The Apple Tree House, also known as the Van Wagenan House, is on Academy Street, just behind the C-Town Market on Bergen Ave. It is one of Jersey City’s oldest and most historic houses.
The location itself is even more deeply rooted in local history. The building plot lines at each of the nearby intersection’s four corners are obviously set back into each of the properties. They are the ghost of the wall around the original settlement, the first European community in New Jersey. The small village was founded by Peter Stuyvesant whose majestic bronze statue was vandalized and removed from that place at the secret orders of Charles Epps, an irresponsible “official” who has since been removed from office.
The Apple Tree House was spared a similar fate as the result of many decades thanks to advocacy by a small group of local patriots. At one point the property even came into the hands of a local bank that intended to replace the building with drive-in teller lanes. Thanks to their persistent efforts, the property is now owned by Jersey City and is presently (winter of 2009/2010) undergoing the final stages of a multi-million dollar restoration.
The house was built on the Harman Van Wagenen Homestead. The property was specified in a deed signed by Peter Stuyvesant in 1658 with the local Lenape natives; located on the west bank of the Hudson River. The treaty property extended from above Weehawken in the north, then south to the Kill van Kull and Constable Hook (now in Bayonne). Later, after the British evicted the Dutch East India Company, it was conveyed to Garet Garretson by English Governor Philip Carteret of New Jersey in 1688.
Garretson changed his surname to Van Wagenen. That reflected the name of his hometown, Wageningen, in present-day Netherlands. The family property passed to Hartman Van Wagenen and his son Jacob Van Wagenen (1819-1903). He was a member of the Consistory of the Dutch Reformed Church on Bergen Avenue where he also served as a deacon.
The original homestead grant of what is now called The Apple Tree House was approximately 100 acres. There was an apple orchard and a cider press. The house currently stands on a much smaller property measuring 72 feet wide by 184 feet deep.
The Dutch Colonial style building on the site dates back to the 1740s and the smaller extension on the west side of the house was added sometime in the 1820s. Archeological evidence dug up immediately west of that extension confirms that there was, early in the building’s life, yet another structure but not connected to the main building.
It was common in those days, for a home of this quality, to place the kitchen in a separate building to limit the consequences of open flame. If it got out of control, the home itself was not involved.
The main two-story, eight-room building of field stone and brick has a gable roof of coursed and random ashlar and brick. It features a brick, three-bay front and a large attic; the wing to the left is a smaller two-story structure with an attic.
During the Revolutionary War, the view across the Hudson River from the Loyalist stronghold of New York presented an opportunity for its use as the headquarters of Lafayette. It was the largest and tallest building on the heights, overlooking the river and provided an ideal vantage point for military reconnaissance. Even today, Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn are easily seen by telescope from the attic window.
The Van Wagenen-Cokelet family owned the property for 279 years until it was sold in April 1947 to Lawrence G. Quinn, a funeral director. The Quinn family owned it for approximately forty years. During that time they restored the exterior and interior of the historic structure that included new heating and air conditioning systems. They also decorated it with authentic
period reproductions of the 1770s.
Architect Dicran Levon Gedickian described the house in 1975 when it was owned by the Quinn family: “The expert craftsmanship of the 18th century descendants of the original Dutch is obvious everywhere. This is outstanding in the cherry-wood floors with wide planks and homemade nails, in the majestic staircase and balustrade of the great front entrance hall and in the elegant ceiling scrollwork of all the rooms” (The Apple Tree House,” Architecture New Jersey )
Legend claims that Washington met Lafayette here on August 24,1779. They shared meals under an apple tree in front of the house and discussed war strategy. The original apple tree was felled during a storm on September 3, 1821, and cut up for souvenirs.
A walking cane made from a branch of the tree with a band of gold and inscription was given to Lafayette in 1824 when he returned to the United States for July 4th celebrations. Lafayette, accompanied by New Jersey Governor Isaac H. Williamson, entered Jersey City in a carriage drawn by four horses and joined a parade to Five Corners, then the center of the community. Here the Dominie John Cornelisen, pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church, presented Lafayette with the cane.
It is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris and has the inscription, “Shaded the hero and his friend Washington in 1779; presented by the Corporation of Bergen in 1824.”
In May 1944, the Jersey City Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution planted another apple tree to replace the original. Some time during the winter of 2009/2010, while the house was undergoing restoration, that tree was destroyed and taken away.
At this point, no one has admitted responsibility for that desecration, however the property is fenced and locked, with only the restoration crews allowed access. The George Washington Society intends to correct that loss when the restoration of the house itself is finished and those who did that damage have left the premises.
As the legend of the Apple Tree House persisted, the house itself continued to deteriorate. After 1950s it had an uncertain future. But its fate began to change after a long campaign to save the house. In 1994, the Hudson County Board of Freeholders approved the purchase of the Apple Tree House for $450,00 with assistance from the Green Acres program and is now leased to Jersey City.
In 2005, using some of the funds available for restoration, the firm of Holt Morgan Russell Architects of Princeton and the Jersey City Historic Preservation Office were able to crack the code on the legend surrounding the house. The unconfirmed legend was finally set aside and how it came about was uncovered.
The legend, it is now believed, began with the writing of a history of Hudson County by Charles Winfield in 1874. His source was a story in the Newark Sentinel about Lafayette’s 1824 return to America. The article reports, “the Rev. John Cornelison of the Reformed Dutch Church of Bergen presented Lafayette with the cane made from the apple tree which stood at the parsonage at Bergen.” Winfield accepted the citation and apparently did not check about the location of the parsonage.
There was another reference about the parsonage in the Washington-Lafayette story that Winfield might have checked. In 1857, Benjamin Taylor wrote “Annals of the Classes of Bergen, of the Reformed Dutch Church and the Churches under Its Care.” The parsonage referred to was at the time at Bergen and Highland avenues. By co-incdence, that is now the location of the third version of the church itself.
By 1874, the year of Winfield’s publication, a new parsonage at the northwest corner of Academy Street and Bergen Avenue (now the site of C-Town Supermarket) was constructed.
According to John Gomez of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, “Winfield, who seemed to confuse the newer parsonage with the older one, resolved that the meal occurred behind the parsonage on the adjacent apple tree-lined Van Wagenen property.”
The legend of the Apple Tree House proved to be a historical fallacy, but it helped conserve the site of the house that may be of greater historical importance. The property mostly untouched from the time of the Bergen settlement of the Dutch holds archeological significance that remains to be investigated.
“Apple-Tree House.” Forum January-February 1976: 30-31.
“Apple Tree House (Van Wagenen House).” Typescript, New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library, 2 pp.
Baldwin, Carly. “New Life for Apple Tree House.” Jersey Journal 18 June 2005.
Fink, Jason. “Ripe for Repairs: Jersey City Officials Vow Renovations to Begin Soon on Apple Tree House.” Jersey Journal 25 February 2004.
Gedickian, Dicran Levon. “The Apple Tree House.” Architecture New Jersey September 1975:16-17.
“Historic Landmark,” Hudson Dispatch 20 February 1957.
Gomez, John. “Taking a Bite Out of Jersey City ‘History.’” Jersey Journal 1 June 2005.
Ryan, Rachael. “Pledge to Save Historic Home.” Jersey Journal 22 January 2003.
“Title Changes First Time Since 1668,” Jersey Journal 3 October 1946.
Weiss, Peter. “Apple Tree House Purchase Approved by Freeholders.” Jersey Journal
23 September 1994.
Winfield, Charles H. History of the County of Hudson, New Jersey. New York: Kennard
& Hay Printing Company, 1874.