The story of how Newark grew from a Puritan frontier to an industrial powerhouse is laid out in the tree-lined streets of the city’s Forest Hill Historic District. The ridgeline became home to prominent families like the Clarks, Hellers, and Ballantines who wanted to flee the busy docks of the Passaic River.
The Forest Hill House & Garden Tour is returning this Saturday, May 20, after a three-year hiatus, giving history lovers a chance to peek inside the oldest and most opulent homes owned by prominent Gilded Age families and turn-of-the-century captains of industry.
“We want to tell the story of the people who live here now and the people who built this neighborhood more than 100 years ago,” said Byron Clark, communications director for the Forest Hill Community Association. “These tours are an opportunity for people to discover this neighborhood. We want people to know we’re here.”
Although the tours began in 2000, there is a feeling of excitement and pride that is palpable this year. Part of that has to do with one of the homes in the neighborhood eclipsing the $1 million mark for the first time in the city’s history. The homeowners feel a collective sense of achievement in how the neighborhood has changed with investments and annual events like Porchfest in September and the Cherry Blossom Festival.
“Newark is getting a lot of national attention,” said Clark, pointing out the recent shout-out by President Barack Obama. “We care about Newark, we care about Forest Hill”.
The tour, which begins at the Ballantine Gates in Branch Brook Park from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., includes 14 homes ranging from an 18th-century Colonial to lavish mansions. The itinerary includes properties so over the top that their outbuildings are now used as homes in their own right. The slate-roof structure at 585 Clifton Avenue used to be the carriage house of the home at 191 Ballantine Parkway. The current residents own the Alpine Nursery in Belleville so the garden has a number of exotic and ornamental plants.
Clark’s home on Ridge Street is also part of the tour and his yard has an unusual outbuilding, a small artist’s studio, that once belonged to the house next door where William Hayes Ward, an abolitionist and a key person in the formation of the NAACP, lived.
The Forest Hill Historic District is expansive with hundreds of homes listed in the National Register application. Several significant homes are not part of the tour, but are worth a visit: Louis Tiffany’s chateau at 233 Delavan Avenue is one of them.
Perhaps the single most important home in the city is the Sydenham House, built in 1710. It’s rare for such an old home to even exist, let alone be trusted to private owners. The current residents, Dan Reeves and his wife, first found out about the home after reading a story in the New York Times. That particular article, “Putting a Value on a ‘Priceless’ Home,’ wasn’t exactly a glowing review of the home — it detailed things like termites and wood rot — and yet the Reeds saw past the home’s flaws. Fortunately, when they moved into the home in 2018, most of it had been restored.
What many people don’t know is that living in a historic district can be cumbersome as all alterations visible from the street have to pass the muster of a commission. The purpose is to protect the architectural integrity of the buildings, many of which were designed by premier architects of the day like Guilbert and Betelle. At the Syndenham House, even decorating the first-floor interior requires the approval of the National Trust.
“I couldn’t even strip the floors with a chemical stripper,” Reeves said. “I had to use a lime and vinegar solution.”
However, the plus side of these restrictions is that visiting the Sydenham House is like a museum. Visitors will find features like a beehive oven, a Bible closet, and a swivel-arm fireplace where settlers cooked meals.
“It’s like walking into the 18th century,” Reeves said.
One more thing — the Reeves’ backyard looks out on one of Frederick Law Olmsted’s greatest creations, Branch Brook Park, with its winding roads meant for horse and carriages, pink cherry blossoms, and the Sacred Heart Basilica that looks like a cathedral that Claude Monet would have painted in a French province. Yet, none of that would matter if not for the people who have turned these homes into a true community.
“The real value of this neighborhood is the neighborhood itself,” Reeves said.
Tickets for the Forest Hill House & Garden Tour can be purchased here.