this proposal are still being worked on,” Makatura said.
Gallagher said the borough along with the Friends of the Wallace House and Old Dutch Parsonage would work to reach out to county, state and federal representatives to prevent the closing of the site.
Sullivan said the possible closing of the Wallace House may have been overshadowed by the threat to larger sites such as Round Valley. “The big sites are getting attention — as well they should,” Sullivan said. “But I think because Wallace House is a smaller site and because it was kind of lumped in after the fact on the list within Round Valley people don’t yet realize that it’s slated for closure.”
State Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-Branchburg, said it’s a difficult budget year and spending cuts are needed, but not cuts targeting parks such as the Wallace House. “New Jersey is a very historical state, we’re the crossroads of the Revolution, and to cut areas like that, to cut money to the parks, I think is wrong and I think it would be more equitable to just cut a percentage across the board of the departments,” Bateman said.
It remains to be seen whether the closure plans will remain in place following the ongoing state budget process. Learn more about the potential park closures at www.nj.gov/dep/parksandforests/.
Martin C. Bricketto can be
reached at (908) 707-3176