1928 – 1938
The Monmouth County Historical Association came of age in its fourth decade of existence, but not without a few growing pains. The issue of where to locate a headquarters building had presumably been resolved in 1927, when the Association accepted the donation of a lot in Freehold from David Vanderveer Perrine. That decision, however, was revisited in late spring and summer of 1929. A vocal minority of members and trustees had solicited a proposal from the trustees of the Friends Meeting House in Shrewsbury for a long-term lease on their historic landmark. Plans were also prepared for a fireproof building to be erected on the grounds.
From April through August debates raged again between competing groups that supported Freehold or Shrewsbury. Things finally came to a head at the Annual Meeting held on 29 August. A special committee appointed by the Board had yet again recommended the lot in Freehold. Motions were made and defeated for both locations. The minutes of the meeting noted at one point that “A prolonged period of fruitless discussion ensued.” Finally, on a rising vote, there were 52 votes to accept their report, and 18 against. The minutes continued, “Resolved: that a committee be appointed to be known as the “Building Committee” whose duty shall be to carry forward to completion in all its details the planning and building of the House of the Mon. County Hist. Association on the site in Freehold known as the Perrine Lot.” Five trustees were appointed to the committee, headed by Major Henry L. Jones of Freehold.
A subscription book to raise funds was opened on 30 October 1929. Interestingly, it coincided with the infamous Stock Market Crash that took place between 24 and 29 October. Nonetheless, contributions began to accumulate quickly. By year-end, Mrs. Margaret Riker Haskell and her three brothers had paid in $5,500. Eventually, cash, pledges, and accumulated interest would amount to $70,604 by 1 October 1931. Individual contributions ranged from $5 to $10,000, the latter of which was given by L. Albert Reed, son of Association founder Caroline G. Reed. Her daughter, Mrs. William Barclay Parsons, and husband also supported the building project by donating a total of $6,558. But the overall average contribution amounted to $233.58. In all, there were 329 donations, including multiple instalments made by some individuals. The success of the fundraising campaign was a remarkable accomplishment considering it took place in the first two years of the Great Depression.
The Building Committee, led later by William S. Holmes, went immediately to work. Holmes was a noted antiques dealer from Freehold who also served as the first mayor of Freehold Borough. Plans for the building were prepared by Warren H. and J. Hallam Conover, father and son architects from Freehold who also maintained an office in New York City. Initial estimates for constructing a suitable home for the Association called for a building to cost $40,000. Colonial Revival in style, the first designs included a columned portico across the street elevation in imitation of Mount Vernon, and a very large multipurpose auditorium to the rear. In the end, both features were eliminated to keep costs within budget. Only about 40 percent of the proposed building footprint went forward.
Detailed plans and specifications were ready by fall of 1930. Henry F. Soden & Brother, Freehold contractors, won the contract with a bid of $33,678. It was approved by the trustees on 8 November. Construction proceeded so rapidly that the building was ready for partial occupancy by June of 1931. The final cost came to $37,119.88 with various extras and change orders.
The History House, as it came to be known, was built to the fire resistant standards of the day, with solid masonry interior and exterior walls, steel framing, and concrete slabs under the wood flooring. The Soden brothers were noted for being able to produce fine custom millwork, which was featured in every public space in the building. Contributors were able to dedicate their subscriptions to specific spaces. The Reed/Parsons donations were applied largely to the library. The Riker family gifts funded the second floor hallway. The main gallery on the first floor, known later as the Washington Room, received funding from thirty subscribers, while the Sports Room on the second floor (now the Discovery Room) was supported by thirty-five donors. Miss Louise Hartshorne of Middletown solicited funds from as many Hartshorne descendants as she could reach for dedicating a room on the second floor to their family. Lumber for the elaborate walnut paneling came from Portland, the estate of Mrs. Robert Hartshorne near Highlands in memory of her late husband. Funds for the main staircase were contributed by Bernon S. Prentice, while the Citizens of Freehold funded another room on the second floor. A special feature was the front doorway, a copy of an 18th century original on the Imlay Mansion in Allentown, Monmouth County. Paid for by Mrs. J. Amory Haskell, it cost $1,500 to fabricate by hand. Outfitting and furnishing the History Building required another $1,727.59. That left $26,285.46 to invest and as operating funds.
The new headquarters of the Monmouth County Historical Association opened with a special event for the trustees and members on 6 October 1931. Three hundred people attended, so some individuals had to sit outside on the lawn. The festivities began with remarks by the President, Gilbert T. Van Mater of Keyport, who then turned the podium over to Dr. John Grier Hibben, President of Princeton University and keynote speaker of the day. In his address, Dr. Hibben noted that “I think that this building is a symbol of the past and of course, I mean here, the past history of New Jersey, the history of your ancestors, the symbol of the past that still endures in the present. We speak of the past as past, still it is never past, it lives on and it appears in another form in every person, just as the sapling is present in the oak . . . We never get away from our past, we become part of it.”
The doors opened to the general public on 20 October. In the first year alone, over 7,000 people visited the Association’s new history museum and library. But after that, attendance settled down to between 2,500 and 2,700 per year through the rest of the decade. Initial staff consisted of Miss Laura Flanders, who was hired as Curator as of 1 September 1931, and Miss E. Marie Becker, the first librarian, who began work on 15 May 1932. Both remained with the Association for many years. Miss Flanders was given use of a small apartment in the building, plus a salary of $75 per month. Early changing exhibits held in the first years of operation included samplers, pewter, Staffordshire figurines, and a Duncan Phyfe parlor. Many individuals lent family heirlooms, some on an indefinite basis. Other individuals donated objects outright. By the end of 1938, gifts totaled 1,252 items of every imaginable description. Mrs. J. Amory Haskell, a leading collector of Americana, took a special interest in the new museum. She joined the Board of Trustees on 29 October 1931, and quickly emerged as the principal patron of the organization, as well as a generous lender to various museum exhibits. At the time of her death in 1942, Mrs. Haskell had donated 799 museum items to the Association, and had lent 766 more for special exhibits. One hundred and fourteen paintings, portraits, pieces of furniture and needlework from the Haskell Collection can be viewed at the moment on the Association’s eMuseum site HERE.
Perhaps Mrs. Haskell’s greatest act of generosity to the Association took place on 6 June 1936. On that date, she welcomed its members to a simple reception at Marlpit Hall in Middletown during which she turned over to the trustees ownership of the historic house and the acre of land on which it sat. Through the efforts of Edna M. Netter of Marlboro, a local antiques dealer, Mrs. Haskell purchased the ancient Taylor family residence the previous year for $2,000. Restoration took place over the winter under the supervision of Netter. Then the building was furnished mostly with items from the Haskell Americana Collection, many of which had come from the house but which had been auctioned in 1931. Marlpit Hall, the first historic house museum to open to the public in Monmouth County, attracted between 1,200 and 1,700 visitors per year during the remainder of the 1930s.
By 1938, the Monmouth County Historical Association had transitioned from a social club whose members were interested in history to a leading New Jersey history organization with a museum, research library and archives, a furnished historic house, and rapidly growing collections. Much of its success can be attributed to Will Holmes, who became President in 1935. His network of contacts in Monmouth County, as well as among leading Americana collectors and dealers, attracted many high quality gifts and loans to the Association. Many of the most popular exhibits were also the result of his interests in decorative arts and history. Frequent lectures continued to be held during the summer months, only mostly at the History Building instead of at various venues around the county. Yet the need for cash contributions didn’t necessarily keep up with necessity. In 1935, serious consideration was given to closing the headquarters building in Freehold due to a lack of operating funds. Dues were raised from $3 to $5. Enough donations came in eventually to keep the doors open. Mrs. J. Amory Haskell picked up many expenses year after year, including the salary of the resident caretaker at Marlpit Hall. She also contributed the most to regular appeals for operating support. In spite of the financial impact of the Great Depression, the Association accomplished the seemingly impossible during its fourth decade ending in 1938, the most significant of which was to carry out a major capital campaign and construction program in the face of such hard times.