For Jersey City, preserving history is rarely easy. Yet, on Nov. 1, Mayor Steven Fulop and other city officials to joined community members to cut the ribbon on the restored Apple Tree House, an icon of the American Revolution.
The $3.5 million historic renovation project fulfilled a mission begun more than 15 years ago under the late Mayor Glenn Cunningham.
The building will operate as an historical museum and event space and house the city’s Cultural Affairs and Tourism offices and members of the city’s historic advisory board.
Located at 298 Academy St., south of Journal Square area near Bergen Avenue, Apple Tree House, which is also known as the Van Wagenen House, is steeped in history and legend.
The ceremony included a tour of the historic building and a luncheon on the back lawn that featured apple pie and apple cider.
A long history
“This was a long project started 11 years ago,” Fulop said. “It involved a lot of different people. It started with the administration of Mayor (Bret) Schundler, who saved the building from being demolished. Mayor Cunningham had the vision to commit to its restoration, Mayor Healy pushed, and we proudly completed it.”
State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, the widow of Mayor Cunningham, said her husband would be smiling down on Jersey City.
“If you were to ask him what project gave him the most joy, this is one of those,” she said. “It combined two things he loved, Jersey City and history. This is an opportunity to save something he saw of value. I was thrilled when I walked through and saw the final project. I do remember walking through once before, when Glenn was alive, and it was nothing like that. This is wonderful, and it is so important for our younger people to recognize our history.”
The city purchased the house 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 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.
In 1688 the property was conveyed to Gerrit Gerritson, who later changed his last name to Van Wagenen. During the Revolutionary War, the house that was eventually built on the site was said to have strategic importance to Continental forces because of its high elevation and proximity to New York, a British stronghold.
Eric Holderman from H&R architects was one of the key people in the restoration.
“I started working on this project in 2004,” he said. “The Van Wagenen family bought this property in 1688. They owned it until 1947. After that it became a funeral home, which was located at the site until 1999. The fact that it only had two owners and is what really protected the house.”
Edward C. J. Meehan, president of the George Washington Society of Jersey City, said the struggle actually began in 1992.
“We heard that they were going to sell the building,” he said. “From that time to this we’ve been in this struggle to preserve this building, and thank God it has been. This is an historic heirloom.”
Although the house became the target of a supermarket expansion as early as 1992, the real threat occurred in 1999 when a bank wanted to knock down the building to replace it with a parking lot and an ATM machine. Jersey City’s mayor and council made the decision to save it.
“In 2004, we analyzed the house, reviewed its history, and what should happen with it,” Holderman said.
The first floor on the left side of the house was constructed in 1740. There was an addition done in the 1840s and another in the 1870s.
“Because the house was well preserved, they were able to go through the house and fully understand its history,” he said. “Much of the funding came from the New Jersey Historic Trust and the Hudson County open space trust fund.”
Washington and Lafayette meeting inspired the name
Local legend has long claimed that George Washington, as general of the Continental 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.
John Hallahan III, a member of the Lincoln Society, said the name of the house was derived from the apple orchard that existed there at the time of the American Revolution.
“During the Revolution, Lafayette came to help America get its freedom,” he said. “At that time the English army occupied Manhattan. Washington and Lafayette met to discuss war strategy. It was the middle of the hot summer sun so they gathered under an apple tree to plan. That’s how it got its name.”
He compared the efforts to save the house with the obstacles the two generals faced during the revolution.
“They knew it would be difficult. They were fighting the most powerful country on earth.”
These ragtag locals knew, however, it was a battle worth fighting.
“In 1999, as a wrecking ball was about to bring the building down, some preservationists gathered at the time recognized how difficult the struggle was.”
He called this a symbol of these struggles.
“This is something worth fighting for, even if the odds are great, and even if you have to fight long and hard you might actually get what you’re looking for in the end,” he said.
The apple tree that the legend made famous fell during a storm on Sept. 3, 1821. People came from far and wide to collect pieces of the tree as souvenirs. Some kids whittled its wood into various objects for gifts around Christmastime.
In 1824, Lafayette returned to New Jersey as an old man to tour places he had shared with Washington, including Paterson and Jersey City. This was a huge historic event for Jersey City and the state, since Lafayette was considered as much a hero of the American Revolution as Washington.
Some towns in the state such as Cape May named streets after both men in tribute. During his visit to Jersey City that year, local officials presented him with a walking stick made from the wood of the fallen tree. The stick is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.