Big Old Houses: A Political Mansion

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According to the New York Times, “He termed (the administration’s) leadership non-existent under a President ‘harassed and indecisive’ and called for the election of a Republican Congress. He blamed ‘Federal overlords’ (for) conditions in Washington ‘so chaotic that they are really pathetic. We witness our national Cabinet split with extreme and contrary views (and) unsuccessful efforts to regiment and shackle our people and to control the country’s economy through unstable policies.'” Ted Cruz on Barack Obama? That would be a no.

Walter Evans Edge, 36th Governor of New Jersey.

This was New Jersey Gov. Walter Edge speaking in October of 1946 about Harry Truman. (Plus ca change …). Prior to the administration of Walter Edge, New Jersey had no official governor’s mansion. A year before that fire breathing speech in Newark, Edge purchased Morven, a Princeton mansion dating from the middle of the 18th century. Morven would remain the state’s official gubernatorial residence until 1982, when it was outgunned by a snazzier mansion called Drumthwacket.

Here’s Morven in 1875. The wing on the left was the original house, or at least part of it was. YoungRichard Stockton (1730-1781), a member of the first graduating class of the College of New Jersey (future Princeton), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and eventual prisoner of the occupying British, built it in 1754. It stood on 150 of his grandfather’s 5500-acre spread (now the city of Princeton), purchased in 1701 from William Penn himself. Gutted by fire in 1758, Stockton rebuilt and enlarged the house in 1760 with what is now the central section. His bride Annis christened it Morven, after a mythical Gaelic kingdom in Ireland.

The house hadn’t changed much by 1900.

Between the 1750s and the 1920s, five generations of Stocktons occupied Morven. Here’s the family of Civil War Major Samuel Witham Stockton (1824-1895), seen “en famille” on the porch in 1885. Stockton bought the house from the estate of his uncle, a U.S. Senator and Navy Commodore named Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866). It was the Commodore, incidentally, who in the 1850s added the wing on the right.

Unfortunately, in 1891 Samuel Stockton went bust (all those children, no doubt), his 150 acres were chopped into lots, and the ancestral home on a 5-acre morsel was purchased by a Princeton Professor of Science and Revealed Religion named Charles W. Shields (1825-1904). Dr. Shields was, as it happened, the father-in-law of Bayard Stockton(1853-1928), a grandson of the Commodore, who moved into the house with his wife, Shields’ daughter Helen.

How lovely was Morven in the early 20th century, before heavy traffic, jet planes, suburban subdivisions, commercial strips and urban decay. Graced with beautiful old gardens, brimful of family antiques, spang in the middle of charming old Princeton, it was alas, unaffordable for the Widow Stockton. After her husband’s death in 1928, she rented it furnished to Robert Wood Johnson II (1893-1968).

Johnson, then 35 years of age, was a Jersey native in the early stages of his first divorce. A “take charge” kind of a guy, he had, for the previous ten years, been vice president of Johnson & Johnson, the surgical dressing firm founded by his father and uncle.

Robert Wood Johnson II.

He became president in 1932, chairman of the board in 1938 and, largely through his own efforts, transformed the family firm into one of the largest healthcare corporations in the world.

Here’s a good Robert Wood Johnson story:

Between 1920 and 1922, Johnson was mayor of nearby Highland Park, NJ., an experience, according to his Times obit, that “taught him more about psychology than all the books he had read.”

One night, in the middle of a black tie dinner, the phone rang. An irate constituent was on the line hotly accusing him of being a lousy mayor because her garbage wasn’t being collected. Johnson left his guests, drove to the woman’s house, asked where the garbage was, loaded the cans into his station wagon, and drove them to the dump.

“The dry martinis which preceded the dinner may have had something to do with (it),” he later allowed. The story speaks eloquently to character — or at least to personality.

I’m not sure who painted the house white.

The original dwelling, seen in the center of the image below, became the service wing, with kitchen and pantries on the ground floor, and maids’ rooms above. The separate structure on the north side of the kitchen courtyard (at left in the image below) was a combination wash and ice house. It’s now a gift shop.

During 17 years at Morven, Johnson (and two successive wives) made a number of changes, including construction of a pool and Art Moderne pool house at the north end of the property. To the house itself, however, they didn’t do much. The most obvious addition was a north facing solarium (now called the garden room) and miscellaneous bathrooms. Two of the latter are seen in the elevation below, perched like “Mickey ears” above the solarium. When his father died in 1909, 16-year-old Johnson inherited $2 million. When he himself died in 1968, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation inherited $400 million.

In 1945, Walter E. Edge, former U.S. Senator, ambassador to France under Hoover, and Governor of the State of New Jersey (for the second time; the first being back in 1916), bought Johnson out of his lease and Morven from the Stocktons. Edge paid for the place himself, however, Morven was intended from the start to be New Jersey’s first official gubernatorial residence.

After Edge’s death in 1956, it continued to be just that. Gov. and Mrs. Edge are seen below at their daughter’s wedding reception at Morven. Edge was the deprived-background version of Johnson. In “A Jerseyman’s Journal,” his dry 1948 memoir, he described the failing Atlantic City ad agency he bought (as a teenager, no less) for $500 borrowed dollars, and turned into a “world-wide network of resort-promoting enterprises” (whatever that means) which made him rich.

Between Helen Stockton’s departure in 1928, Johnson’s in 1945, and Edge’s in 1956, Morven didn’t change all that much. Its various residents tinkered with it — some with the interiors, some with the gardens — but the early 20th century gestalt remained largely unaltered. The first plan below shows the main floor during Walter Edge’s lifetime; the second shows changes proposed for conversion to an official residence; the third is of today’s museum.

In 1956, 82-year-old Republican party mentor and elder statesman Walter Edge died at Morven. The following year, Gov. and Mrs. Robert Meyner moved in. Gov. and Mrs. Richard Hughes followed in 1962, then the William Cahills in 1970, and the Brendan Byrnes in 1974. Then in 1982 New Jersey’s governors were seduced by another Princeton mansion, a great sprawling columned affair called Drumthwacket. Morven’s days in the gubernatorial sun were over. Drumthwacket, interestingly, had been sold to the state in 1966 on the specific proviso that it replace Morven as the official governor’s residence.

Drumthwacket was designated the governor’s mansion in 1982.

Why did this take 16 years to happen? I have no idea. Morven’s next 22 years were passed under state and historical society stewardship. Major exterior and interior restorations culminated in a 2004 debut as the Morven Museum and Gardens. All the old bathrooms are gone, replaced by new ground floor ADA-compliant facilities. The kitchen wing has been gutted, a visitors’ lobby occupies the first floor and a conference room is on the second. Subtle interior plan refinements made during the 19th and 20th centuries have been removed.

Morven’s plan today, with exception of the original kitchen wing, is probably close to that of 1850. With the exception of the dining room, there is no furniture, and all the walls are linen white with contrasting white woodwork. In the view of the main hall below, the front door is behind the camera, the dining room is to the left, the parlor (or drawing room) to the right, and the door straight ahead, which originally went outside, now leads to the Johnson era solarium.

Let’s go first to the drawing room, which the museum calls the parlor.

In Helen Stockton’s day, there was an open arch to the staircase on the north wall. It is seen at left in the 1899 image below. It’s been closed in the name of period accuracy, or perhaps for more display space.

From the parlor, a short flight of steps descends to the morning room, added in the early 19th century.

The library, through the door to the right of the fireplace, was a somewhat later addition.

That’s Johnson in the second image below, with riding boots and Schnauzer, sitting before the library fire. The Latin inscription on the mantel, if I am correctly informed, says “The Hearth Glows for You.”

Returning to the morning room, we’ll take the arch on the right, pass the main stair, and have a look at Johnson’s solarium.

That’s the front door, straight ahead in the image below, charmingly off center. To the right of it is the dining room. The floor is brand new, the walls and the ceiling probably are too, and the millwork is so immaculate it’s hard to believe it isn’t new too. Something must be old, but I’m not sure what.

The photographer’s flash-lamp spoils the atmosphere of this 1885 view of the Stocktons in their dining room.

This short passage once connected the dining room to a suite of pantries, kitchen, servants hall, etc., altered variously over the years …

… and now completely gone.

This door, located on the south wall of what is now the museum’s lobby, was used by business visitors and later for the governor’s security personnel. Kitchen help used a door on the other side of the building.

Let’s retrace our steps to the hall and the main stair.

At some point, if I’m to believe the ivory inset on top of the newel, Morven was mortgage free.

Here’s Brian, waiting to take me all around the 2nd floor. Every so often, like a prom date suddenly determined not to part with her panties, one of my field trips is abruptly and mysteriously terminated, way before I’ve seen everything there is to see. Not at Morven.

Former bedrooms lie to the east and west of this hall.

The plans below show the 2nd floor in Gov. Edge’s day, the alterations made for succeeding governors, and the museum layout today.

A pair of former bedrooms on the west side of the central block is now connected for ease of circulation. The floor is old, although I doubt it used to be so plumb. Brian’s holding a new door to the conference room, located on the second floor of the west wing, space that formerly was divided into maids’ rooms.

The large bedroom on the southeast corner of the central block looked like this in 1885. At some subsequent date, the closet beside the fireplace was opened and a small stair installed to the east wing. Today’s fireplace looks too perfect to be an antique; it’s probably new, like everything else except the floor — wait, some of the windowpanes are old.

I can’t think the owners’ suite was located anywhere but in the east wing. Minus furniture and a bathroom, it’s hard to perceive these sunny chambers as what they once were.

We’re looking west in the image below, across the owners’ sitting room towards the central block. A brief study of the 2nd floor plan shows the master bathroom migrating from one place to another. Like every baths on the 2nd floor, it has today disappeared entirely. The door on the right leads to a mid-level landing on the main stair, probably, in times past, the main entrance to the suite. We’ll head out that way and take the stairs to 3.

What’s under the eaves today? Assorted corridors, rooms with locked doors and humming HVAC machinery, and one very pleasant bedroom.

I think we’ve now seen Morven.

Morven Museum and Garden is owned by the state of New Jersey and operated by the non-profit Historic Morven Inc. Its policy is to exhibit objects relating to the house, the people who’ve lived in it, plus “outstanding examples” from New Jersey’s cultural heritage. In addition to museum exhibitions, Morven is a venue for corporate and private events, garden strolling and (of course) weddings. Is there a part of my heart that wishes it were a little more run down? That would be a yes. However, the house is safe for the foreseeable future, and that’s a good thing. The link is

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