My Mother's Childhood Home in Jersey City, NJ
In Going Home, the faces behind CIRCA share our personal stories of the old houses that have shaped our lives. Today, Dana tells of visiting her mother’s childhood home in historic, Victorian Jersey City, NJ.
When I told my parents I wanted to make a career out of historic preservation they didn’t quite know what I meant. “So, you’ll be an architect,” asserted my dad. “You mean fixing old bricks?” questioned my mom. Once I educated them about my field of choice, my parents grew to appreciate preservation and my love of old houses, but they always wondered where my passion came from. And recently, the answer to this question hit us like a ton of bricks (pun intended!)
Over Thanksgiving weekend my mom’s brother, Gary, came to my family’s house on the Jersey Shore. He and my mom grew up about 60 miles north in Jersey City, the second-largest city in the state, located across the Hudson River from Manhattan. He wanted to show his new fiancée the house in which he and my mom grew up, so I went along for the ride. I was especially curious since I had never seen it, but heard so many stories of their years growing up there.
Much of Jersey City has been gentrified in recent years, due almost entirely to its proximity to New York City. The waterfront, for example, has been so developed that it was unrecognizable to my family. But as we approached the Heights section where their childhood home is located, things became more familiar. We drove by their former schools, the church where my Uncle went to Boy Scouts, and the regal movie theaters that still stand.
The Heights is at the northern end of the city and sits atop the New Jersey Palisades. It was originally called Palisades Avenue, and is one of the oldest roads in the city and the state. It was part of the colony of Pavonia, New Netherland, and later, was an independent municipality called Hudson City until it merged with Jersey City in 1873. It’s known for its many two-and three-family houses, true of 909 Summit Avenue, our ultimate destination.
I had known the house was brick, but I expected more of a brick box, nothing elaborate. No. 909, however, is a modest Renaissance Revival-style home, with copper cornices, original iron railings, and the remnants of window lintels that were likely shaved off at some point. The bay window section of the façade, as well as the small, projecting porch, give the house a nice dimension.
Growing up my mom, her two brothers, and their parents lived on the first floor. Her grandparents, who had come over from Poland, lived on the second floor. When they passed away, my mother’s family moved up to the second floor and rented out the first. The basement had been my grandfather’s workshop.
When we got out of the car, I convinced my uncle and mom to knock on the front door to see if the current owners would let us in. After five minutes of knocking and waiting, we reserved ourselves to the fact that we’d only be seeing the exterior of the house. But before we left, my uncle walked down the side alley where the outside basement door was. He peeked in and saw a young man who came to the door and agreed to let us in. His parents own the building; they live on the second floor and rent out the first. Phil, as he introduced himself, lives in the basement. It appears that they purchased the home in 2007 for $635,000.
When we walked in, I was overwhelmed solely by the entrance way—double wooden doors with etched glass, black and white tiled floors, elaborate floral tile running along the walls. Inside, there was original woodwork everywhere, including the floors and stair rails. We were only able to see the second floor, but the woodwork continued there with floor-to-ceiling closets, molding, and built-in cabinets. Other than the furniture, nothing had changed in forty years. Even the dumbwaiter, though not working, was still in the kitchen. (You can see some of the interior in these — blurry! — photos on Trulia!
My mom and uncle were overwhelmed with this look back in time. In the past they weren’t very close, but this past spring my grandma became very ill. They bonded while taking care of her and learned how much they loved and needed one another once she was gone. Standing in their childhood bedrooms together was something so special they were able to share, and I could see that it brought their relationship to yet another level of closeness. Standing in 909 Summit Avenue, I also saw that this is why I love preservation. It’s more than just dating a building and reciting its architectural style. Uncovering a building’s history has the power to unlock people’s pasts and futures. One structure can tell the story of countless lives and times in history. And I realized the fact that my mom grew up in such a beautiful historic house is definitely why I have a passion for old homes in my blood.
AUTHOR DANA SCHULZ
Dana Schulz is a writer and lover of urban exploration, culinary history, and, most of all, old houses. Her dream home would have a wrap-around porch to host dinner parties featuring tasty treats prepared in her vintage kitchen, complete with a farmhouse sink, retro refrigerator, and collection of milk glass containers.