Many titans of industry once called Weehawken their home around the turn of the 20th century, and a few of them left a legacy that perhaps goes unnoticed by those passing through in modern times. One of the township’s finest public buildings is a perfect example of this, as it not only survived the wrecking ball but also was later lovingly restored into one of the most unique libraries in New Jersey.
A local landmark that’s seen by literally thousands of commuters driving along NJ-495 every day, the Weehawken Public Library is built into a cliffside plot of land at 49 Hauxhurst Avenue. The original owner of the home was a man named Wilhelm Joseph Peter, who was born in 1832 and fled his native Germany during the country’s revolution in 1848.
Known as William Peter upon his arrival to the United States, he took an interest in beer brewing and worked at several breweries in North Hudson. He eventually started a small brewing operation of his own in West New York, building the business to the point where they outgrew their tiny space.
Peter later purchased several properties in Union Hill (now Union City) at what was then Hudson Avenue and Weehawken Street. He established the William Peter Brewing Company in 1862 and the building that once housed the brewery still stands to this day, being used as extra warehouse space and located along a road that was appropriately renamed Peters Street.
After hitting it big in America, Peter sought to construct a house for his growing family. Completed in 1904 at the cost of $75,000, his 17-room home was designed to resemble a miniature version of a German-style castle like those along the Rhine River. The immaculate property featured ornate woodwork, marble, stained glass, and several fireplaces.
Among the rooms in Peter’s mansion was a private artist studio, where the avid painter would work and teach out of for many years. He continued this hobby up until a few weeks before his death in 1918, passing away from a severe cold. While the William Peter Brewing Company was briefly shut down by Prohibition in 1920, the company did exist in some form until around 1950.
Despite his company continuing after his death, the mansion Peter built was at one point in jeopardy. To make way for the construction of what would become the Lincoln Tunnel in the 1930s, the mansion and several other majestic homes in the neighborhood and along Boulevard East were acquired by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In a sad piece of history, many of the houses were demolished to make way for the stretch of NJ-495 that exists today.
However, the Peter Mansion was spared and later deeded to the township by the Port Authority. It was officially converted into a library in 1942 and was significantly renovated with an addition constructed in 1997. Many of the building’s historic details, including its fireplaces and stained-glass windows, still shine through to this day.
The property also serves as the home to the Weehawken Historic Commission and features a historical room on the top floor, while a community room, updated children’s reading area, and an outdoor seating patio round out the building. While the neighborhood around the library has undoubtedly changed over the century, an interesting time capsule filled with books helps keep the legacy of William Peter alive and well.