Local legend has long claimed that George Washington, as general of the Colonial Army, met with French Major Gen. Marquis de Lafayette in 1779 under an apple tree in front of a house on Academy Street owned by Harman Van Wagenen, a Jersey City farmer. The house is known as “The Apple Tree House” based on that legend.
The two generals had supposedly met to plan out the battle of Paulus Hook. Now local historians say Washington and Lafayette did meet, but most likely not at the Van Wagenen house, which was too close to where British General William Howe was encamped at the Sip family farm a few blocks away.
Washington and Lafayette met in Jersey City a number of times during the American Revolution. Their encampment was in one of the apple orchards further away from the house, according to Edward C J. Meehan, president of the George Washington Society of Jersey City.
Meehan said the Van Wagenen family were patriots on the side of Washington, while the Sip family were Tories, and during this same period when Washington and Lafayette were encamped on the Van Wagenen estate, British General Charles Cornwallis was also housed at the Sip home a short distance away.
“Hopefully this spring we'll have a ribbon-cutting.” – Steve Fulop
The event included an honor guard from the Hudson County Sheriff’s Department and a number of public officials, including Mayor Steven Fulop.
Unlike last year, when the winter weather strongly resembled that which Washington’s army suffered in Valley Forge, this year’s mild weather brought out nearly two dozen people and attracted numerous passers by.
Meehan said the ceremony started out as an informal event back in the early 1980s by a handful of people associated with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. Later, the ceremony was picked up by the Jersey City Elks, and about five years ago, he and others helped form The George Washington Society of Jersey City to continue the tradition.
Over the years, many of these people were also involved in trying to preserve the house they claim as an important historic monument.
While the house as it is currently constructed dates back to 1840, Meehan said, the stone structure goes back significantly longer, perhaps as early as 1740.
Over the last three decades, the group began to meet to honor Washington, but also hoping to preserve the house which at times had been slated for demolition. Early on, they met either on the front lawn or in the house, but since its reconstruction starting more than a decade ago, they have been forced to hold the ceremony on the sidewalk in front of the house.
This year, because the final work is being done, and for insurance reasons, the contractor closed off the sidewalk, so the ceremony was conducted across the street and the wreath attached to the fence.
The house was nearly demolished more than once
Uses of the house have varied over the years. At one point it served as a funeral home, and also made history, hosting wakes for several mayors, including that of the infamous Frank Hague.
The house came close to being knocked down for various uses over the years. It nearly made way for a parking lot for a nearby supermarket, and later nearly became part of a bank which took possession of the property.
The city purchased it after local historians petitioned for its preservation. But for years nothing happened, and many feared that the city would not preserve it, and the house slowly deteriorated. It has been closed to the public since 1990.
Mayor Glenn Cunningham in 2001 came into the picture and within a few weeks, the house was registered on the state and federal historic register.
The city sought funds for what eventually became a $4.1 million restoration project. The restoration has been underway since 2002 under the careful eye of Jersey City Landmarks Committee. Currently, all of the building restoration has been completed with only the landscaping remaining.
Mayor Steven Fulop said he is looking forward to cutting the ribbon in the spring. “Everything is pretty much done,” Fulop said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.