Throughout the nation, the flourishing of cities and towns in the later half of the 19th century, due in part to the growth of transportation and the influx of immigrants, had a great impact on the areas surrounding the cities. It was no different in central New Jersey.
In the closing decade of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, undeveloped land and farmland on either side of a new “Grand Avenue” in the western part of Ewing began to be developed by businessmen Charles Walker and George L. Howell.
This new district, begun in 1892, was known as Altura, and was the first suburban residential development in Ewing. It led from roughly the Trenton Junction Schoolhouse (built in 1896; now Weidel Realtors, across from West Trenton Train Station) to the crossroads at Birmingham. Walker developed the portion to the west side of Grand Avenue, and Howell developed the portion to the east side of the avenue. (Sorry — those last details were inadvertently reversed in last month’s column).
Families and individuals wishing to enjoy the countryside and less crowded conditions beyond the more densely-developed cities could purchase a parcel of land and build their own home on it. These tracts of land were especially desirable when located within walking distance to a train or trolley line to enable a short commute to work – such as the tracts of land in Altura. Savvy developers were more than happy to sell the land and oversee the construction of a new home, and this was precisely what Walker and Howell did for a fee.
Some of the homes constructed in the area used floor plans and construction plans from architectural “pattern books” that were quite popular at the time. Sears Roebuck and Co., Montgomery Ward and other mail-order supply companies sold not only the floor plans and construction documents, but also the materials needed — from nails to beams to windows and roofs and more — providing a “kit” from which to construct your own home. And if you weren’t sure you could tackle such a task, there were many tradesmen and skilled workers who you could hire to do the work for you.
Over the several decades that this area was being built out, a variety of home styles and types were constructed in the area. They include:
Queen Anne “Victorian” style: Freely expressive, eclectic, asymmetrical homes, often with excessive decorative additions, such as “gingerbread” trim, multiple turrets, decorated chimneys, roof gables in many directions, full-width porches with decorative spindles, textured clapboard or shingle siding, overhangs, and many windows, often with colored, leaded glass.
Colonial revival style: Architectural elements of the earlier Colonial and Georgian architectural styles (18th century) were revived in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and updated for contemporary convenience. Colonial revival is a more formal style, and was quite popular in the first half of the 20th century, especially on the east coast, in celebrating and imitating local examples of historic architecture. Elements include one or two stories with a symmetrical facade and a formal entrance often with a pediment (triangular area above the door), double-hung windows, classic (free-standing) columns or pilasters (attached columns), sidelights, even side porches or sunrooms.
Arts and Crafts Style, or “Craftsman” homes were designed in response to the excesses of Queen Anne style homes, and emphasized the work of individual craftsmen, decorative arts, and the value of hand-made details. Their exteriors were relatively simple and informal; but like a geode, their interiors were showpieces, containing finely detailed woodwork, windows and trim, and expert craftsmanship.
Altura developed slowly but steadily from the 1890s through the 1920s. Howell went bankrupt in 1911, and progress slowed a bit after that. In the 1920s, immigrant workers, mainly Italian railroad workers, began moving into the area, and more modest Cape Cod and bungalow-style homes were built.
The next time you’re in West Trenton, drive down Grand Avenue, and see if you can spot the different styles of homes that were built in Ewing’s first suburban residential development.