Growing Pains and Maturity
1968 – 1978
The end of the sixties saw the Monmouth County Historical Association with four historic houses, a main museum building, burgeoning collections, and a busy research library. The organization survived that tumultuous decade with the help of dedicated staff, hardworking trustees, and supportive members and volunteers. The 1970s would see the country celebrate 200 years of existence, while the Historical Association would commemorate not only America’s Bicentennial but mark its seventy-fifth anniversary in 1973.
As January arrived in 1968, the Association was coping with the addition of two more historic houses in addition to the two the organization already cared for. Covenhoven House, known then as Clinton’s Headquarters, was purchased in 1967. Hard on the heels of that purchase came the Allen House. The Association assumed ownership of the former tavern and Shrewsbury landmark in May of 1968. Fundraising efforts included parties, special tours, lecture series, and other events in attempts to gather much needed dollars. Discussions, which had cropped up from time to time during the 1960s, regarding the addition of a new wing onto the Museum’s main headquarters at 70 Court Street, were finally scrapped in 1968 when it became apparent that the focus had to be on the historic sites.
Reviving a Tavern and Restoring a Landmark
The Historical Association received the key to Allen House’s front door on 1 May 1968. The house, which had stood on the corner of Route 35 and Sycamore Avenue since the early 1700s, was unique among the organization’s historic sites. For much of its history, the structure served as a public space – first as a tavern, then a doctor’s office, and later as a grocery store, antiques shop, and finally a tea room. The house was in poor condition, and the funds that its owner Mrs. Holmes had originally left for its upkeep had been spent during the years her family friend Lillie Huelson lived there. Early fundraising efforts almost immediately got underway. The Association received a $250 check from the Shrewsbury Borough School, proceeds of a candy sale the students held to help with the site’s restoration.
For the next two years, work on Allen House proceeded slowly. Covenhoven House’s restoration had already gotten underway when Allen House was turned over to the Association, and the decision was made to continue to focus on the Freehold site. Necessary work was done to stabilize Allen House, but the real work of restoration would not begin in earnest until 1970. Director Edward Feltus was enthusiastic about the planned work, stating in one board meeting that although the house was in rough shape, there were unusual early architectural elements which made it special. Mr. Feltus was also deep into the restoration of the Moreau house, renamed Clinton’s Headquarters by the Association’s board. Everyone hoped that the house would be ready to open to the public in the spring of 1971.
A Sorrowful Setback
Edward Feltus died suddenly on Sunday, 6 September 1970 at the age of 50. He suffered a heart attack while driving on the Garden State Parkway while returning from vacation with his wife Millicent. Born in Brooklyn, Edward Feltus had served as the Association’s director since 1948. He had served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and had been a German prisoner of war for a year. An editorial in a local paper noted that “Ed Feltus could tell a good story – and he had many to tell. And it was always a treat to listen to him. One of his latest projects was the restoration of the Allen House in Shrewsbury. He led a loyal group of people who wanted to precisely bring back that historic dwelling.”
The Board, still reeling from the sudden loss of its energetic and capable director, reeled again when former Board president and longtime Association supporter Mary J. Riker died on 13 September in Rumson. A tribute at the Association’s October 1970 annual meeting stated that Riker and Feltus “had worked together with dedication and enthusiasm to make the museum the outstanding place it is today.” The museum closed its doors for a month to honor its losses. After October’s annual meeting, the board gathered to discuss the future of the museum.
Looking Into the Future
While a search for a new director got underway, work continued on both Covenhoven House and Allen House. In 1971, a volunteer organization formed, made up of Association board members and local residents. Known as S.A.R.A.H. (Shrewsbury Association for the Restoration of the Allen House), the group took on the challenge of raising the funds to completely and properly restore the house.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s Headquarters was revealing its own long-held secrets. On 18 August, 1971, the trustees met in the second floor bedroom of the house to see the breathtaking blue-and-white painted woodwork. Hidden under layers of white paint for more than 150 years, the decoration featured scrolls and leafy vines along the bold woodwork and paneled fireplace wall.
At the September 1971 board meeting, Charles Lyle was introduced as the Association’s new head. The meeting minutes noted that Lyle was “very presentable and likeable.” Lyle, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, was the former field director of archaeology for the Hagley Museum in Delaware. One of Lyle’s first efforts was to begin the publication of The Monmouth Historian, an annual scholarly journal featuring articles about Monmouth County history.
Gearing Up for the Bicentennial
As early as 1972, board meeting minutes recorded discussions about plans to celebrate not only the country’s 200th birthday. Trustees and staff were determined to have all four houses in top condition for what would be a banner year. Two major exhibitions were planned. The first, focusing on New Jersey during the American Revolution, was produced in conjunction with the Monmouth Museum with grant funding from the National Endowment of the Arts. The second exhibition would celebrate American folk art and was funded through a grant from the New Jersey Bicentennial Commission.
The Association celebrated another milestone. In 1973, the organization commemorated 75 years of promoting and protecting Monmouth County History. A well-attended Open House weekend allowed visitors to tour all its historic sites, including the unfinished Allen House and almost-complete Clinton’s Headquarters. A gala dinner dance was held at the Rumson Country Club.
The Tavern Takes Shape
Creative fundraisers helped gather money to complete the Allen House. A Ghost Party, held at the former tavern, raised over $3,000 in 1972 for roof and foundation work. In early 1973, the board finalized plans to use the Allen House not only as a furnished period structure but also as a meeting space and a changing exhibition gallery space. While work was going on inside the house, Director Charles Lyle put his experience in archaeology to good use, conducting test digs in various places on the property with the help of board members. In May of 1976, the Allen House, along with the other three historic structures located at the Four Corners, were designated a State Historic District, further emphasizing the area’s historic importance. In May of 1974, the Shrewsbury Garden Club had an herb garden planned and ready, adding charm and beauty to the grounds. The Garden Club continues to care for and maintain the herb garden, more than 45 years after its original planting. In 1975, seven years after first assuming ownership, the Association opened the Allen House for its first public season.
The Shrewsbury Garden Club was not the only organization to beautify the Association’s houses. At Marlpit Hall, the herb garden planted and cared for by the Middletown Garden Club helped to group win recognition as the State Garden Club of the Year in 1975. The Bell Labs Garden club, made up of employees of the corporation, planted and kept a small herb and flower garden in front of Holmes-Hendrickson House.
Plans and Programs
In 1974, the Association added an additional staff person. Education Director Rosemary Troy promoted numerous school programs, special demonstrations, and workshops, as well as made sure all four houses had the staffing necessary to open them to a busy season. By 1975, over 100 volunteers were working within the educational programs at the historic sites as well as at the main museum.
The Historical Association’s sustained efforts at historic preservation did not go unnoticed. In the summer of 1974, MCHA received an award from the New Jersey Historical Society for its achievement in historic preservation. The ceremony was held at Morven in Princeton, with Governor Brendan Byrne presenting the award.
Towards the end of 1976, Mrs. Stout announced her resignation as Board president after eight years. In her place, Mrs. John H. Miller II was elected to serve as Board president.
In 1977, the network airing of the miniseries Roots was responsible for a marked increase in both visitation as well as mail correspondence at the Association’s Library and Archives. A renewed interest in researching family history had library staff scrambling to answer questions and assist patrons in uncovering their own historic roots.
The Association ended its seventh decade with yet more changes. In January of 1978, Charles Lyle announced his resignation after more than six years as director in order to take a position with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Board immediately began a search to fill the vacancy and in April 1978 hired Joseph Hammond as the museum’s new director. Hammond, a graduate of Boston University, had been a staff member at Winterthur Museum in Delaware. At a board meeting during the summer of that year, Hammond outlined his plans to focus on properly researching the houses and their original owners and using the Association’s collections to furnish the houses with historical accuracy.
Beginning as a small historical group with a tiny collection lodged in a second floor space above a lawyer’s office in Red Bank, the Association had grown to one of the most respected historical organizations in the region. With four historic sites, a main museum, collections, a library, and archives, the Association would enter its eighth decade with challenges aplenty.