Thursday, March 9, 2023

Woodbridge State School

The middle part of the 20th century was tough on the mental health care landscape of New Jersey. The existing hospitals and state schools were bursting at the seams and constantly expanding. It was determined that a new State School was needed in the northern part of the state to alleviate overcrowding at other nearby facilities

Construction began in 1963 for the new Woodbridge State School. The new buildings were to be built on 68 acres of farmland near the East Jersey State Prison in Avanel. By 1965 the facility was open and accepting new residents.

The buildings themselves were an architecturally unremarkable cluster of hexagon shaped dormitories. The infirmary building was slightly different. It was asymmetrical with 3 sides longer than the other. The building also had a nice central courtyard which allowed natural light to fill the entire structure. 

Woodbridge operated without much notoriety throughout the years. In my research I couldn't find much about the day to day operations of the center. There were never any major new construction projects or improvements. At some point in the 1970s the facility changed its name from Woodbridge State School to Woodbridge Developmental Center. I imagine this was done as a result of the 1972 release of Giraldo Rivera's exposé on the horrid conditions of the Willowbrook State School. Willowbrook was on Staten Island, just a few miles away from Woodbridge.

A 2012 report recommended closing the facility as well as the North Jersey Developmental Center over the course of the next 5 years. This created outrage with the employees, the nurses unions and the families of the residents. They were all again horrified when then- governor Chris Christie announced that the plan was going to be accelerated. All residents were to be relocated within the next two years.

A Courier Post article from June of 2014 describes the chaos families were thrown into trying to make arrangements for their family members. It was bad enough that the facility was closing in a few months. The North Jersey Developmental Center closing first just added insult to injury. This created a huge void in local beds for the displaced residents of WDC.

Despite the outrage the center finally closed on December 11th, 2014. Roughly 150 patients were moved and over 600 employees were laid off. The displaced residents were moved down to either the Vineland or Woodbine Developmental Center down in the Pinelands. The two closer facilities were already at capacity, likely due to the June closure of NJDC. 

The campus sat dormant for several years before the wheels started to move on redevelopment. 54 acres of land was purchased by the town of Avanel in 2018 for $5 Million. That was about 80% of the parcel's total square footage. Shortly afterwards Morris Industrial won the bid to redevelop the property. They announced plans for a large warehouse and distribution center on the grounds and a neighboring parcel, with all existing structures being demolished.

Demolition took place in two stages. The western half of the campus was wiped out in 2020. It took another two years for the work to completely wrap up at the east side of the facility. 

It probably won't be too long before lots of folks have forgotten about the center. It was so hidden from view and operated so quietly that I imagine a good amount of people in town never even knew it was there in the first place. I'm very glad I was able to document what I did of the grounds and buildings so those who seek out the story of the Woodbridge State School can see and read about what once was.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Hurstmont Mansion


I'm sure many readers of this blog will recognize Hurstmont. The stunning mansion stood just off of Route 202 south in Harding, right before Tempe Wick Road. It was hard not to take one's eyes off the road to catch a passing glimpse of the once grand manor. This article is going to take a dive into the history of the stately home, one of the greatest residential buildings ever constructed in Morris County. 

The building we remember passing was actually not the first home on the property. In fact, it wasn't even the first home on that stone foundation. The original home was constructed in 1886. The structure was short lived unfortunately, lasting just over 15 years before being ripped down and rebuilt. It took several years to complete, but eventually the handsome home we are familiar with was ready to host the Pyle family.

Stamford White of the famed McKim, Mead and White architecture firm was responsible for designing the mansion. White was actually in the process of designing his own home at the time, and included many of the same flourishes at Hurstmont. 

The home had several beautiful sweeping staircases, carved stone mantles, decorative plaster ceilings, leaded glass windows, and lovely hardwood trim. The propery was so lavish it quickly graced the cover of the American Homes and Gardens June 1907 edition.


The robust home could comfortably host a railroad tycoon or steel magnate. So how was it that Mr James T Pyle came into his fortune?

Quite suprisingly, Mr Pyle was a manufacturer of soaps and other household goods. While we may think of this as sort of a trivial way to get rich, in the 1800's it was anything but.

The New York based company was known as having one of the best all purpose cleaning agents around. An ad in the NY Times from 1862 exclaims "no other soap is required about the house when Pyles OK Soap is in use".

The Pyle's only occupied the home until 1925, after which it underwent a succession of different owners. Nobody did any major renovation work to the house or landscaping, so it stayed in remarkable shape. 

The home was last occupied regularly in the 1980's. I'm not sure what exactly happened to the last owners. When they left they abandoned many of their possessions inside. A write up on the VacantNJ website shows articles of clothing, furniture, and other ephemera scattered around the building's many luxurious rooms.

Hurstmont sat in this state of abandonment until 2011 when the property was sold off. An architect named Peter Dorne purchased the mansion with plans to redevelop the grounds. His plan called for the one parcel to be broken up into 4 pieces, each holding a distinct portion of the historic estate. Unfortunately, the plan also called for the mansion to be "reduced in size".


Two years after the sale of the property, Peter followed through on demolishing a massive portion of the home. I'll never forget the first time I drove down that strech of 202 I thought to myself "I think this is where that mansion Vacant NJ posted is". As the mansion came into view I was extremely excited for half a second, until the demolition scene came into view. I let out a loud curse, and spread the word among the local community that the building was coming down. I had no idea that it was only supposed to be a partial demolition. I had never seen anything quite like it at the time.

Unfortunately the demolition was the only thing Mr. Dorne ever followed through on. The property continued to languish at an accelerated rate since it was now thoughtlessly ripped apart. Local kids found it to be a suitable place to take out their privileged suburban angst, kicking out the ballisturs and smashing out the leaded glass windows. By 2021 the building was deemed unsalvagable and the rest of the home was demolished.

The story of Hurstmont will always be absolutely heartbreaking. It stood so long, and despite changing hands so many times it was never tastelessly updated. Even after abandonment it continued to stand almost in a state of suspended animation for roughly 25 years. All it took was one man and his absurd redevelopment strategy to rob all future generations of this architectural treasure. Though a special case of demolition by neglect, it remains one all the same. 

The great architectural photographer Richard Nickel once said "great architecture has only two enemies, water and stupid men". Unfortunately, Hurstmont had to face both. Hopefully the ugly new dwellings will remind everyone what is at stake when we put greed before heritage.

Friday, January 13, 2023

The Hillandale Estate/Sisters of St. John Orphanage & School

Somerset County is home to some of the most attractive and expensive residential homes in the state of New Jersey. Some of these estates are relatively new, while others were built centuries ago. The subject of this article, the Hillandale Estate, falls into the second category. 


The foundation was laid for the beautiful mansion in 1906. Once completed, the structure would be home to George Mosle and his wife Katherine. Mostle was a wealthy sugar importer who made his fortune brokering sales with Cuban sugar plantations. Architect Grosvenor Atterbury designed the home in a handsome Craftsman style.

Like many other industrialists of the time, Mosle's business relied heavily on imports. This became a real problem for him when the first World War broke out. The company lost so many ships during the turmoil that by 1926 Goerge Mosle had to declare bankrupcy and leave Hillandale. 

The mansion and grounds were purchased by the Sisters of St. John the Baptist, a Roman Catholic organization. They quickly got to work transforming the property to better suit their needs. They cleared land for farming and added two new wings to either side of the home. The most impressive new feature was the large, well decorated chapel on the south wing. By the time construction was complete, the building was an intimidating 66,000 square feet.

The sisters operated an orphange at the convent for nearly a decade. After ending the program in 1937 they began to focus mainly on education. Private schools were relatively common in the Somerset Hills at the time. The St. John campus was not far from the well established St. Bernard School for boys, and the newly established Wychwood School for Girls as well The new St. John Academy boarding school became home to many catholic children from the area. 

Thirty sisters called St. John's home at its peak. By the 1950s an entire new school building was built along the driveway leading to the main building. The greatest feature of the structure was definitely the full sized gymnasium. Unfortunately the success of the educational instition began to wane over the decades. By 1992 the academy had closed, and the space was being rented to a different private school named the Montgomery Academy. 

In an attempt to raise funds the sisters sold a portion of the estate for $15 million to Morris County. They built a new sports field which they dubbed Mosle field in honor of George Mosle. There were only seven sisters still living at the facility by this time. Montgomery Academy found a new home in Basking Ridge three years later, leaving the large main St John's building mostly empty. More land was sold to the county, which became the Mosle preserve. The last few sisters moved out in 2013, and the property was put up for sale for nearly five million dollars. 

It wasn't until the following year that I first saw a photo of the outside of the main building. I had just created an account on Reddit and was busy skimming through all of the posts on the exploring boards that referenced New Jersey. Someone had posted the outside and labeled it "abandoned boarding school New Jersey". Inside the comments the user had mentioned that the local kids would go up to the school and dare each other to sneak inside the empty buildings. They also mentioned it was somewhere near Peapack-Gladstone. It was definitely the thing that stood out the most to me from this bout of research. I spent hours looking for the building, to no avail. I didn't end up tracking it down until 2015.

I was so happy to finally have found the place. I took the first opportunity I had to drive over to the place. I parked at the sports field and began to walk over. The property was quiet as I approached the structure. The first door I passed was just sitting ajar. I couldn't believe my luck! I popped inside, and was quickly met with the smell of Pine Sol and the sound of running fans. Lights were on in the basement, and I could hear the old steam system creaking and groaning. This building was absolutely not abandoned, but vacant. I wasn't very accustomed to being inside buildings like that before so I was quite nervous. I took my chances and bee lined it for the large, beautiful chapel I saw on the aerial view.  I got a few photos quickly and left before anyone figured out I was there. I came back with some friends shortly afterwards take some time to see more of the place.

The door I had left unlocked was shut again, but I was able to find another way in swiftly. We wandered around for a while, starting in the school and working our way through the mansion to the chapel.  At one point we ended up in an office in the front of the building. I looked at the calendar and was shocked to see it was marked for the exact day we were there. We quickly realized this was the caretakers active office and we needed to leave immediately. Around this time a developer named Jeffery Toia came forward with a solid plan to reuse the building. As reported in the Observer - Tribune, "The master plan creates a sense of estate, Toia said. “The mansion and school buildings being the castle so to speak and the townhouses being the village framing the castle. The existing rock walls and open spaces can then capture a whole host of activities that make up daily life. Architecturally, the materials for the townhouses mimic the original mansion with stone, brick and batten board.” Unfortunately his plan was shot down by the township. I don't think they had any idea what a mistake that was going to end up being.

A few years later the place regrettably turned up on Instagram. After seeing several of the usual "urban tourists" going we decided to revisit again before it started to get ruined. I was pleasantly surprised to see everything more or less in place, with the exception of some antique hardware going missing. We took our photos and headed out, assuming we would be able to come back at some point. Unfortunately that wasn't the case. I had missed an article that had come out in 2021 acknowledging that the entire campus, including the mansion, was to be demolished. I saw it posted on Instagram with the caption "RIP" and bugged out. Before long I was back at the property to see for myself. I drove right up the driveway and parked amongst the workers on the land where the mansion once stood. I was extremely distressed. There was absolutely no reason the mansion had to be demolished. This is yet another example of developer K Hovnanian Homes destroying an irreplaceable part of New Jersey's history to serve their own greed. The new development, disgustingly called "the Enclave at Hillandale", is a cluster of tacky, soulless buildings constructed quick and cheap. Surely they won't last as long as the incredible mansion that once graced the same land. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

St. Francis Health Resort and Convent

The land along Diamond Spring Road at the corner of Pocono sure looks a lot different now than it ever has in the past. What is now a sprawling modern senior care center started as a health resort all the way back in 1895. Thats when the Order of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother purchased 200 acres of land and began the St. Francis Health Retreat.


At the time the health resort started there were only a few structures on the land. The most prominent was the Glover Mansion, which at the time was already 75 years old. The retreat was founded around a man named Father Joseph Joch who was administering the "Kneipp Water Cure". St Francis was the first place on the east coast to offer such treatment. Joch, who was born in Austria, and seven Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother traveled all the way from Wisconsin to establish the community in Denville.

Denville was a very different town at the inception of the St Francis community. As a matter of fact, it wasn't even a town yet. It took until April of 1913 for the town to formally be incorporated. It is said by many long time residents of Denville that St. Francis was responsible for the town being founded in the first place. 

The community did a lot of farming on the land to sustain themselves. They even had their own boiler and steam system to heat the buildings during the harsh winter months.

The retreat was extremely successful. By the middle of the century the facility was drawing A list celebrities such as Judy Garland, Charlie Chaplan and Frank Sinatra according to multiple online sources. 

As time went on "water cures" were falling out of fashion, so around 1978 the health resort started to transition to senior care. I imagine it was around this time that much of the bland modernization work was done inside. 

The distinct interior of the Glover Mansion was almost entirely covered over or demolished during this time. In the early 1980's a new wing was added between Pocono Road and the chapel. This was the last large scale construction project the campus ever saw. 

Despite no longer offering resort services St. Francis was still a critical fixture for the town. I first remember hearing about the facility from the Hometown Tales podcast, where it was mentioned several times. One of the hosts served on the town council in Denville, and spoke fondly of the complex and the fundraising events they were holding at the time. 

Residents were shocked in June of 2021 when news broke that the facility was sold and set to close. A month later the sisters announced they were transferring the facility to a senior care company called Springpoint. 

At first the new owners claimed there were no firm plans for the campus. Locals scrambled to try and get the buildings landmarked in an effort to protect them from development. Unfortunately plans for a total demolition of the complex and construction of a new facility were announced shortly afterwards. 

Following the announcement, the movie "the Home" was filmed inside the buildings. The plot depicts a fictionalized St Francis as a horrible, sinister place full of secrets. It's really regrettable that this is how so many people are going to learn of the place, which offered so much to so many for so long. 

I found out about the complex's uncertain future right after the movie wrapped up. The following morning I got up early, grabbed my camera, and headed out the door. It was an exceptionally quiet and peaceful morning. I felt a great sense of calm as I walked the path off the road towards the gorgeous chapel. 

Sure enough I was able to slip inside quickly. It was really eerie wandering around alone inside the building. It had been used so recently, and was so full of stuff it really felt like I could come around the corner to an angry nun any moment. Fortunately, that wasn't the case.


I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the buildings several times. I did have to dodge demolition workers who were inside removing stuff and prepping the building, but the old creaky floors gave me plenty of time to move when I heard anyone coming near. Sure enough  the buildings started coming down in 2022. They started with the wing of the convent that still held the 200 year old Grover Mansion, advancing towards the chapel which was the next victim. The 1980s wing and boiler house went next, followed finally by the resort building. The whole complex was decimated in a matter of months.

Shortly after demolition wrapped up the town released a powerful statement over the loss of the complex. They claimed they were sincerely distressed over the loss of the facility, which was such an important fixture in town. Every effort was made to land on another solution on the town's part, but the new owners wouldn't budge. Since the campus was not on any local or national register they couldn't even slow down the process. 

The loss of the St. Francis Health Resort should serve as a wake up call to all of us that absolutely nothing is safe from greed. Even if you can't imagine any circumstance where a building would ever be lost, start second guessing yourself. The most important thing we can do right now is make an effort to start getting more and more of our local historic sites listed on the state and national register. At this point, it's either landmark or landfill.