On a spring morning in the year of 1969, at the age of seven, I stepped out of our rundown but sweet home on Dixie Lane into the drizzling rain and started on my way to school on the tree covered, winding roads, wondering why there was an unusual scent of wet ashes in the air. My imagination hadn’t prepared me for the frightening and heartbreaking explanation. As I approached the corner of Ravine Road and Belvidere Avenue, the remains of the Talmadge mansion came into view. The home had burned through the night – its gutted tower and brick walls stood in mourning. I walked cautiously onto the property to get a closer look. I stood in disbelief among large pieces of charred wood and bricks. A fireman encouraged me to leave. In despair, I continued on my way and the sky continued its gentle weeping.
The date of the fire was May 19th and Jon Gabriell of the Courier News reported that the unoccupied home, located at 714 Belvidere Avenue in the Netherwood Heights section of Plainfield,
"...was destroyed by fire that raged from shortly after midnight until nearly dawn. Helpless to save the house, firemen pounded it with streams of water from high pressure hoses and worked to keep the fire from spreading to woods on the property. The families of two nearby houses – including 11 children – were evacuated by firemen who feared that a continuous shower of sparks from the Talmadge roof might start another holocaust. The fire, visible from most of the city as flames slashed high above the treetops, drew more than 200 spectators who crowded behind a row of fire trucks and lines of hose that twisted through the street. Hastily dressed and with sleep-ringed eyes, they watched as the huge old house burned – every room ablaze, the ivy front burned to twigs, flames licking at the elms and oaks that had shaded the house. ‘It looked to me as if it was torched,’ said Deputy Fire Chief Norman Freeman. ‘Every room, including the cellar, was on fire when we arrived.’ Entry to the building, boarded up by the Fire Department two weeks prior, may have been made through a cellar window, Fire Chief John Townley reported."
A priceless collection of books perished. In 1909, this library contained mostly historical works and subjects pertaining to the Far East. I am unaware of the contents added after this time.Many neighbors believed that destructive children were responsible for the fire. On the day of the fire, one neighbor told Jon Gabriell that, in the weeks leading up to the fire, children had broken windows and entered the house and another neighbor told me that she and other neighbors spent time inside the house during its vacancy in an attempt to protect it.
It is possible that a local bank, as executor of the will, for its ease in settling the estate, after quickly auctioning the majority of the contents of the house, had it set afire. Most buyers could not afford to purchase, restore and maintain a large home on a large piece of property in a community that had lost much of its wealth. During the 1960s, there was a lack of interest in the preservation of Victorian architecture in the United States. Many of the large Victorian homes in Plainfield had been converted into multi-family dwellings or had been completely destroyed. For these reasons, coupled with the "white flight" phenomenon that occurred in Plainfield, this home would have sold for a small fraction of its worth.
It is also quite possible that the fire originated within the electrical wiring of the home, as is often the case with houses that are not maintained. The fire occurred a few days after the home had been emptied and, in that process, the lighting was turned on throughout the entire house after a long hiatus.
The home had been without its inhabitant, Henry Talmadge II, for only a season. Though the grounds were overgrown, the interior of the house retained its original splendor. The loss of this rare mansion was a great one. In a careful world, the home, with its entire contents, would have been preserved.
The fanciful design of the Talmadge House defied classification. Douglas Smythe, of 48 Exchange Place in Manhattan, was its architect. Very little is written about Smythe. He was born in 1848 and – at one point in time – worked under the supervision of Richard Morris Hunt. Later in his career, he was a member of the Prairie School. His earlier designs reflect his romantic and fantasy driven imagination.
Construction began in 1880 and was completed in 1883 at a cost of approximately forty-five thousand dollars. The situation of the house was originally one of extraordinary attractiveness – placed on the side of a hill with a view of the mountains and a wide extent of heavily wooded countryside with very few inhabitants.
The gables, paneled and choked-topped chimneys, half-timbering, spindled porch columns, fish-scale shingles and windows, with their major panes of clear glass edged by smaller panes of multicolored glass, were all elements borrowed from English seventeenth century architecture and were referred to as Neo-Jacobean – Jacobus is Latin for "James," and "Jacobean" refers to the time when James I ruled England (1603-1625). The roughly hewn stone and terra-cotta tiling were Romanesque in character. The brick and terra cotta had been subdued by being washed down and oiled. The Belleville stone retained its dark, rich, natural hue.
The main entrance served as the base of its unusual lighthouse-like tower. The hall and library were exceptionally large while the other rooms on the first floor (parlor, billiard room, dining room and butler’s pantry) were typical in size for larger homes. The second floor had six large chambers, a nursery, a sewing room in the tower and two verandas. The third floor had guest and servant bedrooms. The kitchen, laundry room, wine cellar, storeroom and furnace room were located in the basement, which was above ground, owing to the slope of the land.
The porch and vestibule were treated with colored bricks – red, buff and chocolate. The interior was mainly of hard woods. The hall was in antique oak, with paneled staircase, dado and ceilings and the walls were covered with an embossed paper called lincrusta-walton. The magnificent fireplace mantel was of antique oak, extending to the ceiling, adorned with carvings – its center had a frame enclosing a figure made of tiles. The other rooms on the first floor were in cherry and ash – the parlor being in ebonized cherry. In the library mantel, a bull’s-eye mirror reflected pleasantly.
Nestled on the property was a small chapel built in 1881, given as a gift to the community by Henry Pearl Talmadge's wife, Lucy. The carriage house of the mansion stood behind the chapel.
The property on the other side of Woodland Avenue was used as a farm, with a cow, goats, chickens and vegetable gardens. Fresh milk would be carried up the hill to the home in the early morning hours. A barn stood in the area between the now standing Woodland and Maxon schools. In the1950s, school children would play among its ruins.
The Talmadge family were descendants of Thomas Talmadge, who came to the Colonies from England in 1631. Henry Pearl Talmadge, son of Frances Anna Cossitt and Henry Talmadge, was born on March 10, 1847, at Troy, New York.
Talmadge received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard College in 1868, married Lucy White on April 18, 1872 and lived with his parents at 538 Madison Avenue in New York City.
Their first child, Lucy, was born on September 22, 1873. In the Spring of 1877, they moved to Plainfield. His son, Henry Talmadge II, was born on May 15, 1877, graduated from Harvard College and Columbia Law School, and became a lawyer in New York City. His son, Arthur, was born on February 25, 1880, graduated from Harvard in1902, published his well researched genealogy of the Talmadge family in 1909 (based largely on the research of Lewis Cass) and died on January 10, 1910, at Prescott, Arizona. His daughter, Helen, was born on August 30, 1881, married Daniel Runkle of Plainfield and had two children - Helen, born January 29, 1906 in New York City and Henry, born August 14, 1920 in East Hampton. His son, Francis, was born on January 19, 1884, graduated from Harvard in 1906, married Beatrice Cornish of New York City and had two children - Beatrice, born December 1918, and Thomas.
Talmadge described himself as a social and economic conservative. He had been president of the South Carolina Railroad and Southern Pine Company of Georgia and a vice president of the Empire Trust Company, New York and had been president of the New York banking firm of Henry Talmadge & Co., founded by his father, with which he was associated for 65 years. He had been a director of the Central Trust Company, The Mechanics National Bank and the Phoenix National Bank.
Talmadge had been among the directors appointed to establish the Plainfield Public Library in 1881. He had been a member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity, the Seventh Regiment Association, the Union League, the University, Harvard, Rumson and Sleepy Hollow Clubs, and the Downtown Association and Chamber of Commerce of New York.
In July of 1932, Talmadge, then 85 years old, was the principal witness in his suit against the United States Shipping Board. Talmadge testified he had lent $1,139,000 to the American Ship Building Company in 1918. Talmadge and his son, Henry, did much of the legal work on the case, organizing legal documents on a pool table in their first floor game room. The federal court in New York awarded Talmadge $879,195.88. This amount represented the sum of $479,000 plus interest from 1918. The decision was appealed and it is believed Talmadge received a small fraction of the amount originally awarded.
In the year of 1933, Talmadge’s wife, Lucy, passed away. On May 9, 1937, at the age of 90, Talmadge died of a heart ailment in his mansion. Private services were conducted at his home by the Reverend Robert B. Rock, assistant minister of Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, New York. His children, Henry and Lucy, remained living in the house.
Sometime during the mid 1960s, Harry Devlin, an artist known for his illustrations and editorial cartoons in Collier’s Magazine and the New York Daily News, working on his own project illustrating and writing a book on American architecture for young people, spoke to Henry Talmadge II and painted an illustration of his home, which was initially included in To Grandfather’s House We Go – A Roadside Tour of American Homes and finally published in Devlin’s book on Victorian architecture of the Eastern Seaboard, Portraits of American Architecture: Monuments to a Romantic Mood, 1830 - 1900.
In his lovingly rendered painting, Devlin intentionally removed the ivy that crept up the brick surface and the towering forest of trees that surrounded and obscured the view of the house. He lightened its fortress like feel by removing much of the Bellville stone and terra cotta tiling. His interpretation is reminiscent of an Andrew Wyeth Painting – a lone, stark house sitting on a expansive, grassy landscape.
The House was also used as an inspiration for an illustration in Harry and Wende Devlin's book, Old Witch Rescues Halloween.
During the 1960s, local children referred to the mansion as "Old Man Hatchet’s House." They were undoubtedly scared by its looming presence as it stood in the shadows of large trees and was covered with ivy. The legend of Old Man Hatchet may have grown out of the gruff demeanor of the younger Henry. He may even have started the storytelling himself in an effort to keep trespassers and vandals away. He certainly had a hand in keeping the stories alive.
On December 23rd, 1968, Henry Talmadge II, 91, having lived most of his life in the family home, was found in a coma on the dining room floor suffering from malnutrition. His companion, Aidah Marks, 81, was found dead of natural causes in an upstairs bedroom. Henry never recovered, and less than a month later died in the Birchwood Convalescent Center in Edison.
The Plainfield Trust National Bank, as executor of Henry’s will, filed his 1956 will on January 30, 1969. This was done despite the fact that he had signed a new will in its offices in 1962 and a later codicil in 1965.
On a Friday, May 16th, the contents of the home were emptied and sent to auction. The fire occurred the following Monday.
On June 27th, the 1962 will and codicil were accepted into probate at a hearing. This will eliminated many trusts in favor of direct gifts and, therefore, reduced future bank fee income.
Some of the contents of the home had been given to family members in specific bequests. Did those items (jewelry, silver, paintings and furniture) ever reach the relatives? Were they sent to auction? Were they reported lost in the fire?
Henry’s will referred to "his residence" at 714 Belvidere Avenue and directed that it, and its more than three acres, be sold in "as is" condition, except for repairs to protect against wind and rain, and that the proceeds be added to his residuary estate.
It is uncertain in whose name the property title was held in 1969. The elder Henry Pearl Talmadge and his wife had transferred the property to the Talmadge Realty Corporation by deed dated April 11, 1930. This corporation had offices at 15 Exchange Place in Jersey City and 57 William Street in NYC. What became of the title after that is undetermined.
The bulk of the younger Henry’s estates went to his sister, Helen Dunbar, and her children, Henry Runkle, Jr. and Helen Talmadge (Bell) Parker. Henry also remembered Thomas White Talmadge and Beatrice Howlett Talmadge, who are the children of his brother, Frank Cossitt, and Eleanor Beers Reed, a cousin. In addition to his family, Henry bequeathed $12,500 each to a "friend", Alice Fos Gerster, wife of Dr. John C.A. Gerster, and to Adah E. Marks, who predeceased him.
A Plainfield local and friend of the younger Henry, Bill Garrett, was on the property the morning after the fire. At the request of several men from the United National Bank who were concerned about safety during demolition, Bill led them to the underground cisterns and the small structure that held a gas main and shut-off valve. The men asked Bill to enter the house with them and, at that point, Bill observed that the furniture, paintings, and all the chandeliers were missing. He realized that the contents of the house had been emptied prior to the fire. Bill told the men
".....'it looks like there has been a major robbery', and they both looked at each other and smirked. I'll never forget the feeling they gave me: that they knew something that they were not going to divulge to me. I later learned that the bank auctioned the art and antiques at the Park Hotel on Seventh Street."
Although demolition of the remains occurred immediately, there exists an abandoned well of 200 feet in depth. To reduce safety hazards, wells that are no longer in use should be plugged with materials that are strong, durable, and free from contaminants. It is suspected that the well has never been made safe and may continue to pose a danger.
In the months leading up to the fire, theft occurred, and that may have been the reason for the abrupt removal of the home's art and antiques by the executor of the estate.
Bill reported that, in the years leading up to the younger Henry's death:
"the interior was kept just as his mother had wanted when she furnished it in 1883. Living on a low income and with failing health, Henry did what he could to maintain the house, mentioning his mother from time to time. She would have been horrified at the dirt. It hadn't seen a maid in many years. Everything was dusty, and the air in the house was thick from wood smoke, both from the fireplace he kept burning in the library, and the cook stove in the basement which also heated his water. Lack of heat in the unused rooms and constant water from the leaks in the roof were taking their toll. To this day, when I smell wood smoke, I think of the Talmadge house with Henry moving about in the smoky haze inside that wonderful old home."
No one was a witness to the suspected act of arson. If it indeed was an act of arson, it is not possible to determine who may have set the fire without a confession.
Further research on this topic is necessary. Future interviews with members of the family and community will hopefully reveal more about the Talmadge mansion. Unfortunately, the most valuable information about the mansion - the stories of the lives of the artisans that actually constructed the home and the servants that maintained it- is not available to me and may never be. They are unsung heroes and their great work was destroyed in an instant. If anyone knows of the descendants of these builders and servants, please have them contact me:
All are welcome to contribute to this site. As this is a work in progress, please excuse any inaccuracies.
Atlas of the City of Plainfield, and Borough of North Plainfield, Somerset County, New Jersey. F.A. Dunham, Philadelphia: 1894
Devlin, Harry. Portraits of American Architecture: Monuments to a Romantic Mood, 1830 - 1900. Gramercy, New York: 1996
Devlin, Harry. To Grandfather’s House We Go - A Roadside Tour of American Homes. Parents’ Magazine Press, New York: 1967.
Devlin, Wende and Harry. Old Witch Rescues Halloween. Parents’ Magazine Press, New York: 1972.
Gabriell, Jon. "Fire Destroys 90-Year-Old Mansion: Blaze Rages Throughout the Night." Courier News, May 19, 1969, p. 1.
Gabriell, Jon. "Neighbors Were ‘Worried’ About Vacated Mansion." Courier News, May 19, 1969, p. 21.
Grady, John A. and Pollard, Dorothe M. Images of America: Plainfield. Arcadia Publishing: 2001.
History of Plainfield. Reprint of a 32 chapter series published by the Courier News.
Hooker, Ralph Moreton. Plainfield New Jersey Illustrated. The Plainfield Daily Press, New Jersey: 1895.
"H.P. Talmadge is Dead of Heart Ailment." Courier News, May 10, 1937.
Interview with Bill Garrett of Plainfield, New Jersey.
Lewis, A. and George William Sheldon. American Country Houses of the Gilded Age. Dover Publications: 1982.
Plainfield, 300 Years, 1684-1984: Historical Highlights. Jostens, Plainfield, New Jersey: 1987.
Sheldon, George William. Artistic Country Seats: Volume I. Appleton: 1887.
Steele, Pearl and Frederick Henry White Cossitt. The Cossitt Family: a Genealogical History of Rene Cossitt, a Frenchman Who Settled in Granby, Conn., A.D. 1717, and of His Descendants. Quinton Publications, Pasadena, California: 1925.
Talmadge, Arthur White. The Talmadge, Tallmadge and Talmage Genealogy: Being the descendants of Thomas Talmadge of Lynn, Massachusetts, With An Appendix Including Other Families, The Grafton Press, New York: 1909.