Like all great art, architecture relays secrets of centuries past and offers a window into the culture and history of those who came before us. Renowned for its rich history, Jersey City’s most iconic buildings, and the people who dwelled within, provide a unique insight into how the city we’ve come to know and love has evolved over the years. Dixon Leasing understands that every historic property contributes to Jersey City’s story. That’s why we make every effort to restore or recreate the architectural elements that make each home unique. Join us as we take a trip through history and look behind the facades of some of Jersey City’s beautiful buildings in an ongoing collaboration with Jersey Digs.
Today we take a look at the stunning historic details of a Van Vorst Park townhouse on Mercer Street and examine the lives of the families who have resided there.
As discussed in our last historic spotlight, the Van Vorst Park section of Jersey City was formed in 1841 anchored by the serene park at its center. Named for the influential Van Vorst family, who were among the first Dutch settlers west of the Hudson River, building in this bucolic neighborhood boomed in the last half of the 19th century propelled by population growth throughout the New York area. Lots were frequently acquired in bulk, and long rows of uniform houses were built not only around the park, but on blocks stretching in every direction.
Our subject property — on Mercer Street between Varick Street and Jersey Avenue — is certainly emblematic of this process. Built in 1866, on one of eight large lots purchased from heirs of Cornelius Van Vorst by Mortimer D. Conklin, the home is among a row of five nearly identical three-story brick houses. Conklin was involved in the butter trade, but seems to have jumped headlong into real estate speculation: He also funded construction of seven houses around the corner on Varick that are similar in appearance to the Mercer row. Dixon also owns a home on Conklin’s Varick Street block.
Constructed in the Italianate style, the homes feature three floors above full basements. Dramatic red brick facades are visually connected by a uniform stone course above their basements and the continuous cornice at their roof lines. Windows are topped with eyebrow lintels common for the period, while door lintels in a similar shape are supported by simple brackets. In our subject property the full-height parlor windows have been retained, while in other homes in the row, they’ve been replaced by shorter windows matching the proportions of those found on the upper floors.
Also unlike other homes in the row, this property was given a rear extension early in its history, likely around 1880. While this gives interiors roomier proportions, the early timing of the addition doesn’t detract from the multitude of historical architectural details found within.
One has to merely look up to be swept away by the ornate beauty of this home’s abundant original decorations. Nearly every room features a dramatic ceiling medallion from which the light fixtures hang. In the parlor floor living room and dining room, they are made of metal and characterized by open leaf patterns, while in the newer kitchen, which sits within the home’s addition, and on the upper floors we find solid medallions carved with closed-leaf designs.
In the dramatic living and dining room, where guests would most frequently be entertained, elaborate “wedding cake” ceilings accompany the medallions. Inlaid floors feature Gordian knot motifs and arched doorways abound. Original pocket doors decorated with frosted glass insets provide a very “dinner is served” grandeur between the dining and sitting room areas.
One of the living room’s most beautiful features, a grand pier mirror frame that runs across both parlor windows, while completely in tune with opulence of the home, is likely a later addition. Placed at the top of the formerly gilded ornamentation are sculpted heads of women wearing crowns, evocative of female representations during the Classical Age. The frame is indicative of the great wealth of one of the early inhabitants of the subject property and is likely a remnant of the Gilded Age.
Accordingly, one finds among the residents of the home a long list of successful businessmen and prominent families, frequently engaged in real estate and liquor industries. From 1873 to 1891, the property was owned by the family of William Harney, who operated a real estate company. Patrick McArdle, who arrived in the U.S. from Ireland in 1861, purchased the home from Harney in 1891. Originally in the horseshoe nail business, he later went into liquor sales, and also served as president of Hudson County Mutual, an insurer of businesses. At the time of his death in 1910, he was estimated to be worth more than $650,000, or roughly $16 million in today’s dollars.
The Wiesenfeld family acquired the home from the McArdles in 1921 and went on to become the home’s longest-running occupants. Headed by patriarch Paul Weisenfeld, an Austrian immigrant, the family developed real estate, and in 1933, formed the Central Brewing Company Inc. Paul and Mollie Weisenfeld had 10 children and were known as one of the most prominent Jewish families in Jersey City — a fact made clear by their numerous mentions in the society pages of the time. Paul and Mollie celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at the Astor Hotel in a joint celebration that also included the wedding of one if their sons. In 1957, Paul was noted in the press as “one of Jersey City’s most outstanding philanthropists” upon his death at the age of 85.
Joseph and Anna Perricone purchased the house on Mercer next and operated their real estate concern, J. P. Realty Co., there. After the Perricones, the home changed hands many times and was eventually converted to a four-family dwelling. Dixon acquired the property in 2013 and has restored it to its original single-family state with careful attention the abundant timeless details within.
While the Mercer Street property is currently off the market, we invite you to see the Varick Street property and other historic Jersey City homes on the Dixon Leasing website.
We look forward to sharing more of the interesting stories of the people, places, and buildings that make Jersey City so unique.