Suburbia Rising: The Changing Landscape of Morris County

By Jeffrey V. Moy, North Jersey History and Genealogy Center

From the late 19th to the early 20th century, a large number of New York City’s elite relocated their households each summer to expansive Morris County estates. Attracted by the abundance of cheap land in a pastoral setting, these families had the luxury of escaping the oppressive heat and pollution of the city, while staying within commuting distance to work thanks to Morristown and Morris Township’s train stations.

Adams and Fairchild’s employees pose outside of the Morristown grocery store in 1886. North Jersey History & Genealogy Center photo collections.

In comparison, working and middle class residents during this time period lived close to their places of employment or worked from home; cities employed the largest number of New Jerseyans and generated the vast majority of wealth within the state. In addition to the factories, office towers, and grand department stores of New York City and Newark, Morris County’s smaller downtowns enjoyed thriving commercial centers where citizens congregated to do business, enjoy entertainment options, worship, and engage with local government.

Remains of the D. Knight House following a 1932 fire. In an age when homes were heated with wood-burning fireplaces and families cooked with coal stoves, many homes fell victim to fire. Expensive Gilded Age estates were often subdivided into residential tracts. North Jersey History & Genealogy Center photo collection.

Following the harsh economic realities of the Great Depression and establishment of the federal income tax, many of the nation’s wealthiest residents could no longer afford multiple sprawling estates, and the numerous staff it took to run and maintain them. These homes were either sold, lay vacant and destitute, or were adapted for re-use.

The Eppler House in New Vernon, 1929. Detached single family homes with a landscaped yard and space for a car epitomized the American Dream during the 20th century. As the nation prospered following World War II, more Americans were lifted up into the middle class. North Jersey History & Genealogy Center photo collection.

Economic and social policies created in response to World War II radically changed Morris County’s landscape. Congress passed the G.I. Bill to encourage fighting-age men to enlist by offering returning veterans access to federally backed home mortgages, thus presenting new opportunities to many who would not otherwise be able to afford their own house. Recipients of the G.I. Bill were also entitled to subsidized college education, propelling millions of Americans into highly skilled and professional careers.

The view at Brookside, NJ, 1929. Prior to the 19th century, Morris County’s abundant land was mostly useful as farmland due to its remote location; however, greater access to home mortgage loans in the 1940s and 1950s, in concert with massive highway construction, made suburban property a valuable commodity. North Jersey History & Genealogy Center photo collections.

After the war, the nation’s economy shifted from one focused on production to that based on consumption, particularly among homeowners. With most land in America’s cities already built up, developers turned to plentiful and cheaper real estate in the suburbs, and this wide scale development created economic benefits nationwide.

Ongoing construction of Interstate 287 as it cuts through Morristown near South Street and Woodland Ave, ca 1971. Large infrastructure projects were politically divisive, particularly when they cut through communities; civic leaders argued the wealth they helped generate would be worth the disruption. North Jersey History & Genealogy Center vertical file.

All aspects of suburbanization fed into the new economy of consumerism: it supported the realtors, lawyers, and local government needed to perform millions of land transactions; paid the thousands of developers and contractors to acquire, subdivide, and build housing tracts; profited the banks who provided credit to support the secondary market for household furnishing, appliances, and decorations; and involved hundreds of millions of state and federal dollars spent constructing new highways and roads that connected suburban developments to cities and new markets, in addition to the automotive industry that sold Americans on the dream of owning one or more cars.

71 Wetmore Avenue, 2006. A typical suburban home in Morristown. Phil Stearns Photographer.

As employers attracted workers from urban cores, Morris County’s population increased 47% between 1960 and 1970, a rate faster than anywhere else in the state. From 1950 to 1970, developers and builders constructed 1,000 housing units per week, totaling 1 million units comprising 2 million square feet.

69 Wetmore Avenue, Morristown, 2006. Phil Stearns Photographer.

Morris County may have lost its Gilded Age residents and their palatial estates, but thanks to the combined efforts of private and government investment, the rise of its middle class suburbs generated levels of wealth previously unheard of.

Sources:

  • Joseph A. Grabas, Owning New Jersey: Historic Tales of War, Property Disputes, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014
  • Maxine Lurie and Richard Viet, eds. New Jersey: A History of the Garden State, Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, 2012
  • Dorrianne R. Perrucci, Morris County: the Progress of Its Legend, Woodland Hills, CA; Windsor Publications, 1983
  • The collections of the North Jersey History & Genealogy Center, Morristown & Morris Township Library

The Changing Landscape of Morris County“, is on view through 2019 in the F.M. Kirby Gallery on the second floor of the Morristown & Morris Township Library.

For a behind the scenes look at our collections and additional information on New Jersey history, follow us on Twitter @NJHistoryCenter and on Tumblr at njhgc.tumblr.com.  

 

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