The Plan: In Revolutionary times, the land now comprising the Borough of Glen Ridge lay essentially open and undeveloped, with few farms in the area. During the nineteenth century, the potential of water power provided by the rapidly descending Toney’s Brook attracted industry to the area. The presence of sandstone and copper ore in the prominent ridge provided additional inducement to early industrial development. This development was supported by the presence of the “Old Road” from Newark to Cranetown, now Montclair, and on to the top of First Mountain, a major transportation link in those days, which traversed the center of the land now forming the Borough, and which formed the focus of settlement.
It was not until the mid-point of the nineteenth century had passed, when rail service vastly improved access to Newark and New York, that a substantial increase in residential development took place. Immersed in romantic attitudes about man’s need to return to nature so prevalent in Victorian England and America, more and more families moved from the burgeoning cities to this area to enjoy the pastoral life. Mansions as well as modest “cottages” were built on large land areas where the views to the east could be enjoyed, along with the cooling breezes in summer.
A relatively sophisticated citizenry inhabited this hilly western edge of the town of Bloomfield. It was not long before a group of highly motivated residents became inspired by a desire to create an ideal residential community, a “residential park,” which would provide not only the necessary municipal functions, but also a planned pattern of development which would assure that the community would become and remain a highly desirable place in which to live.
Frustration with the governing body grew as a result of a basic difference in philosophy, with practical manifestations appearing in the form of unpaved streets, lack of sewers, and the promise of uncontrolled patterns of development already evident in surrounding areas. The need to deal with the problem of development became critical as the once prosperous mills along Toney’s Brook faded, leaving vacant relics as reminders of the past.
In 1895, the Borough of Glen Ridge was chartered as an independent community, and the residents were free to create the kind of residential community they had envisioned. By 1909, there were already many fine homes in Glen Ridge. At that time, the Mayor and Council of the new Borough hired a planner, John Nolen, to study the land area now under their jurisdiction, and to make recommendations guiding the future development of open land. Glen Ridge was one of the first communities to utilize professional help in such a planning effort.
Although the acquisition by the Borough of abandoned mill sites had already begun, the Nolen Report envisioned a town park designed to preserve the picturesque and primitive beauty of the natural feature which had given the Borough its name, the Glen. This report also anticipated the need for a municipal center by selecting a site along the north side of Bloomfield Avenue to the west of Ridgewood Avenue and the existing school, now Middle School. The plan for this center intended that the buildings be related to one another in design as well as in site plan. Fulfillment of this “master plan” was realized in stages with the construction in 1911, of the Arcade Building, containing municipal offices on the second floor, the Library in 1918, and finally, with the completion of the “new” Municipal Building, Police and Fire Houses in 1931.
The Nolen Report recognized the unsightly incursion of the expanding electrical power distribution system along rural and suburban roadways where underground installation was not feasible at that time. Therefore Nolen encouraged locating the overhead wires at the rear property lines. In addition, the pattern of street form with attendant sidewalks, curbs and shade trees was developed in accordance with recommendations.
Implementation of John Nolen’s plan resulted in three important actions taken by the Borough Council which have had major influence in the orderly development of Glen Ridge, and have resulted in a high quality of construction, both essential ingredients in the creation and maintenance of a quality residential community. These actions were: the adoption of a building code in 1910, one of the first in the State; the establishment of a Building Department with Building Inspector, also in 1910; and, somewhat later, the enactment of a zoning ordinance, also one of the first in the State. This latter document provided the necessary tools to regulate land usage in accordance with a plan. In addition, it provided the controls on land coverage, setbacks, minimum lot size and other related restrictions essential to the creation of an orderly visual environment. Growth patterns were also given consideration leading to an anticipation of future needs of the community, including schools.
Many years later, development had reached all borders of the 1.4 square mile area forming Glen Ridge, and the young Borough had matured. The long period of the Depression, followed by a World War, had brought about many changes in the economic and physical characteristics of surrounding areas. These changes raised questions as to the future of a strictly residential community. In 1948, another planner, Scott Bagby, was hired to reassess the municipality and to provide guidance in the development of the remaining large properties which were destined to be subdivided under the pressures of economics. The Bagby Report reaffirmed, in principle, the original premises upon which the community had based its original growth patterns, as did the later report by Boorman and Dorram prepared at the direction of the Mayor and Council in 1969.
At this point in history, it can be said that the founding fathers knew very well how to achieve their goals, leaving to their successors the legacy of an unusually beautiful, well-built and well-ordered community in which even the older portions have retained their desirability. As a by-product of that good planning, plus economic stability, older portions of the Borough possess a museum quality having all the necessary elements of late Victorian and Edwardian “townscape.” Appropriate architecture, cobblestone gutters, slate sidewalks, large shade trees and the period gas street lights of that by-gone era are still very much in evidence in the central section of Glen Ridge. The gaslights, surviving mainly out of economic necessity due to the lack of electric power at the curbline, make the Borough one of a few towns in the country that possess original equipment now being copied for entire new communities in various areas.
The Architecture: Glen Ridge began and grew to maturity during a period in which eclecticism was the predominant influence in one form or another in American architecture. Some early to middle nineteenth century structures survive, although most have been altered substantially and/or enlarged, and appear in the trappings of a latter time. These few early homes were, for the most part, farmhouses of simple early American form overlaid with the proportions and simplified detailing inspired by contemporary Roman and Greek Revival designs. These designs were published in books to which carpenter builders turned for design inspiration as well as technical information. The presence of sophisticated designs of this period in the more established settlements of Cranetown (e.g. Crane House in Montclair), and the lower-lying portions of Bloomfield indicate that local artisans were familiar with such resource material.
As the nineteenth century progressed and more substantial dwellings were erected, the so-called “Carpenter Gothic” appeared with its boards and battens, jig sawed fascias or barge boards, hooded window heads, towers, turrets and clustered chimneys. Later excursions into the Medieval brought forth stone and also half-timbered wood and stucco manor houses which were usually characterized by irregular and picturesque massing. With the arrival of the High Victorian period, elements of Italianate “villas” with bracketed eaves and windows with heavy cornices were added to the local design vocabulary along with some Second Empire mansard roofs complete with arched dormers.
From the eighties through the turn of the century, the “Queen Anne Cottage” came into its own with a potpourri of styles of detail, picturesque massing, highly sculptured facades undulating with bays and turrets, great spreading roofs and verandas. A magnificent variety of shingle textures was formed by jig sawed shingles laid in various coursing patterns from the more popular “fish scale” and diamond shapes to fanned coursing. Some excellent examples have been lost by the ill-advised application of asbestos shingles or other overlayment installed in the interest of easier maintenance, with the resultant loss of texture and richness. These buildings possess an air of informality and solid comfort, but on a rather grand scale when compared to present standards.
Before the turn of the century and during the first decade of the new, the influence of the “shingle style,” made famous by such architects as H. H. Richardson, Silsbee and McKim was felt in the Borough, as streets of ample but smaller homes were developed. The emphasis was on natural materials used in a manner most appropriate to and expressive of the nature of the materials. Wood shingles on walls and roofs were left to weather to a deep brown offset by dull gold-tan trim, all in harmony with the color tones of the wooded areas in which these homes were built. Sometimes stucco was used, again left in natural state. This natural palette was carried to the interiors where oak, chestnut or cypress trim contrasted with natural buff-tones, sand-finished plaster and rust-toned iron-spot brick. These materials and colors were associated with the “Prairie Houses” being built concurrently in the Chicago area as designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The period from 1885 to 1915 produced many developments in central heating and lighting systems as well as other amenities. Many Borough homes possess innovative installations. There are dual illumination systems providing gas lighting as backup in the event of failure of the electric service, not an infrequent problem at the turn of the century. There is an early version of the “luminous ceiling” in a dining room of that period with the entire ceiling covered with small opal light bulbs, each centered in a plaster panel at two to three foot spacing. There are early elevators, and there are some all-masonry residences with fireproof concrete floor construction. Also, before the introduction of BX wiring, some early wiring was installed in pipe conduit, an expensive system used today only in large commercial or institutional structures.
By the mid-1890’s, there was a strong surge of interest in the more formal American Georgian or early Federal style, coupled with elements of neo-Classicism found in the work of architects trained in the French Beaux Arts tradition. This excursion into what has popularly been lumped into “Colonial Style” was initiated by such architects as Stanford White. Retaining popularity through the 1940’s many of the structures of later years were more modest in scale and sparer in detail.
A building boom in the 1920’s extended development from Bay Avenue north to Watchung, and provided the in-filling of remaining open areas in the south end of town. This was an early era of the development-builder working, especially in the side streets, with stock plans which were characterized as “Dutch Colonial” or just “Colonial” with some stucco “cottages” evoking an image of the English countryside. The quality of building was generally very high, and the houses in most areas spacious, by today’s standards. Close inspection reveals a repetitive quality and predictability of plan not so frequently encountered in older portions of town where buildings were commissioned and built one at a time for individual owners. However, areas of Ridgewood and Forest Avenues boast especially fine examples of archeologically “correct” Tudor houses built at that time, along with an interesting variety of interpretations of “Colonial” style.
Following World War II, several large properties were subdivided, according to the Master Plan, with the creation of cul-de-sac streets. The most significant buildings of this period are several well-designed contemporary homes. The most notable is the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and is exquisitely positioned on an irregular site at the end of one of these cul-de-sac streets.
Glen Ridge’s architectural legacy includes buildings of outstanding design quality for their time, and famous architects have had their hands in the creation of this legacy. In addition to Wright, three homes of an earlier generation are attributed to Stanford White, with another, a substantial addition and alteration, also reputed to be his work. One magnificently -detailed Georgian home is the work of John Russell Pope.
In addition, highly talented resident architects such as Herbert E. Davis, Frank Goodwillie, Maxwell Kimball and William F. Staab, to name a few, have contributed to the overall high level of design quality. And, working in a different medium, Ethelbert Furlong, provided the talent to create for the Freeman family in the 1920’s, the beautiful works of formal and informal landscape architecture that have subsequently been given to the Borough and are maintained by the Freeman Gardens Association.
Credit should also be given to W. O. Bartlett, a non-resident architect and winner of an architectural design competition, for providing a superbly-executed solution for the design of the Municipal Building complex.
It is visually evident that Glen Ridge possesses an architectural heritage which should be cherished and protected. There is little space left in which to build, and perhaps it is just as well since the tendency is for present day building efforts to introduce jarring and discordant notes, not because of design vocabulary, but rather because of typically diminutive scale. Harshness of materials and color and paucity of detail are also associated with average residential construction in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The real challenge to the present generation is to find a way to preserve for posterity what their forefathers built so well. A means should be found to prevent well-intentioned but insensitive changes or additions which would destroy the harmony that exists and reduce the quality of the environment which was so thoughtfully and carefully planned by the founding fathers.