Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Cross Estate National Register Project

Volunteer Jennifer Hugman has been busy preparing and updating the National Register application for the Park's Cross Estate property. She'll be updating us from time to time as she progresses.

View from the main entrance. Circa 1960.

 Looking South from the garden. Circa 1960.

A Brief History of the Cross Estate 

A visit to the New Jersey Brigade Encampment Area of Morristown National Historical Park often includes a stop by the Cross Estate Gardens.  The Cross Estate was acquired by the National Park Service in 1975 along with 162 acres of land occupied by the New Jersey Brigade during the Revolutionary War. Just prior to World War I, the Bernardsville Hills became prime real estate for the construction of opulent mansions known collectively as the “Mountain Colony.”  In 1903, John and Ella Bensel of New York City constructed what would become the Cross Estate in this idyllic setting.  The property included a large stone house in the eclectic style, along with a gate lodge, carriage house, and water tower.  The Bensels named the estate “Queen Anne Farm” and resided there until John’s death in 1922.  Ella sold the property to W. Redmond Cross, a New York banker, and his wife, Julia Newbold Cross, in 1929.  The Crosses renamed the estate “Hardscrabble” and hired architect Frederic R. King for a major renovation that included a library and living room addition with bedrooms and a sleeping porch.  After the death of Mr. Cross in 1940, Julia Cross re-hired King to downsize the house to reduce cost and upkeep.  King removed the entire east wing, including the octagonal tower and two porches.  Among other changes, the exterior of the main house was covered with stucco, and the main interior staircase was removed and replaced with a staircase near the service wing.

It was also during the Cross ownership that the grounds surrounding the mansion began to take on new life.  Julia Cross was an amateur horticulturalist that served as president of the New York Horticultural Society and was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society, as well as several local garden clubs.  Along with her garden staff, she designed many prize-winning entries for the New York Flower Show.  Mrs. Cross hired landscape architect Clarence Fowler to help her design a formal garden in 1931.  Fowler produced three different plans that year, all depicting a formal garden to the southeast of the main house.  The landscape architect’s surviving work includes a 65-foot by 115-foot pergola and a walled, sunken garden.  An allee of mountain laurels runs parallel to the pergola, and large trees frame distant views of the Bernardsville Hills.  Mrs. Cross planted annual and perennial plantings in addition to exotic plantings given to her by friends, and preserved native growth such as the grove of sassafras trees in the center of the circular drive.  Plant varieties in the formal garden include fuchsias, rhododendrons, lilacs, gloxinias, and tubs of olive trees.  Much of the original plant material survives today, and is maintained by volunteers from the New Jersey Historical Garden Foundation.

LWS Collection. 1987 Garden Plan.

My Volunteer Project with the Park

With the recognition of the Cross Estate’s historic significance in more recent years, efforts have been made to list the property on the National Register of Historic Places.  A nomination was submitted to the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office in March 1986, but the HPO requested more information about the gardens and landscape architecture before the property could be officially listed on the Register.  Despite several revisions to the nomination over the next few years, the Cross Estate was never listed.   

As a volunteer with Morristown NHP, I am conducting research on the Cross Estate’s landscape history and updating the nomination with the additional information.  The archives at the Morristown NHP museum have been particularly helpful in providing primary source materials such as the original 1931 blueprints of Fowler’s design for the gardens, a 1987 plan of the sunken gardens that includes a list of plant materials, and architectural drawings by Frederic R. King.  Local history research at the Bernardsville Library provided useful information on Julia Cross, and I have consulted books on New Jersey gardens, the Country Place Era, and American landscape history.  Michelle Hughes, a Senior Historic Preservation specialist with the Historic Preservation Office, met with me to discuss the direction of the project and to go over National Park Service guidelines for cultural landscapes.  I am facing one major obstacle in my research: finding biographical information on Clarence Fowler.  I have contacted the Library of American Landscape History and the archives at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in hopes of learning more.  I am looking forward to beginning the writing and editing process, and hope that the Cross Estate will soon earn a deserved place on the National Register. 

Blog post by volunteer Jennifer Hugman. More about Jenn HERE.

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