Research findings – wall paintings

Posted in some more history on August 3rd, 2010 by flg

We have received the reports of our two consultants who examined the wall painting, stenciling and other interior aspects (nails, woodwork profiles, etc.) of the house, which you will find under the Library heading on the right. The information is fascinating (to some of us), but probably raises more questions than it answers–a frequent outcome. We now know the original color of the woodwork (assuming the moldings, chair rails and baseboards are original; we know the stenciling was done immediately after the walls were plastered because there is no underlying paint or layer of grime on the bare plaster. There is reason to believe the work was done for someone of wealth because the quality of the materials is better than the standard of the time.

But we have no definitive date for the construction of the place. Analysis of the nails and the profile of the woodwork suggests the house may have been built after 1790. That’s particularly interesting because there is good reason to believe that the house already existed when it was purchased by John Roseberry at a sheriff’s sale in 1787. So where does that leave us? With several major questions, and we will certainly engage additional historical researchers and architectural historians to continue the investigation and analysis.

You can read the entire reports of Frank Welsh [ Report on Age and Significance of Roseberry House Wall Stencils ] and Chris Frey [Keystone Roseberry] here.

1941 aerial photo of Roseberry house

Posted in some more history on July 16th, 2010 by flg

Roseberry house from the air in 1941

Recollections from 40 years ago

Posted in some more history on October 6th, 2009 by flg

The following are recollections of Carol Sullivan from the 1970s about the Roseberry-Gess House. She was obviously deeply involved in the effort to preserve the place. She appended several old newspaper clippings to her e-mail which we’ll eventually post here.

About the Stenciled walls
Walter Gess was the last private owner of the property.  After selling it to the school board, Gess and his wife moved to the Midwest.  I was in touch with him in the effort to gain his support in saving the property from demolition.  He had patterns of the hand painted stencils that are on the walls of the center hallway and also on the wall in the room adjacent to the center hall.  If I’m not mistaken, he sent copies of these patterns to the Society.
The floor in the “Keeping Room”
I also remember that the random width planks that were on the floor of the keeping room were removed by the society when a church that was being demolished offered to donate the floors in the church. They were older & more in keeping with the Roseberry House.  The existing floors were not original to the house.  I don’t recall what happened to the planks that Gess installed in the room.
The Dining Room Restoration Project
The woodwork in the room that we finished (just off the keeping room) was reproduction woodwork which was purchased from Eisenhardt Lumber in Easton.  The pewter chandelair in the room was specially made and was an authentic reproduction.
We also had a fund raiser and purchased the wooden shingles that are on the keeping room.
The Front Porch
It was I and my two daughters and a few other kids that removed the roof that spanned the front of the main house.  The volunteer architect, Robert Butow, from Easton determined that it was not original to the house.
The Loft and the surprise(d) visitor
I, along with students from the Special Ed class at PBurg High, removed the plaster from the ceiling of the loft above the keeping room.  While in the process, filthy, covered with years of dust and dirt, I heard a knock on the door.  I had invited the former Governor Meyner of NJ, whose wife was the State Bicentennial chairperson, to visit the house.  The letter that he sent notifying that he accepted the invitation and announcing a date of his visit, never got to me.
There stood this important visitor at the front door, shocked at seeing this dirty, tom boy of a woman, standing there!  No formal reception, no newspaper story!  Not even a nice cup of tea!!!  Pretty embarrassing!!!  The PR opportunity was lost!

I hope my recollections of 40 years ago will be useful to you….

Who built the Roseberry house?

Posted in some more history on June 2nd, 2009 by flg

There are many inconsistencies and factual errors entered into the history of Phillipsburg since George Wycoff Cummins published his History of Warren County in 1911, a couple of which made it into the application for the National Register of Historic Places which was granted in 1972. One fact is clear, however—John Roseberry did not build the house that bears his name.

The National Register application notes that John Roseberry, Sr. purchased the land on August 14, 1787 at a sheriff’s sale. Cummins says Roseberry settled in the Phillipsburg area about 1740, and that he owned some 1,500 acres. Cummins notes that in 1772 the Coxe heirs sold 200 acres to John Roseberry and 228 acres to his brother Michael Roseberry. (I cannot confirm any of those assertions.) John Roseberry’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Anderson, who inherited the property from her father (Joseph Roseberry) several times remarked that her family did not erect the house; that they purchased the property with the house already on it. Other evidence suggests the building was erected before 1780, perhaps as early as 1750. The published record, as well as a survey done in 1948 shows a break in the chain of ownership between 1715 when Col. Daniel Coxe of Trenton held title to 1,250 acres of land in the immediate area, and the sheriff’s sale of 1787. Who, then, built the house?

The building is a very large Georgian house built of rough-faced quarried limestone. Its proportions are exceptional, indicating an experienced master builder, perhaps even an architect was involved in its design. Such a stylish residence would not have been out of place in Elizabeth or Morristown in the 1760s, but in Phillipsburg it would certainly have been considered a mansion. One of the several curious aspects of the question is that we have found no references to it in contemporary accounts.

Among the inferences we can draw are that the house was erected by someone with money—not a simple local farmer growing wheat and corn for the market. Another inference that seems reasonable is that the individual was a person of some culture who was part of a social and political stratum that knew and expected a residence to exhibit a certain level of taste and refinement, even if erected in the country. That would seem to rule out most, but not all, the local families. (The Phillips and Feit families, for example, owned substantial acreage and both came with pedigrees that suggests the possibility of social contact with the elite of the region.) A third inference that suggests itself—one corroborated by the public record—is that the sheriff’s sale was of land that had been confiscated from loyalists during the Revolution. Daniel Coxe III was one of those loyalists whose land was taken and sold, and so was his brother-in-law, John Tabor Kempe.

Kempe was Attorney General for New York from 1759 to 1776. In the unrest in New York following the battle at Bunker Hill, he fled with other crown officials to the safety of a British ship in the harbor. Kempe married Grace Coxe, granddaughter of Col. Daniel Coxe in 1766. She inherited at least two parcels of lands totaling several hundred acres in and near Phillipsburg, and shortly after her marriage, those parcels were transferred to Kempe. These properties were confiscated in 1778, and sold at a sheriff’s sale in 1787 or 1789. Together with his property in New York and Vermont, and some claims to land in the Carolinas, he was regarded as one of the wealthiest men in New York. He corresponded with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, and his clients included numerous members of the most illustrious families of New Jersey.

Who built the Roseberry homestead—John Tabor Kempe is the most likely candidate. There are still a number of ambiguities to be resolved, and even if we solve the land ownership question in his favor (which is likely) there is still the matter of construction of the house, and its occupants between 1776 and 1787. On those issues, we are not much closer to an answer. If Kempe had it built, it would date between 1766 ,when he married Grace Coxe, and 1775, when political unrest would have made it imprudent in the highest degree for a loyalist to invest in a potentially hostile country.

I am hoping the records of the trial or the sheriff’s sale will provide an answer to the question, and perhaps we shall find something in his papers at the New York Historical Society—he was reputed to be meticulous in his note-taking and record-keeping. If we can determine that he was, indeed, the builder, then we have a connection between the Roseberry homestead and a very significant figure, albeit a loyalist, at the time of the Revolution. Not incidentally, Grace Coxe was captured by patriots and exchanged for the wife of Francis Lewis, a member of the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. And there is one more connection of interest—when his widow sued to recover the property in 1808, the opinion of the U. S. Supreme Court denying her claim was written by John Marshall.

So the Roseberry homestead may have a great deal more significance than simply being the oldest building in Phillipsburg; it might well be emblematic of the region’s significant loyalist sentiment in the early days of the Revolution.

If you are interested in more information about this question, here’s a three-page PDF file who-built-the-roseberry-house that explores the chronology of purchases and the reasoning supporting our belief in Kempe’s responsibility for the house.

some background on the property

Posted in some more history on May 2nd, 2009 by flg

The Roseberry Homestead (also referred to as the Walter Gess House) is a classic Georgian house, erected of rough-cut quarry stone between 1765 and 1783. It is a two-and-a-half story, five bay plan, two rooms deep, with a center through hall. There is an attached one-and-a-half story stone kitchen, which was probably built about 1783. There are three chimneys—two rising from the gable ends of the main block, and the third from the gable end of the kitchen. There is a large cooking fireplace in the kitchen, with a removed brick oven. A winder stair on the fireplace wall leads to the loft above. The front of the house is on the downhill side, allowing for a walk-in cellar. There was a porch extending across the entire front, permitting access to the higher level first floor, but that has long since disappeared.

John Roseberry, Sr. was one of the original settlers in Phillipsburg. It is very likely the oldest existing structure in Phillipsburg and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There is much ambiguity about the chain of ownership of the property before Roseberry. Two things are clear: (1) It was owned by Col. Daniel Coxe of Trenton in 1715, and (2) John Roseberry did not built it; the house was already there when he purchased the property. We have a good idea who did build the place—he’s connected to several of the important names of the Revolutionary period (Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, even John Marshall). We’ll have more information soon—there are a few more details to double check before we go public.