Saturday, August 22, 2009

Wallace House (Somerville)

Well, they say the third time’s the charm.

I had made two previous attempts to visit the Wallace House in Somerville, which George Washington used as his headquarters in 1779. The first was on a Friday afternoon, when I decided to head over after a meeting I had in town. It was about 20 minutes before they were scheduled to close and no one was there. OK. Maybe they closed up shop early.

The second attempt was during my Middlebrook Encampment mini-tour (see my July 19 entry). I had actually called the phone number that morning to check and got a recording that gave the normal operating hours and a warning to call ahead in case the site may be closed. Uh-oh! I did call ahead, but no one answered the phone. Maybe they were giving a tour? Is it closed? Is it open? I was heading out anyway and decided to risk it. Alas, it was closed!

At any rate, my wife and daughter were heading to Somerville today to shop and wanted me to come along. I agreed, under the condition that we make one more attempt to visit the Wallace House. My hopes weren’t high as we pulled into the empty parking lot. However, I was pleasantly surprised as we walked down the path to find Jim Kurzenberger, the site’s interpreter, standing outside ready to greet us.

I mentioned my previous attempts and Jim sincerely apologized. I understand that, as a state historic site, it is severely underfunded and understaffed. Basically, if Jim is absent or at a meeting, the site is closed. I don’t want to use this blog to get into a debate over funding priorities. I’ll only suggest that perhaps setting an alternate voice mail greeting for such occasions could be looked into.

Enough about my tribulations. On to the house tour. John Wallace was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who sensed the oncoming war and wanted to build a country house away from potential action. He got that wrong!

Wallace bought land from the Hardenbergh family who lived at the nearby Dutch Parsonage. This house is also part of this state historic site, but has been closed for renovation – so we didn’t get a chance to visit it.

Wallace’s house was the biggest home built in New Jersey during the war, so naturally it was chosen as the site for Washington’s headquarters. Unfortunately, the Wallaces were only willing to allow him to use half the house, so it wasn’t quite as roomy as he had hoped for, I’m sure.

This is one of the most impressive and intriguing 18th century homes I’ve visited. The woodwork detail in the central hall is fantastic. This is one house where you don’t feel like you are walking into a furnished museum, but an actual home where the residents have just stepped out. (It was fairly hot the day we visited, so I think the stuffiness may have added to the aura of authenticity).

Jim is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable and did a great job with the tour. I’d say the Wallace House is well worth a special trip to Somerville to see it (and there are truly great restaurants in town and a few worthy antique galleries as well). But call ahead and schedule an appointment before you go, so you won’t be disappointed.

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