Photographing The Brewer House (Sunny Gables) in Lawrence Township, NJ

A landmark house has been altered from its original form

There’s another house on my front burner as of last week—a beautiful and very unique gothic revival Victorian in Lawrence Township near Princeton. I actually discovered it last year at this time on my trips to The Gulick House, which is nearby. It sits alone on a rather large tract of land and is both enchanting and impressive. One can only imagine the 12-foot ceilings and tall arched doorways within. I was there two days in a row last week but only got some cursory pictures pending speaking with the owner. I’ve posted one of one here. I needed to get up a bit closer than the road to get the tree branches up and out of the way and frame a good composition. This required standing on the edge of property at the end of the driveway, so I wanted to get the owner’s permission.

However, it appeared they didn’t want to talk to me, and I guess I can’t blame them. If I had strangers walking up my drive I think I would prefer not to talk to them…but if you own a landmark historic house I guess it should be expected to some degree. In one of the photos I hastily made (I felt out in the open and like a thousand neighbors’ eyes were on me) there appears to be a historic registers plaque next to the front door. Anyway, I always respect the owner’s right to privacy, so I’ll try and shoot it from the road.

brewer house in lawrence, NJ
The Brewer House in Lawrence, NJ 2014

The house appears in a book of historic Lawrence houses, which states that it was built in the 1870s and renovated in the 1990s. I’m still hopeful I may yet be able to photograph the interior…I’ve written a professional letter introducing myself and describing my project which I’ll leave in the mailbox of each house I need closer access to. The owner can then choose to contact me or not.

UPDATE – November 2019

This house has since been sold to a new owner who has made some dramatic alterations and additions to the house. A new wing has been added on the left side, thereby negating the original historic plan and possibly affecting its historic registers status…I’m not sure about the latter but I was shocked to see what was done. The beautiful windows and the fenestration on that side of the house (and possibly the dormer windows? I don’t remember…) have been lost forever as a result. It’s really a shame to alter a house like this from its original form if it’s not necessary for preservation. The addition, in my opinion, is just ostentatious and unnecessary. If you’re going to purchase a house like this then it should be preserved as is. The house has been well cared for and its condition as of 2014 when I photographed it looked to be in fine order.

Unfortunately, this means that Lawrence has lost one of its very notable historic houses. I’m surprised the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee (HPAC) allowed the changes, but I think their concern and oversight is with the Route 206 corridor, the historic preservation zone. And legally, you can’t tell an owner what to do with their property.

I will drive by there and get a new photo of the alteration.

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The 19th Century House Project

This site is the home of The 19th Century House Project, where I post my photography of 19th Century houses along with writing about my preservation and advocacy work. The project features my photography of large Victorian houses, my work in preservation consulting, raising awareness and advocating for historic preservation.

In 2013 The Project’s first accomplishment was to secure a certification of eligibility for the William Gulick House in Lawrence Township, New Jersey, for inclusion in the state and national historic registers. My current activities involving the house include direct participation in efforts to prevent demolition and to advocate for adaptive reuse and 100% preservation. (Read my blog post on it here.)

Victorian mansion at West End Ave. and Middaugh Street in Somerville, NJ

I’m interested primarily in large Victorian houses built (in the U.S.) between 1850 and 1900. My current area of concentration is in Central New Jersey where there are many of these fine structures still standing. Some are finely restored and maintained, some are a little worn, while others are in need of restoration. While there are still large numbers of these houses in existence both large and small, especially in the small historic towns I photograph, I’m drawn mostly to the enigmatic subjects; those situated away from the others. Freehold and Flemington have very fine collections of Victorian era houses lining their streets but I prefer the lone house on a large lot or tract of land. They’re not always easy to find like that, and where you have more or less free access. Most owners I’ve spoken to have been very accommodating with regard to letting me photograph their houses.

Project Beginnings

My first experience was with a large Victorian style house at the age of 11 in my hometown of Holmdel, New Jersey. One of my friends lived in the converted carriage house of a Victorian mansion which the family called, “The Big House.” The date of construction, judging by he arched windows and wrap-around veranda was probably 1860s, when such elements began to appear. The large old house mesmerized me and from then on I was hooked. 20 years or so later a developer demolished it and I’ll never forget how I felt seeing it reduced to a huge pile of rubble. It seemed a terrible thing to destroy something that had stood for so long and that was an important part of the town and its history. It was built by a family with a prominent name synonymous with Holmdel: the Stillwells. Maybe it had significant water and/or termite damage that prevented rehabilitation. I know the structure was not maintained at all by the owners.

At any rate, springing forth from my connection with that house my passion has since become manifest through my photography, writing and preservation work. I want to preserve these fine old houses, wherever they still exist through my work, and with that involvement I hope to raise awareness. I believe it’s important to save our history for future generations.

Old South TIME-LIFE book

I have also studied the architectural elements and aspects of 19th century monumental house building styles through observation in the course of my photographic work, in discussion with architects and through online research and reading. Much of that has been on Louisiana plantation houses as they are the most ornate and eclectic in style of the Antebellum southern mansions. This is also a significant source for my interest. We had a TIME-LIFE series of books when I was growing up called the Library of America and one of them, “The Old South,” (pictured, right) sparked my interest with its stories and photographs of then 120-year-old mansions from a long gone era of languid opulence and sophistication. I know so many of them from the several books I’ve had on the subject, and it is one of my strongest desires to travel the Great River road north out of New Orleans and photograph, in my own unique style, these giant ghostly and magnificent remnants of the past.

Flemington veranda
Flemington veranda

I made the photo at right in Flemington, NJ in the summer of 2012, and it is directly influenced by one of those TIME-LIFE pictures I first saw as a kid. This veranda is so perfectly preserved and maintained and looks to be mostly original; and it appears much as it probably looked 130 or so years ago.

So, that is where my interest in 19th Century houses comes from. I’m going to have my studio in a large old Victorian house in the near future, as soon as I can find someone who has the right space and will give me a start with my business there. If you or someone you know has any ideas I would love to hear them. In the meantime, please take a look at my studio plan and proposal HERE.