Friday, July 10, 2009

Cornelius Low House (Piscataway)

I've driven by the Cornelius Low house numerous times, but never stopped in before today. I have, however, visited the neighboring Metlar-Bodine House (which is unfortunately now closed after a devastating fire). These two houses are all that remains of the once thriving community of Raritan Landing - a port established at the farthest navigable point on the Raritan River.

The house sits on a bluff overlooking River Road in Piscataway, right by the Rutgers football stadium. You actually park by the tennis courts on campus and follow a winding path to the house. The Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission (which is headquartered in the building) has made the stroll interesting with interesting signs and a cellphone information system that you can listen to while you make the walk.

The interior of the house is unique in that it is used as a museum to highlight aspects of life in New Jersey through the centuries, rather than simply a showcase for 18th century furniture. The exhibit changes periodically and the current one focuses on "New Jersey's Gilded Age" and each room contains information and artifacts illustrating the lives of New Jerseyans during this time, from the richest to the poorest. I was throughly impressed by the quality of the exhibit - informative, interesting, and manageable. (And there is a pamphlet describing the house so you can also learn about the architectural details in each room).

My daughter Daphne was impressed by the old Victrola on display. Next to it you could press a button to hear a recording played on that very instrument. Daphne asked why there was a picture of a dog with his head in the horn. As I was explaining the "His Master's Voice" logo (and mentally noting to myself that we have to go see the stain glass windows of the logo in the old RCA-Victor building in Camden), one of the museum curators came out of his office and offered to give us a live demonstration of the Victrola.

He opened up the drawer and made a selection from among dozens of cylinders, each containing the etching of one song. To put it in perspective, the drawer had about 30 cylinders. You could actually fit about 50 CDs in there (each with 15 songs = 450 songs total). And if you filled the drawer with MP3 players, it would hold thousands of songs.

The cylinder was fitted on the spindle. The Victrola was wound up and voila - some very scratchy music. Very neat.

Outside the house you can look down on the road leading to the river and Landing Lane bridge. There was a bridge on this same spot when the Continental army made its retreat from New York to Pennsylvania in 1776. George Washington ordered the bridge burned, but the British arrived in time to put the fire out. However, this afforded Washington's troops enough time to cross into Pennsylvania to safety. Less than a month later the Americans made their famous Delaware crossing to fight the battles of Trenton and Princeton, sending the British troops back to the occupy New Brunswick for the winter.

Standing on the steps of the Low house, it's fascinating to imagine the hordes of Revolutionary War soldiers, both British and American, who crossed this spot, not just once, but multiple times between 1776 and 1780.

(And if you have young kids, you can head right across the street to the Johnson Park Zoo to feed the goats.)

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