Today, the community of Raritan Landing is all but forgotten. The remains of the once-thriving village lie beneath portions of Johnson Park and River Road. The Low House is one of the only two remaining structures from the Landing, and is a vital link to Piscataway’s and Middlesex County’s past.
Raritan Landing emerged as a vital port community during the 1720s. It was situated at the furthest inland point on the Raritan River that could be navigated by merchant ships of the day. In its heyday, the Landing was the center for local trade and, along with New Brunswick, served as a hub for imports and exports to and from the Raritan Valley. Agricultural goods and lumber brought to Raritan Landing from throughout central New Jersey were stored in warehouses here, awaiting shipment to either New York or sometimes the Caribbean. Imported goods were off-loaded and taken by traders to stores and merchants throughout the area. The majority of the community existed between present-day River Road and the Raritan River, near the intersection of Landing Lane and River Road. By the 1740s, there were approximately 70 structures and more than 100 inhabitants.
By the early days of the American Revolution, the community was occupied by British troops. The bluffs provided safe haven for the troops, and an unobstructed lookout toward New Brunswick, enabling clear views of approaching Patriot forces. Cornelius Low died in early 1777, but the British spared his house because his loyalty to the King of England remained steadfast until his death.
During the 1720s, Cornelius Low became a successful merchant in Newark, New Jersey. In 1729, he married Johanna Gouveneur and they made plans to move to the emerging port community of Raritan Landing near New Brunswick, where Low, a merchant with shipping capabilities, became one of the community’s most prosperous businessmen. Lows’ first home was located along the wharf near Landing Lane at the Raritan’s edge. Following a great flood in 1738 that damaged his home, Low decided to obtain property on the bluff, on the opposite side of the Great Road (River Road) overlooking the Landing.
Low’s “new house on the mountain”, as he would refer to it in an entry in his family Bible, allowed him many advantages. Firstly, from this vantage point, he could keep a watchful eye on the activities at the wharves, and especially at his warehouse located between the river and the Great Road. Secondly, and probably more importantly, he no longer needed to worry about the occasional floods that continue to plague the region to this day.
Built in 1741, the Low House has stood in this location for over 265 years. Despite its age, the property has changed hands infrequently. Below is a timeline that shows what families owned the home, and when ownership was transferred.
1738 Cornelius Low purchases of land from William Williamson, on the bluff overlooking Landing Lane
1741 Low moves into his “new house on the mountain” and remains here until his death in 1777
1793 John Pool purchases the property from Cornelius Low’s son, Nicholas
1871 George W. Metlar acquires the house from John Adams Pool’s widow for $14,000.00
1916 Anna Voorhees obtains the house through sale from the Metlar family
1965 Stephen V. R. Strong purchases the property from Theodore Voorhees for $1.00
1979 County of Middlesex takes title to the house, buying it from Stephen’s widow, Marianne Strong, for $160,000.00
Part of the mission of the Cultural and Heritage Commission is to be responsible for . . .
. . . the development of county-wide programs, and the promotion of public interest in local and county history, in the arts, and in the cultural values, goals and traditions of the community, state and nation” and “within the limits of funds appropriated, or otherwise made available to it, undertake the restoration, operation, maintenance and preservation of real property acquired by the County, pursuant to RS 40:32-6 or otherwise.
The County acquired the Low House to use as a local heritage museum discussing the history of New Jersey and its context within that of national events. Even in 1979, it was acknowledged that the Low House was perhaps the finest example of Georgian architecture in the state, and that it was one of the only two remaining structures from Raritan Landing. In order to fulfill their mission, the Commission realized that the preservation of the building should be its first priority.
In order for the agency to take that mission forward through the 21st century, steps were taken in order to better preserve the Commission’s most precious artifact – the Low House.
The entire roof, including the badly deteriorated support structure was replaced in 1982-1983, and cedar shingles replaced the slate tiles that were put on decades earlier. In 1987-1988, badly worn windows on the Landing / river side of the house were replaced with ones crafted as restoration replicas.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that plans came to fruition to undertake a massive restoration that would address major issues plaguing the Low House – both hidden and on the surface.
In conjunction with landscape demolition, the Commission created an interpretive path, with innovative installations that tell the history of the house, along with new landscape plantings. Additional site work consisted of the installation of completely new sewer, water, and gas supply systems.
Evidence of their mastery can be seen in the woodwork that was stripped of 26 layers of paint and repainted in historically accurate colors. Further, Myhre Construction re-pointed (replaced the mortar between the stones) the front facade, and created the Interpretive Path leading from our parking area to the Museum.
Behind the scenes work included complete upgrades of heating and cooling systems, new electrical wiring encased in metal conduit and new plumbing and water supply systems. Additionally, an exhibit system was fabricated to protect the original plaster walls, while still allowing the museum to install changing exhibitions.
One of the major steps taken to ensure the survival of the building in the unfortunate circumstance of fire was the installation of a state-of-the-art, dry-feed fire suppression system. This system activates instantaneously in the event of a fire, but no water stays static in the piping, preventing accidental water damage caused by broken pipes or other such failures.
Low, though, was a frugal man, as indicated by the stone used on the three sides of the house not facing Raritan Landing and unseen by visitors or passers-by. These sides were built of rubble stone, or irregular pieces that required minimal finish work. This type of stone was much less expensive than that installed on the front of his home.
There is also a ledge, or sill course, located approximately three feet up from the ground and encircling the house. This sill makes the house appear to be sitting on a pedestal and is another feature Low used to add stature to the home’s appearance. Constructing his home the way he did, Low was making sure it looked impressive to all who saw it, and that the structure represented his high stature within the community of Raritan Landing. It was his way of showing the best he could afford, and is similar to steps the modern-day homeowner may take.
Within the shadow on the exterior, you can still see the outline of the doorway that led into this room. Due to its proximity to the kitchen, this room was most likely used primarily for dining or entertaining. Other rooms in the home served multiple functions, determined by the need. We believe the Metlar family removed the kitchen around 1870 for unknown reasons. At that time, the portion of the home currently used for our kitchen and restroom facilities assumed the function of the meal preparation area.
When Low lived here, the two basement windows closest to the front entrance were doorways. They allowed access to the basement for Low’s servants and workers, so that certain goods could be stored there, rather than in the warehouse along the Great Road. The front yard has since been substantially filled but the doorway outlines are still visible in the basement. Sometime after Low’s death, these doorways altered and turned into windows. Subsequently the house settled. Hence these windows are no longer square.
In the mid-1980s, the front windows, having been severely exposed to the elements, were replaced. Rather than square up the window openings, the restoration firm installed fully functional though crooked windows in their place. It is common in the restoration of a structure of such antiquity, to leave features intact that help show its age and character.
By the end of the 16th century the tiles were used as wall tiles in many homes. Dutch houses were built near the water and, given the climate, tiles were ideal for keeping out the dampness and were used on the joining of walls and floors and for walls behind fireplaces.
Delft tiles quickly grew in popularity and were seen in kitchens, cellars, and on fireplaces. The 17th century saw a rise in their popularity with the growth of the Dutch middle class who could afford to have decorative tiles in their houses. The most popular color was blue and white because it imitated the expensive porcelain that was being imported from China.
Their decline in popularity began in the 18th century due to political strife in Holland and changing fashion trends, limited tile manufacturing continued into the 19th century.
Because of this, the Low House today is one of only two remaining structures from Raritan Landing, and one of the finest examples of Georgian-style architecture in America. The Lows, Pools, Metlars, Voorhees and the Strongs were all good stewards of the property. Their care has preserved the home so it can be viewed and enjoyed by future generations.
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