First published in The Record, Dec. 21, 2017
Built by American revolutionaries, this house may fall
For a month, Henry Kip and his brother Peter stood sentinel, alone. Abandoned by George Washington, whose broken army fled Hackensack for Pennsylvania so quickly that many of his soldiers marched without shoes, the Kips were members of a ragtag militia that walked Polifly Ridge, the last defense against British troops looking to pillage the farms of Bergen County.
After volunteering for guard duty, the Kips walked home to a stone farmhouse on the edge of the meadows. That house, built by 1743, still stands. During the Revolutionary War, it was one of dozens of homes along the old Polifly Road, which traced the ridge line from Hackensack to Newark and served as the residential hub for Bergen County’s political and economic elite for more than 100 years, until the Civil War.
Today the Kip homestead is the last of those houses left.
A developer wants to knock it down.
Theodore Van Winkle, whose ancestors served in the militia alongside the Kips, and whose great-grandfather Daniel bought the Kip homestead in 1852, thinks that’s a terrible idea.
“I’m very much against it,” said Van Winkle, 90, whose family has lived within a couple miles of the old Kip farm for 330 years. “It’s one of the oldest Dutch homes in New Jersey, and it should be preserved.”
The developer, Madison Hill Properties LLC, takes the opposite view. A report prepared on the company’s behalf describes the Kip house and 17 surrounding properties as an “area in need of redevelopment,” a term of art in local zoning law that translates roughly to “slum.”
Madison Hill has not disclosed what it hopes to build in their place. Representatives of the company did not return calls and emails seeking comment. The company’s report points out, however, that the neighborhood is zoned for two-family houses and five-story residential buildings.
That would mean replacing the last Colonial-era, stone-built home on the old Polifly Road with more town houses and apartment blocks, the same slapped-together agglomerations of vinyl siding and fake brick available from Teaneck to Spokane.
“The people who lived in this house, the Kip and the Van Winkle families, were part of the militia that guarded this area during the Revolutionary War,” said Rod Leith, Rutherford’s borough historian. “It’s southern Bergen County’s last connection with the Revolutionary War. I hope they let that house be.”
New Jersey changed. This house didn’t.
Of course, if they let the house be for much longer, it may just fall down. Shed-like porticoes built during the 20th century at the front and rear doors appear to be caving in. The home’s roof and structural arches are failing, according to a report by Robert Van Winkle, Rutherford’s code enforcement officer.
The property “is a violation of the Rutherford zoning code,” wrote Robert, who is Theodore’s first cousin twice removed.
The home’s heavy stone walls are covered in dirty yellow paint and stucco, both of which are peeling. It stands across from a gas station that appears to be abandoned, on a busy side street two blocks from a Burger King and a Popeye’s restaurant.
The Kip house doesn't even sit on Polifly Road anymore. The original road was built in the early 1700s, following the track of Native American trails, according to documents printed in 1907 by the Bergen County Historical Society. Towns along the way changed Polifly's course over the centuries, making way for railroads and bigger, straighter highways. Today Polifly Road appears with its original name in one spot, a 13-block stretch on the south side of Hackensack that ends in the shadow of a Route 80 overpass.
From there, the road’s name changes to Terrace Avenue in Hasbrouck Heights, to Hackensack Street from Wood-Ridge down to East Rutherford, and finally to Meadow Road in Rutherford, where the Kip home has stood on the same little hill for 274 years.
“It was known as the Newark-Hackensack Turnpike,” Leith said. “Over the years, Polifly Road has lost its identity.”\
In 1900, Orrin Vanderhoven, editor of the Hackensack Republican newspaper, took a walk down the old road. He counted 31 Dutch stone houses, according to his printed account. Today only four remain, including the structures that house the Stony Hill Inn restaurant in Hackensack and the Wood-Ridge Memorial Library, both of which were built by prosperous Dutch families.
The Kip house is the only one constructed before the revolution. It was already at least 33 years old when George Washington led his desperate retreat down Polifly Road, the same retreat that prompted his aide Thomas Paine to write his famous pamphlets as propaganda for the revolutionary cause.
The first one started with this sentence: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Saving the Kip house would involve trials of a different kind. For decades, the property was owned by William Brooks, a former mayor of Rutherford, Leith and Van Winkle said. Today it is owned by Brooks' son Robert, according to state tax records, which value the property at $390,000. The home is occupied by tenants. Efforts to contact Brooks were not successful.
To preserve the home, people like Leith may need to scrounge enough grant money to buy it. They would need to evict the tenants, fix it up and convert it into something new, possibly a museum. None of that work has been done, Leith said.
The borough could also force Madison Hill Properties to incorporate the house into its redevelopment plan. The most expensive option would involve moving the house to another location.
“My hope is for the developer to be given the opportunity to do what they want in the area, but leave that house intact and give it over to the community,” Leith said.
The old homestead looks to be in rough shape, but appearances deceive, said Carla Cielo, a consultant who specializes in historic preservation. Its sagging porticoes can be removed, its roof replaced, the stucco on its exterior walls fixed or scraped off.
Underneath, the stone walls remain solid, Cielo said. With a little work, the place could stand “for another 200 years,” Cielo said, compared with a projected lifespan of 30 years for most modern construction.
The Kip house “can never be duplicated,” Cielo wrote in her report. “Demolition of this home would constitute a significant loss to Rutherford, Bergen County and the state of New Jersey.”
Theodore Van Winkle never lived in the Kip homestead, but he grew up nearby. He remembers standing on the porch as a boy, looking south, and seeing only meadows.
“There were quite a few of these colonial houses around when I was growing up,” he said. “I felt connected to them because my family had lived in them or they knew the people who lived in them.”
Today the scene from the porch is different. You can’t quite see the Burger King, the Popeye’s or the traffic roaring down Route 17, but you can feel them close by, so much noise and rattle.
All those people in all those cars need someplace to live, and an old farmhouse on a hill can shelter only a few. Maybe it’s worth saving anyway.
“It’s a nice, quiet, residential town,” Theodore Van Winkle said. “I love this town. And I don’t want to see it change much.”