Friday, December 1, 2017

The John and Jale Mason House: A newly discovered patterned brickwork house in Elsinboro

Southern New Jersey is well-known for its collection of patterned-brickwork houses built in the eighteenth century and associated with Quaker settlement.  Here is found the highest concentration of these houses among the ten eastern states where examples have been noted.[1]  Salem and Burlington Counties have the highest numbers.  Despite their notoriety, however, a comprehensive, official inventory has never been made. That is about to change, though the number is a moving target, with new discoveries being made, and known examples succumbing to demolition.  Surprisingly, and unfortunately, despite their high cultural value, they are still disappearing; sadly, few are protected. But this article concerns a new discovery.

A 2001 survey form in the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) named a masonry house at 349 Fort Elfsborg-Hancock’s Bridge Road in Elsinboro Township, the “Sarah Mason House,” and claimed it to be a patterned brickwork house. No previous chronicler of early Salem County houses known to this author has ever made mention of this house. Not historians Thomas Shourds, Cushing and Sheppard, Joseph Sickler, Paul Love, George Walter Johnson, or Michael Chiarrapa, nor does it appear on the 1975 “Souvenir Map of Salem County Historical Sites,” which locates buildings constructed before the Revolutionary War. [2] This is surprising, considering the wide attention that has been given to Salem County patterned brickwork houses.

The house faces north on the road leading from the Fort Elfsborg vicinity on the Delaware River east toward Hancock’s Bridge. It stands three stories, has a squarish footprint, a symmetrical façade with a central doorway, a low-sloping roof, and is parged, or stuccoed.  It stands back from the road on a small rise, up a fenced lane, surrounded by the outbuildings and farm fields of an active farm. Behind it, in the distance, rises the plumed cooling tower at the nuclear power plant on Artificial Island. 

John and Jale Mason House built 1722 in Elsinboro Township in February, 2016. Now confirmed as a patterned-brickwork house. Photo © 2017 Janet L. Sheridan.
It has the look of a house that was raised from two to three stories, and whose fenestration, or pattern of windows and doors, was changed. It was common in the nineteenth century to modernize colonial period houses in this fashion; their architectural style was no longer appealing and no longer projected their social status of the eighteenth century. Three-bay facades became five-bay facades, or two became three. Thus, most such altered houses were parged in order to hide the patchwork of brickwork changes where window and door openings were shuffled and new sections were added, which would have looked messy and undignified.  Thus the patterns, which included “Flemish checker bond” covering at least the principal façade (the front), and end-wall initials, dates, or decorative designs, such as crowns, zigzags, bands, or diamonds done with blue-gray vitrified header bricks, were obscured from view as well.  Thus, an old house that is parged brick is a candidate for investigation as a forgotten patterned brickwork house. Many were parged in the mid-nineteenth century, before the arrival of local photographers and before the earliest accounts of “ancient buildings” were written, so they escaped the record and their stories were lost.

The surveyor reported seeing inscribed bricks on the house, including one that said “Sarah Mason,” and therefore named the house accordingly.  It was common for owners and builders to inscribe bricks with their initials, in addition to the vitrified header designs. Often they are found adjacent to the front door, but I’ve seen them at the top of a door, in a side wall, and in the peak of the gable (in that case, it was probably a builder). To see an entire name in a brick is unusual, however.

Robert Craig, a senior historic preservation specialist at the SHPO who oversees National Register of Historic Places applications, has been working on a first-ever state inventory of patterned brickwork houses. Bob wants to count not only surviving examples, but the ones that have been lost as well. He recently prepared a thematic National Register nomination (called a Multiple Property Documentation form) entitled "Traditional Patterned-Brickwork Architecture in New Jersey" for this significant type of early American architecture. Finally, we have a context under which any such house could be nominated and listed.  Listing is both protective and honorific.

The English Quakers who began settling in west New Jersey in 1675 brought a tradition of patterned brickwork architecture with them from England. Popular there for major buildings in the sixteenth century and for minor buildings in the seventeenth century, the practice had originated in France. [3] Culturally, the practice functioned in Fenwick’s Colony to visually express the power of landed elites and reinforce the cohesiveness of the Quaker community. [4] Their relatively good survival rates, due to their very durable brick construction, compared to the nil survivorship of the sort of house that most people lived in—small wood frame or plank houses—has unfortunately biased the modern impression of the eighteenth-century landscape. But in these houses we can seek to understand that upper class of people who controlled the land and held the economic, political and social power of the day. 

Bob and I took to the field on a cold day in February 2016 to sleuth out parged brick houses that may be hiding patterns. We logged several in Salem, and then moved down to Elsinboro. Mustering our courage, we brazenly drove up the driveway of the so-called Sara Mason House and followed it around the house through the farmyard.  We knocked at the back door, not knowing what kind of reception we would get. The owner, John Webber, greeted us, and hearing our interest, graciously came out to show us the evidence we were after. 

We indeed saw the reported incised bricks, as well as Flemish checker bond over the front door where the parge had fallen off.  A pent roof had once hung over the first story, a feature most of these houses had. The incised bricks had been purposely exposed, commemorating the inscribers. One brick said “Jale M 1722,” and the other, below it, said “Sarah Mason.”  Were we happy that we were able to confirm the 2001 sighting, and it seemed we had the construction date as well, but now we had more questions. Who were Jale M and Sarah Mason? Were they the ones responsible for the house? These are both female names, but though there are a few cases where only a man’s name is on such a house, we are unaware of a case where a single woman was responsible for the construction of one. Initialed patterns were typically emblematic of a married couple, symbolizing the importance of family and the equal role of the woman in the partnership.

The incised bricks exposed behind the stucco. Jale M. 1722, and Sarah Mason. Sarah added two horizontal line flourishes at both ends of her brick. Photo © 2017 Janet L. Sheridan.

Flemish checker bond is visible at the right and left of center where a front porch was once attached, stuccoed around, and removed.  Photo © 2017 Janet L. Sheridan.

This house stands on Fort Elfsborg-Hancock’s Bridge Road, just west of another early house called the Morris-Goodwin House, which was recorded by the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) in 1941.[5] An unusual combination of a dovetail-cornered plank house, timber frame extensions, and a patterned brickwork shed addition, it pre-dates 1739. It and the land from there west to the Delaware River was part of the 1200-acre Redroe Morris plantation, which was inherited by his son Lewis Morris. The Redroe Morris House, believed to be built in 1688, still stands, embedded within an enlarged house on the river shore near the site of the former Salem County Country Club. The so-called Sarah Mason House stands on what was Morris’ plantation, not on the tract of John Mason, further east. Was M for Morris? If so, what was Sarah Mason doing here and why was she privileged to carve a brick with her name?

Morris-Goodwin house, Elsinboro, which stands just east of the "Sarah Mason" house. South elevation showing patterned brickwork shed addition. Elsewhere, this house is frame and dovetailed plank. Source: HABS NJ-690. See footnote v.

The HABS 1941 report, together with William Wade Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy, provided the pieces to solve the puzzle. By connecting people to buildings, land, and these incised brick artifacts, and by looking at milestones in people’s lives, the story of a house can emerge. Fortunately, the Quakers kept detailed records of their members’ births, deaths and marriages, and Hinshaw transcribed all known records in 1938.
The first linkage came with a look at the history of the Morris family. Redroe/Rudra/Rudderah/Rothrock Morris married Jael Batty in 1688. Both were born about 1658 in Wales and England, respectively, and arrived in New Jersey in 1683 and 1686, respectively. [6]  Jael is a Biblical name, and is pronounced JAY-əl or JAYL. It was sometimes written "Jail," which sounds like "Jale," which is the name inscribed in the brick. It’s an uncommon name. And so is Redroe, who was in the neighborhood. It seems reasonable to conclude that the "Jale M" on the brick is Jael Morris, since this was Morris land.  But read on.

Rothra (yet another spelling for Redroe) Morris purchased of Samuel and Hannah Carpenter of Philadelphia a 1200-acre plantation called “Elsinburgh” and 400 acres of marsh and islands along the Delaware River in 1701. He died in 1704, leaving his entire plantation to his wife Jael, unless she remarried, then to his five sons, of whom three survived to marry (Joseph, David, and Lewis Morris). To Lewis he devised the tenant plantation of Henry Walmsley, believed to be the Morris-Goodwin House next door to our subject house, but since he was a child of seven at the time of his father’s death, he would not have occupied it until he had come of age and married.[7] But this record tells us that the Sarah Mason House stands on what was the Morris plantation.

Women in those days, with no legal rights of their own, usually remarried after the death of a spouse out of necessity. Jael Morris did so, marrying John Lewis in 1706.[8] Because she remarried, the plantation then became her sons' though they were still underage. We don't know if Lewis, Jael, and her children continued to live in the Morris house on the bank of the river or elsewhere with John Lewis. But later, the sons may have built houses of their own on their allotments upon their majority and marriages. Joseph reached 21 in 1713 and married Prudence Boughwhite in 1721, Lewis in 1716 and married Grace Woodnutt in 1719 (but would have occupied the Morris-Goodwin house), and David in 1718 and married Jean Jeffery in 1721.[9] The house in question, according to the brick, was built in 1722, so could be the house of one of the sons (David or Joseph).  But the plot thickens...

Jael Batty Morris Lewis, apparently widowed again at age 58, married John Mason in 1716.[10] So, in 1722 she was Jael Mason, therefore, "Jale M" is Jale Mason, not Morris. She must have married John Mason the immigrant, her neighbor and contemporary, which means that his wife Sarah died sometime after 1710 when their last child was born. [11] There was only one other Sarah Mason of record during this time who could be the Sarah Mason on the brick—a daughter of John and Sarah Mason, born 1704.[12] She would have been 18 years old in 1722, underage and living with her father and step-mother, perhaps in John Mason’s first house, built in 1695 and 1704 on Money Island Road to the east. Therefore, it seems, six years after John and Jale married, when they were in their 60s, they vacated his old homestead (perhaps to his oldest son John, who was then 25 years old) and built a new house on land belonging to one of Jale’s sons.  There, in the newly laid bricks, Sarah and Jale Mason carved their names for posterity, which a later builder opted not to hide. 

It is unlikely, though, that these bricks were laid one above the other originally, because normally, above the center of a brick is a vertical mortar joint between two bricks lying halfway over the one below. They were probably relocated during the re-fenestration in the mid-nineteenth century, probably from a center doorway flanked by two windows to a five-bay, or Georgian, arrangement, symmetrically flanked by four windows. It is also likely that these bricks were originally adjacent to the front doorway, which was apparently widened with flanking sidelights. They were stacked to be conveniently viewable in a rectangular opening in the stucco near the corner of the house. One can only imagine what pattern in vitrified blue-gray brick lies under the stucco in the gable ends to tell us more about this house, family, and patterned brickwork in Salem County and New Jersey.

This chain of events seems a reasonable scenario for how this house came to be, though undoubtedly there is much more to the story.  But it’s enough to give it a historic name--the John and Jale Mason House. John Mason's first house, up to now known simply as the John Mason House, should therefore be known as the John and Sarah Mason House to distinguish it from this one, and to appropriately acknowledge Sarah’s historical existence and role in their shared enterprise.

I would appreciate any leads on other stuccoed-over (or painted-over) potential pattern-brickwork houses, non-stuccoed examples that may yet be in hiding, or information on demolished examples.  Please email me at Thanks!

©2017 Janet L. Sheridan. All rights reserved.

[1] Paul Love, “Patterned Brickwork in the American Colonies” (Diss., Columbia University, 1950).
[2] Thomas Shourds, History and Genealogy of Fenwick’s Colony, New Jersey (Bridgeton, N.J.: G.F. Nixon, 1876); Thomas Cushing and Charles E. Sheppard, History of the Counties of Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland, New Jersey (Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1883; repr. Woodbury, NJ: Gloucester County Historical Society, 1974); Joseph Sickler, The Old Houses of Salem County (Salem, NJ: Sunbeam Publishing, 1949);  George Walter Johnson, 27 in 76: Patterned-Brick Houses of Salem County (Pennsville, N. J.: George Walter Johnson, 1977); and Michael Joseph Chiarappa, “’The first and best sort’: Quakerism, Brick Artisanry, and the Vernacular Aesthetics of Eighteenth-Century West New Jersey Pattern Brickwork Architecture” (PhD diss. University of Pennsylvania, 1992).
[3] Paul Love, Ibid, 8-10. It should be noted that in England the practice was not exclusive to Quakers, but was an English and a class practice.  The English learned it from the French, who had abandoned it earlier and hence did not bring it to the American colonies.
[4] Michael Chiarrapa, Ibid. People of other faiths, such as Anglicans, Presbyterians and Baptist also build in patterned brickwork, but their houses were much fewer in number, which speaks to the early social dominance and influence of the Quakers.
[5] HABS, Morris Goodwin house, NJ-690. (accessed March 1, 2016).
[7] HABS NJ-690, “Written Historical and Descriptive Data,” citing Salem Deeds, Book 7, p. 128, abstracted in N.J Archives XXI, 632. (accessed March 1, 2016).
[8] Ibid, 83.
[9] Ibid, 88.
[10] Ibid, 83, 86.
[11] Ibid, 34. Sarah Mason’s death was not noted in Hinshaw.
[12] Ibid, 34.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

National Register Documentation on New Jersey Patterned Brickwork is Approved

Despite the wide appreciation of New Jersey's (especially southern) iconic architectural form--the  patterned brickwork building of the colonial period--until now there has been no statewide context written on the topic. There have been several picture books featuring them, local histories written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries mentioning them, a few articles in scholarly journals, and two doctoral dissertations that I know of. In Salem County, a small number have been individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places, some are part of historic districts, and one, the Abel and Mary Nicholson house in Salem County, is listed as a National Historic Landmark due to its higher levels of significance and integrity.

Abel & Mary Nicholson House, Elsinboro, Salem County. Photo © Janet L. Sheridan.

With the approval granted at the November 8 meeting of the New Jersey Historic Sites Review Board, the context entitled, "Traditional Patterned Brickwork in New Jersey" will constitute a "National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form." This means that in the future, any patterned brickwork building to be listed will be associated with, and referenced to, this MPD form. It will facilitate future listings by reducing the amount of documentation that would be required for an individual National Register nomination, because the common theme of patterned brickwork in New Jersey is already on record. No one has to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, which will save time and money in preparing nominations. The draft is posted here.

Robert Craig, a senior historic preservation specialist in the state Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) wrote the MPD form. At the same time Bob has been creating a statewide inventory of not only surviving examples of patterned brickwork buildings (mostly houses, but some Quaker meeting houses), but also those which have been lost, and those standing buildings which have been stuccoed and may be hiding patterned brickwork. The collection is situated predominately in New Jersey's southern counties, with a few outliers further north, and they number over 300 at this time. The number rises and falls as the research goes on.

Locations of known (standing or demolished) or potential (stuccoed) patterned brickwork buildings in Salem County, NJ. Map © Janet L. Sheridan.
"Traditional Patterned Brickwork in New Jersey" will make it easier to nominate examples of this distinctive architectural tradition, of which New Jersey has the greatest number of examples of any state. The need is great. In Salem County, my unofficial count of standing pattern-brickwork buildings, demolished examples, or stuccoed candidates is 94. Of those, 12 are known to be demolished. There are 33 stuccoed examples, 5 of which are confirmed patterned brickwork. Thus, until more is learned, there are 44 standing, confirmed examples of patterned brickwork in Salem County. However, of those 44, only 8 are individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places so far (the program started in 1966). So, 36 need to be listed in order to encourage their preservation.

These remarkable and precious architectural landmarks of eighteenth century colonial landowners and their cultural authority are at risk. They still disappear from time to time, and will continue to. The ca. 1740 Rebecca Edgil/Samuel Tyler house in Salem was taken down in December 2015 under pressure by the city government even though it was recognized as significant and worthy of protection in the city's Master Plan Historic Preservation Element. Its brickwork was a remarkably fine example of this kind of workmanship and was in fine condition.

Ca. 1740 Edgil-Tyler house in Salem being demolished. Photo © Janet L. Sheridan

In Camden County, the 1764 Hugg-Harrison house, in the way of the I-295/I-676/Route 42 reconfiguration,was taken down by the NJ DOT on March 3, 2017 in a sudden, secret demolition at dawn despite public outcry against the decision, and efforts underway by Belmawr Township to move it. These houses may still be standing if they had been listed on the National Register.

View of 1764 Hugg-Harrison house at the confluence of three highways in Belmawr Township. Source: "Justice for the Historic Hugg-Harrison House"FaceBook page.

Read the draft MPD form, which will change only slightly prior to being listed. Do you have a patterned-brickwork house? Would you like it listed? If you want to know more about nominating a patterned brickwork house, contact me.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Now, Southern New Jerseyans can gain expertise in historic preservation.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH), Rutgers University-Camden,  has just launched a certificate program in historic preservation. Now, Southern New Jerseyans can gain expertise in historic preservation and take it back to their communities. Attention HP commissioners, elected officials, city planners and planning board members, homeowners, historic site admins and volunteers, architects, engineers, attorneys, developers, realtors, or just interested folks...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Farms Report II Now Available

My study of four farm outbuildings in Salem County, NJ is complete! In it, I recorded and analyzed a ground barn made of of three 1792-1860 barns, a carriage barn, and two wagon  houses (also called drive-in corn cribs) that are quite distinct from each other. "Salem County Farms Recording Project Volume II" is now available at this link. You can read , download and order a print copy if you like. Thanks to the New Jersey Historical Commission and the Vernacular Architecture Forum for their financial support!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

When Conservation Makes No Sense: The Case of the Abbott House

At the southern end of Abbott Farm Road in Elsinboro Township stands a stuccoed brick house, separated from Alloway Creek by an earthen bank. Here, English immigrants George and Mary Abbott purchased 136 acres from Joseph Nicholson in 1694 for 100 pounds silver. The fine stand of white oak for building and fuel and the salt meadows for growing hay on the site were key assets that appealed to them. On the site was a log house built by the first English settler, Samuel Nicholson (Joseph's father), who had accompanied colony founder John Fenwick to West New Jersey on the ship Griffin in 1675.

The Abbotts occupied Nicholson's log house until 1704, when they built a brick "chambered hall" (one lower room and one upper room) on the west end of the log house. Twenty years later in 1724, the prospering Abbotts built on the site of the old log house a new brick section with a two-room "hall-and-parlor" plan. It may have been very similar to a nearby house built in 1722 by Joseph's brother Abel Nicholson (who may have been George Abbott's uncle). But, unlike at the Nicholson House, the stucco applied to the Abbott house in 1847 hides any gable-end pattern of initials, dates, or decorative designs. However, a gable-end pattern is likely to exist, based upon the Flemish checker bond that has been revealed on the south side of the house (qualifying it as a patterned-brickwork house), the Abbott's Quaker affiliation, the proximity of the Nicholson House, and a possible family tie to the Nicholsons.

Tragically, the owners of the Abbott House, who were unable to sell it after a year on the open market, are set to sell this 5-acre property to the State of New Jersey under its Green Acres program. Green Acres purchases land for conservation and open space. The trouble is, buildings are undesired for this program, and this house--livable, historically significant, and retaining much historic fabric--is slated for demolition within 60 days after the transfer (August 1). New Jersey will spend $295,000 of the public's money to trash perfectly good and very significant cultural property, wasting history and the building's working, embodied energy. How non-green of Green Acres! Sadly, no one will ever again be able to study this house for its architectural signs of everyday life and ideas of the past. Undiscovered historical data, written in the building and site, will perish.

Such demolitions are not new, and point out the conflict of agendas among programs within the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). A chronic conflict is between open space and historic preservation, which is administered by the Historic Preservation Office. This is not a new problem. Just recently, a frame house on Abbott Farm Rd, was deemed to hold no significance and demolished under the same arrangement. However, we recently saw a 1743/4 survey of the Abbott Plantation which showed a "tenement" house on that very site, evidence of a historical relationship to the Abbott House on the original Abbott parcel. This is indicative of another problem in the process--the inability of the SHPO to determine significance of a possibly eligible building or site, through lack of resources to do sufficient research, bias toward the criteria of architecture (one of four criteria), and bias toward elite architecture. The National Register Criteria does provide for the recognition of vernacular, that is, less stylish common houses, but this is harder to argue without extensive research into the land and social history of the property. In this case, the tenement site is a lost example of a place where tenant farmers, or servants, or even slaves lived, and how many examples of that do we know about? Is it important to be able to see and understand such places, as well as those of the wealthiest landowners? Is our view of history complete without an interpretation of the working people who created the wealth for the landowners?

However, eligibility is moot, because unless a property is actually listed on the NJ Register of Historic Places, it has no real protection from a state undertaking, such as a purchase by Green Acres. Listing mandates a binding review under the law. Sadly, most of the distinctive patterned-brickwork houses, which represent an early regional architectural building tradition that is seen most prominently in southern New Jersey, are not listed, and neither are other possibly significant properties like the unfortunate frame tenement on Abbott's Farm Rd. So, the NJ Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has no authority to force Green Acres to change course. Nevertheless (and thankfully), the SHPO is actively consulting with Green Acres to preserve the house. The issue has risen to the level of the DEP Commissioner's office under Bob Martin. But that is no reason to rest. There is no deal yet.

Penny Watson, a preservation architect and principal in the firm of Watson & Henry Associates in Bridgeton, NJ, and I have been working to raise public awareness by social media, email, and TV media, and to find ways to avert the ultimate doom of the house. We are in our third week of effort. Our strategy consists of pushing Green Acres to either transfer the the agreement of sale to a private buyer, or re-sell the house after they buy it (called a diversion). We are pushing for a diversion, and preparing for a transfer.

There is an eager buyer who is working very hard to line up a mortgage and jump through the various hoops that would be required of a lender. This scenario would require a diversion, because they cannot meet the August 1 deadline for settlement under the owners purchase agreement, and the owners would not be inclined to delay the sale. If Green Acres does not elect a diversion, we have the non-profit group Preservation New Jersey lined up to accept the purchase agreement before August 1. The huge hurdle with that scenario would be the need (which falls on Penny and me) to raise the purchase money to the tune of $295,000. The bulk of it would require loans from private individuals, a very difficult and complicated task, along with commitment to purchase by our interested party. But it would be a quick turnaround, perhaps three months at most.

We ask readers to help by doing the following:

Sign the online petition at which currently has 1,169 signers. It will be delivered to the DEP Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner, and our District 3 legislators, Senator Sweeney and Assemblymen John Burzichelli and Adam Taliaferro. You don't have to be a New Jerseyan. Click on this link.

Write the DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, and the Deputy Commissioner David Glass and ask them in your own words for a diversion of the property to a private buyer.

Write our legislators directly by selecting District 3 at this link. Ask them to pressure DEP for a diversion of the property to a private buyer.

Consider a short-term loan of funds to help PNJ buy the property in the event of a transfer of purchase agreement. Many contributions would ease the pain.

Help save the Abbott House!