By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Before becoming an upscale section of Maplewood, some 100 acres of land west of Ridgewood Road belonged to a famous family that produced two U.S. presidents.
The property would eventually change ownership and be turned into a housing development called “Roosevelt Park,” the focus of a history exhibit opening Feb. 26 at the Durand-Hedden House.
“It’s really an allegory of the story of Maplewood. You can pinpoint the development because it was in a defined area,” said Susan Newberry, president of Durand-Hedden, who was still working last week on the exhibit called “After ‘The Hickories,’ Roosevelt Park.”
She and other volunteers have been poring over old, building-department records and other archival material to understand the history and subsequent transformation of farmland into an estate into a neighborhood.
Cornelius Roosevelt, whose nephew, Theodore, would become president, obtained two parcels of land and added a third, Newberry said.
There he built a mansion on an estate known as “The Hickories,” the name coming from the large number of hickory trees on the upper portion of the property.
“Supposedly, the house was built in 1862. We’re not really certain,” she said.
Hickory Drive, today a winding street between Ridgewood Road and Wyoming Avenue, used to be the carriage drive leading to the mansion. Iron gates at the foot of Hickory are from the time when Roosevelt owned the place.
A barn built in 1854 was remade into the home that now stands on Durand Road.
As an asthmatic youth, the future president escaped New York City to stay in the fresh air of the New Jersey countryside. Theodore Roosevelt, who would go on to become a naturalist, wrote of the wildlife that he saw during his visits to his uncle’s estate.
“There are two diary accounts in something called ‘notes on natural history’ where he wrote a list of animals and birds that he would see in the Orange area,” Newberry said.
When Cornelius Roosevelt died in 1887, the property passed to his widow, Laura. After her death in 1902, her estate sold the property for about $50,000 to William H. Curtiss, a developer who lived in the Montrose section of South Orange.
Curtiss, who has a street in Maplewood named after him, never was able to develop the property. In 1904, he sold the land to T. B. Ackerson, a developer in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Rick Wessler, a volunteer researcher on the project, found that “a lot of people moving in were either from other places in Maplewood or East Orange. That really surprised me.”
Homes in Roosevelt Park vary in their architectural styles, a marked contrast to modern, homogenous development, Wessler said.
“It’s really an astonishing area. You couldn’t see that in a development these days,” Wessler said.
Today, there are some 125 homes in a section of Maplewood where a yearly property-tax bill of $30,000 is not uncommon.
While the Roosevelts are long gone, their memory lives on. Two streets in the neighborhood are named after two of Theodore Roosevelt’s sons, Kermit and Quentin.
“That was established early on,” Newberry said. “At that point, Roosevelt was president. The kids were in the news a lot.”
The exhibit, which will be up for a year, will open with an event starting at 1 p.m. at the Durand-Hedden House. For more information, call 973-763-7712.
Philip Sean Curran can be reached at 908-686-7700, ext. 116, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.