By Anya Bochman
Photos courtesy/Carol D’Alessandro
The Schuyler-Colfax House Museum, located at 2343 Hamburg Turnpike in Wayne, is one of the area’s most
prominent historical landmarks. The museum, which is on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in the criterion of “Construction and Design,” is a significant example of Dutch stone colonial architecture, unique to the area once known as New Netherland.
The structure’s history harkens back to 1696 and includes ownership by eight consecutive generations of the Schuyler and Colfax families.
According to the Wayne Historical Commission, which provides vital support to the township’s museums by raising funds, acquiring artifacts and writing its history, the first owner of the house was Arent Schuyler, a member of an influential family of original New Netherland settlers. In 1694, Schuyler traveled into northwestern New Jersey to investigate rumors that the French were trying to incite the local Lenni-Lenape population to rebel against the English. Schuyler found no evidence of a rebellion, but discovered a rich fertile valley where the Lenni-Lenape grew a variety of crops.
Schuyler reported his findings to the English and convinced seven major representatives, including Major Anthony Brockholst, to invest in the purchase of the land he referred to as the “Pompton Valley.” The seven chose Schuyler to be negotiator with the Lenape for the rights to the area; similar negotiations were completed with the East Jersey Company, which maintained land rights over the area that is now Wayne. Approximately 5,000 acres were purchased on November 11, 1695, and Schuyler built the house along the Pompton River.
During Schuyler’s ownership, the house consisted of an original one-room section, constructed during a period that historians estimate to be between 1696 and 1702. Schuyler willed the house to his son Philip, who ran the Pompton Furnace, a company which supplied cannon balls and grape shot at George Washington’s request to the Continental Army. Philip lived in the house along with his wife Hester and their children, leaving the house and its surrounding 200 acres in his 1760 will to his youngest son, Casparus.
Hester Schuyler, the daughter of Casparus, inherited the property in 1795; she had married William Colfax, Captain of General George Washington’s Life Guard from Bunker Hill to Yorktown, in 1783. The Life Guard was a group of about 150 men who accompanied Washington throughout the war as his personal body guards.
It is Colfax who added the two story Georgian plan section to the house after the Revolutionary War in 1783, and brought his family name into the official historic record of the house. He passed the ownership to his son George Washington Colfax (whose godfather was President Washington himself). Both Hester Schuyler and General William Colfax were buried in a cemetery yards away from the house.
Other notable inhabitants include Schuyler Colfax, Jr., who served as the 17th Vice President of the United States during the Ulysses Grant administration and was born in the historic house.
A darker side of the property’s history includes the records of at least a dozen slaves who lived in the house throughout the years. Additional records of slaves living at the Schuyler-Colfax House are speculated to be lost.
Carol D’Alessandro, Wayne Township’s Museums Coordinator who works part-time at the Schuyler-Colfax House, does not shy away from any aspect of the area’s historic museums. D’Alessandro, who completes a rigorous part time shift each week writing grants, providing tours, completing educational sessions and providing necessary upkeep for the museum properties, also oversees children’s camp activities at landmarks such as the Van Riper-Hopper Historic House Museum.
“We cover all types of topics here – including slavery, for one.” said D’Alessandro. “We try to be as hands-on and interactive as we can.”
The house remained in the Schuyler-Colfax family for eight generations. The last familial owner was Jane Adelia Colfax, one of the area’s first female physicians and the first female obstetrician-gynecologist to practice at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. Colfax sold the house to Wayne in 1992, with the intent that the township would open it as a museum. The Colfax family had saved artifacts, documents and furniture from the preceding generations that would serve this purpose.
Although the house museum was closed to the public after suffering roof damage in August 1999, it still contains an extensive collection of site-specific furnishings as well as original exterior fabric, interior woodwork and floors. As a fine example of New Jersey Dutch Colonial architecture, constructed of fieldstone and Holland brick with a timber-frame roofing system, the house helps interpret local community history and its development during three hundred years of continued occupancy by a single family.
Despite the 20th century alteration of the structure to add dormers in place of “belly-windows,” the Schuyler-Colfax House was added to the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1965, a decision based upon surviving historic features and the important role the Schuyler-Colfax family has played in local history.
Of particular architectural significance in the house is the massive fireplace without sides or jambs. In the United States, this jambless fireplace is one of only three in existence which still retain most of their original style and architectural integrity.
In 1748, Peter Kalm, a Swedish traveler passing through the Albany region, whose diary was published as Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America, noted that “the fireplaces among the Dutch were always built in, so that nothing projected out, and it looked as though they made a fire against the wall itself.”
A further description of the jambless fireplace was provided by Kalm. As he explained with regard to the small wooden houses which he observed north of Albany, “The fireplace for about six feet or more from the ground
consisted of nothing more than the wall of the house which was six to seven feet wide and made of brick only. There were no projections on the sides of the fireplace, so it was possible to sit on all three sides of the fire and enjoy the warmth equally.”
Preservation funds from the New Jersey Historic Trust are responsible for helping keep the rare fireplace in good condition. Additional contributions that have helped support the Schuyler-Colfax House over the years include the Garden State Historic Preservation Trust Fund, the Capital Preservation Grant Level II and the Historic Site Management Grant.
The 2002 Trust grant helped fund structural stabilization, roof repair and replacement, masonry repointing, exterior painting, electrical upgrades and an environmental analysis prior to installation of HVAC in the oldest wing of the house. Previous grants helped fund a roof restoration study, preparation of construction documents for the first phase of work, and preparation of a preservation plan.
The latter – the Preservation Plan of 2000 – made suggestions for restoration of the original house. For example, Dr. Colfax and her husband Mike DeNike left behind a diary of changes they had made to the house, a journal in which they state that they raised the hearth level with course bricks. The Preservation Plan of 2000 suggested bringing the hearth base back to the original hearthstone.
In September 2017, the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders awarded $14,800 to the Hester Schuyler Colfax Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) for a conditions assessment of the property. The assessment, conducted by Connolly & Hickey Historical Architects, LLC, covered the entire house, systems and grounds.
“This conditions assessment was a guide to preservation with stages of work outlined including cost estimates for the stages,” D’Alessandro explained. “The next steps would be obtaining written estimates from several qualified companies and added fundraising in the meantime.”
The DAR chapter, with support from the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the Mayor and Council of Wayne, will work together to fully restore the Schuyler-Colfax House so that it can be utilized for public interests.
“I am grateful to the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Wayne Historical Commission for their outstanding work in the restoration of the Schuyler-Colfax House and for instilling pride in Wayne Township’s rich history,” said Mayor Christopher Vergano at the time of the assessment.
According to D’Alessandro, the main purpose of the museum will be to preserve the architecture and grounds of the house, as well as archives, museum library, images and photos by sharing the stories of the property’s former inhabitants and offering views of individual rooms with context to their respective time periods. Hands-on tours as well as public programs and events would help generate income, with the museum relying on volunteer involvement.
Some of the ways the museum would engage with the public would be through free presentations to local schools and organizations, as well as project opportunities for local clubs. For instance, the Wayne Garden Club will continue to do some gardening on the premises, while the Eagle Scouts, Gold Award Girl Scouts and high school honor society students can do projects in the museum for service hours.
“This house, which is not open to the public due to continual rehabilitation, could become a public museum,” D’Alessandro stated. “As a museum house, it could tell the story of the earliest local residents’ material culture, telling how they survived, thrived and contributed to the community and country.”