BIG OLD HOUSES: A Noble Antique in the Urban Sprawl

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I confess I am put off by people who introduce themselves with a first name only. Youthful customer service people on the other side of the globe who insist on calling me “John” are equally annoying. All life is not a 12-step meeting. William Livingston (1723-1790), seen in the (probably very) inaccurate portrait above, would hardly have introduced himself simply as “William.” This gentleman scion of one of America’s most legitimately aristocratic families attended Yale, read law, wrote verse, had 13 children (really) and, in 1760, began accumulating land outside bucolic Elizabethtown, NJ, as today’s not-so-bucolic Elizabeth was then known.

Having amassed 120 acres of woods and fields adjacent to the Elizabeth River, Livingston built the elegant small mansion in the image below. Its gambrel roof, classical quoins and matching wings (both were originally one story high) speak eloquently to the architectural aesthetic of America in the 18th century. The idea was to retire here, write poetry, farm, contribute to the community and grow old in the comfort of an extended family.

Instead, he was swept up by the American revolution, became a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses, was first brigadier general of New Jersey’s wartime militia, then first governor of the state. During much of the war he literally lived on the run while battles raged and British troops sacked his new house. Returning home in 1783, he repaired the damage and, judging from correspondence of the period, christened the place Liberty Hall. He didn’t enjoy many more years here, however, as he died in 1790 at the relatively early age of 67.

Before Livingston’s death, in anticipation of a visit by Martha Washington, a second floor was added to one of the wings. Other than that, Liberty Hall remained pretty much unchanged for almost 80 years. During that time it bounced from one cultured country house type to another, before winding up in 1833 in the hands of Colonel John Kean — which rhymes with “cane.”

There is a certain poetry to Liberty Hall’s chain of ownership but, like certain obscure poems, it is not easy to follow. Kean inherited the house upon the death of his grandmother, Susan Livingston Kean Niemcewitz, who was, coincidentally, a niece of the original builder. Mrs. — or, more property, Countess — Niemcewicz renamed the house Ursino in honor of the ancestral estate of her 2nd husband, Count Julien Niemcewicz (1758-1841), a Polish patriot who spent the last 24 years of his marriage to the former Mrs. Kean on the other side of the Atlantic, an arrangement that worked better in the 19th century than it does today.

After the countess’s death in 1833, her heir, Colonel Kean, together with his wife Lucinetta Halsted Kean, produced eleven more children, nine of whom survived, necessitating the mansionization of Ursino in several stages. The image below shows the house in the 1850s. Livingston’s sweet 2-story provincial Georgian country seat has become a 3-story Italianate mansion. The original house is actually all still there, interiors intact, sitting beneath a large Victorian hat.

Before he died in 1895, Col. Kean added wings and a tower on the north — the the top of the latter just peeks over the roofline in the image below — and a virtually free standing 3-story library and guest wing on the west. Col. Kean, whose military rank stemmed from a stint on the staff of New Jersey Gov. William Pennington, was a rich man — a lucky thing, with all those children.

He was a bank and utilities president, a local mill owner, and when he died, after 62 years at Ursino, he did so in the very fulness of Victorian era success. Kean left the house to his son, United States Senator John Kean, subject to a life tenancy by his widow. He left the farm on the other side of Morris Ave. to another son, Hamilton Fish Kean. The widow died in 1912, at which point her bachelor son, the senator, moved into Ursino, where he himself died 2 years later.

Still with me? It gets simpler from here on. The next owner was the bachelor senator’s nephew, a World War I vet named Captain John Kean (1889-1949) seen in the image below. Kean was another bank and utilities president, as well as the uncle of future New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean.

In 1925 Capt. Kean married the daughter of John Stewart Barney (1869-1924), a prominent and prolific New York architect whose firm, Barney & Chapman, designed a splendid Elizabethan Revival castle in Tuxedo Park owned, during a palmy period in earlier life, by yours truly. Mary Alice Barney Kean (1902-1995) inherited her father’s taste and appreciation of architecture. As president of the Elizabethtown Historical Foundation, first woman trustee of the New York Historical Society, governor of the New Jersey Historical Society, etc., etc., she was, God bless her, a tireless advocate for historic preservation throughout her long life.

When Mrs. Kean’s husband died in 1949, Ursino and most of Union County — and indeed most of Nassau and even parts of Queens — was still in the country. Rapid change was coming, however, as postwar sprawl rolled forth from America’s urban centers like so many unregulated tsunamis. In 1958, Green Lane Farm, the name Mrs. Kean’s brother-in-law had given his property across the road, became the campus of New Jersey State Teachers College. Subdivisions bloomed all around Ursino, commercial strips proliferated, and former farm fields shrank by the hour, so it seemed, until they disappeared altogether.

For nearly half a century after her husband’s death, Mrs. Kean carried on at Ursino in the midst of all this, accumulating grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and directing good works from the only house of scale anywhere nearby. In 1974 she resurrected the name Liberty Hall and began to prepare the house for a future as a museum. Liberty Hall survives today, chock full of family pictures and furniture, its formal gardens and integrity of site remarkably intact. By the way, that ancient tree out front was planted in 1770 by William Livingston’s daughter, Susanna, probably during a picnic excursion while the house under construction.

There’s often an appealing practicality — wedded to an equally appealing lack of architect’s ego — to old additions tacked onto older houses. The white shutters in the view below of the east facade indicate the only visible portion of the original Livingston house. The two floors above them date from the 1850s. The rest of what we see, including the tower on the right, was built in the 1870s. It’s a jumble, but a pleasing one.

Except for fireplaces, furniture and chandeliers, Livingston’s “great hall,” as tourist literature persists in calling rooms like this, hasn’t changed since 1772. In this room in 1774, the future first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Jay (1745-1829), married Livingston’s daughter, Sarah.

At the east end of the hall is the door to the drawing room, located in what was originally the one-story wing on the east. Save for the 1870s gasolier and a drop dead gorgeous Greek Revival fireplace, it is essentially unchanged from 1772. The fireplace, incidentally, is salvage from a demolished Kean townhouse on lower Second Avenue, arguably Manhattan’s most fashionable thoroughfare before the rise of Fifth.

At the western end of the hall is the door to the dining room, originally built, in the way of very old houses, as a bedroom. Features to note: an original chandelier; another fireplace from Second Avenue; and a fine Heriz rug, one of many beautiful antique orientals scattered through the house.

In the 1870s, what had originally been another ground floor colonial era bedroom was transformed into a serving pantry. Behind the door on the right in the first image below is the elevator. That’s a silver safe in the second image, recessed into a wall beside what was once a bedroom fireplace.

The corner door beside the dumb waiter leads to the dining room and to a back stair down to a new kitchen — well, new in the 1870s. The now disassembled kitchen, used today for exhibition space, was in daily use until Mrs. Kean’s death in 1995.

In the image below, we’re back in the great hall looking north to the main stair. In the distance is a door to the formal garden, which we’ll visit before we leave. To the left of the stair hall is the bedroom that was made into a pantry. To the right, a corridor leads to a small parlor or reception room with the unmistakeable high-ceilinged, bow-windowed air of the 1870s.

Outside the parlor is a glazed porch overlooking the garden. Hard to believe, isn’t it, that we’re in the most urbanized part of New Jersey.

Let’s recross the parlor, retrace our steps down the hall, and take the stairs to the second floor. On the first landing we’ll peek into a low-ceilinged room I’m told was once occupied by slaves.

There are 7 bedrooms on the second floor (more in the library annex) plus four bathrooms. The latter look to have been installed at about the time Captain Kean married Miss Barney in 1925. The stair in the middle of the first image below leads to childrens’ rooms on 3. We’ll pay a visit first to the 2nd floor master bedroom, which sits directly above the drawing room.

Mrs. Kean spent her (almost) half century of widowhood sleeping in the room next door.

Among the family photos on the mantelpiece and dresser tops is this of Mrs. Kean’s dapper looking father. In 1922, J. Stewart Barney, having forsaken architecture to become a painter, combined 2 modest brownstones on the southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 65th Street, constructing a north facing atelier on the 65th St. side. He didn’t enjoy it for long, however, as he died in 1924. After that it was mostly closed, eventually becoming a kind of spooky looking haunted house. When his daughter died in 1995, jewelry designer Barry Cord bought, restored and lived in it until the value of the land became too impossible to resist. A new and not bad looking condominium tower, developed by Toll Brothers of all people, has just opened on the site.

Mrs. Kean saved her father’s telephone and kept it beside her bed. Many of us remember when telephone exchanges told you where people lived. Rhinelander, Butterfield and Templeton were smart East Side exchanges; Watkins and Pennsylvania were in the business district; Trafalgar and Endicott were on the West Side, about which, back then, the less said the better.

Adjoining Mrs. K’s bedroom is a small dressing room and an untouched vintage bathroom.

Let’s return to the 2nd floor landing and stroll through a trio of bedrooms, with a bath in between, all of which overlook the front lawn and Susanna Livingston’s tree.

This was the room reportedly built for Martha Washington. I’m getting a bit surfeited with bedrooms, so we’ll just glance at one more before taking the back stair to the servant’s quarters on 3.

The third floor was shared by servants on the west and children on the east, their respective domains separated by an etched glass door. Trunks full of nifty stuff must have provided untold hours of entertainment to Liberty Hall Foundation workers who helped open the house to the public in 1997. The best room on the 3rd floor didn’t belong to a Kean, but rather to the family’s cook.

There is a 4th floor, accessed via a twisting stair behind the cook’s room. It contains one nifty room of the sort you see and think, “Wow! Would this ever be a great place to….” But somehow, the rest of that sentence never quite comes to you.

Time to go back downstairs.

But wait, there’s more. Liberty Hall Director Bill Schroh is taking us to the library wing, that skinny 3-story building separated from the rest of the house by a sort of Bridge of Sighs from the dining room.

Few visitors see Mr. Kean’s library, which still contains his books and furniture. That’s not a billiard table under the plastic; it’s just a lot of temporary museum storage. Bedrooms on the two floors above are used today as offices.

One flight down from the library is a greenhouse that’s still in operation.

And we’re still not done. Back in the old part of the house, beneath the main staircase are steps down to the original Livingston kitchen, restored (although not used) by Mrs. Kean in the 1970s.

The basement laundry room is next door to the antique kitchen. Many years ago I lived in a house with the same vintage dryer. You hang damp laundry on racks that roll into a heated chamber, and roll them back out when everything’s dry. P.S. I wouldn’t want my cat anywhere near that washtub.

Would that I could have taken better pictures of Liberty Hall’s garden, an elaborate and formal affair that has been loved and cultivated since the 18th century. It was warm on the day of my visit, but the snow was still above the tops of my Bean shoes.

Equally interesting is the restored carriage house which, if I wrote about carriages instead of houses, could be the subject of a separate post.

Liberty Hall Museum is a 26-acre National Historic Site owned by and nestled against the 185-acre campus of Kean University. Kean with a total student population of 16,000, together with the old Kean mansion with a whopping total of 50 rooms, appropriately commemorate a family which the “New York Times” described in 1974 as a “political ‘Who’s Who’ unmatched by any in the nation.

A Kean was the first cashier of the Bank of the United States, having been appointed by George Washington; two were United States Senators; two sat in the House of Representatives; one is a former Speaker of the State Assembly and another is a former mayor of Bedminster.” In 1982, eight years after that article was published, Thomas H. Kean became the 48th governor of New Jersey. Liberty Hall was a happy discovery for me, who didn’t expect it in Union, NJ. Open to the public and well worth a visit, the link is

Vintage images courtesy of John Kean Collection, Liberty Hall Museum.

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