So how does “a child of the ’60s” find her way to the Daughters of the American Revolution?
In the case of Patricia Sanftner, the answer was “kicking and screaming.” Her mother, she says, “joined me up basically against my will, but then as I got involved with it, it was actually a really good fit for for me—it’s a sisterhood.”
Sanftner, the DAR’s state historian, says she came to the DAR with the misconception that it glorified war, but she was wrong. “It took me a long time to realize what the organization was about—the principles are historic preservation, education, and patriotism, and I’ve always been hot on those,” she says. She notes that she was patriotic even during the 1960’s. “My stance had to do with religious tendencies; I’m a Quaker, and being antiwar was a basic Quaker philosophy,” she adds.
Sanftner got herself so involved in the DAR, that today she also serves as curator of the Isaac Watson House, the headquarters of the New Jersey State Society of the National Society of the DAR, where she has just completed supervision of an extensive mold remediation. After being closed to open houses since April 2015, the NJ DAR is celebrating the renovation and reopening of the Isaac Watson House with a rededication and ribbon cutting, Sept. 10, 1 p.m., at 151 Westcott Ave. in Hamilton. The house is right next door to the Tulpehaking Nature Center, which is focused on nature and Native American history.
When Sanftner first saw the house, the core was intact, but it was suffering from neglect. The most profound issue that needed solving, she says, was “in the fact that we didn’t have a dehumidifying system and we are located next to a creek.” A house permeated with moisture meant there was mold throughout.
After reviewing the paper in the basement—“Nothing holds water more than spongy paper,” she says—they got rid of what they didn’t need, and via a grant through Morris County they were able to house and clean the remainder, now stored in the dry attic of the Schuyler-Hamilton House in Morristown.
RestoreCore of Edison did the mold remediation, starting in August 2016. Diane Argraves, DAR honorary state regent, says, “From the attic to the basement, they touched every piece in the house; they sprayed with an antimicrobial agent and wiped it down.” And, Sanftner adds, “Every spoon, every cup, every piece of paneling. It freaked me out when I saw liquid running down my antique furniture.”
RestoreMyClothes of Lemoyne, Pennsylvania, took care of the textiles—quilts, linens, curtains, rugs, and napkins. Altogether the project cost $50,000.
The first Watson to settle in New Jersey, in a log house he built on a bluff facing a creek, was William, a Quaker who in 1684 left England with his children for America “where they could worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience,” according to a DAR history of the Watson House.
Watson served as assessor and constable and his son Isaac as overseer of the highways and constable. After his father’s death, Isaac Watson built the stone house now called the Isaac Watson House to the east of his father’s log house; the house “was plain but substantial as befit a Quaker household. For many years it was the finest in the township,” says the history document.
The house, whose 15-inch walls have weathered the years well, has two rooms on the first floor, each with a very large fireplace, three rooms on the second floor, and a garret under the steep roof whose beam construction suggests that “at least some of the builders were ship’s carpenters.” The original dividing strips in the window sashes were lead, and there is some likelihood that they were removed and melted into bullets for Revolutionary War.
When Isaac died, his property passed to his oldest son, William, who in 1774 divided the property with his son. The last of William’s descendants to live in the house was William’s great-grandson Joseph Watson (1773-1857), with his wife, Susannah West, and 13 children.
Eventually the estate was broken up and ultimately found its way to ownership by Mercer County.
When the NJ DAR was incorporated in 1931, it set up a Founders Committee to secure a state headquarters, and they found the Isaac Watson House and as part of the New Jersey Tercentenary Celebration in 1964 were able to lease it for $1 a year for 99 years from Mercer County. “It was the brainchild of Mary Roebling and her sister Margaret Finley, who was chair at the time; they were instrumental in leasing it from the county.” The committee was also responsible for restoring the house as the state headquarters and appropriating household furnishings from the 18th century, in keeping with the period. The house was formally dedicated on March 18, 1965.
The furnishings in the house all date before 1790, and many are by New Jersey craftspeople. Only a very few, like the Watson family Bible, are original to the house. Other furnishings were heirlooms from DAR members or antiques purchased by DAR chapters or members. Especially lovely are needlework contributed by DAR members, for example, curtains in the parlor embroidered by DAR members in the 1860s.
Of particular note is how the tools in the fireplace meet the same cooking requirements as stoves and ovens today, but with a very different technology. For example, since the heat from a fire is difficult to control, pots hung on trammel hooks with chains that could be lowered and raised so that they are closer and farther from the heat.
Whereas the “keeping room” where the family would hang out, cook, read the paper, is decorated more functionally, the parlor next door is a more formal area whose furniture and decorations are selected to “show how high class” the family was, Sanftner says. The parlor, for example, sported imported china.
A unique parlor item is a chair made from English oak reclaimed from the HMS Augusta, flagship of Admiral Howe, which had sunk off New Jersey. About 100 years ago, when the DAR wanted each state to represent itself in a period room in the national headquarters in Washington, DC, the NJ DAR retrieved the sunken ship, desalinated its wood, and had an Italian artisan in Philadelphia carve it into chairs, board tables, and paneling. The result was a New Jersey room that looked like a late 17th century shipping office in England where many DAR forebears may have booked passage.
Sanftner came to Morristown, where she still lives, at age 9, and she earned a bachelor’s degree at Earlham, a Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana.
Her father, a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry, served as corporate vice president of several different companies. Her mother, an occupational therapist, ended her professional career as a director of sheltered workshops.
Sanftner came to curatorship from two directions. One was via a master’s degree in fine arts at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, followed by a 30-year career as a wardrobe person and costume designer in film, television, and theater.
“As a costumer, you are delving in history all the time,” she says, noting that costumes run the gamut from clothing people wore in caves to imagined clothing of the future. “You become a historian of costuming,” she says. “It took until late the 1980’s for art curators to understand that clothing could actually time a painting. Costumers knew that a lot earlier; we’d been dating clothes off of paintings for centuries.”
Her second motivator was her mother, Phyllis Rena Sanftner, who was curator of Acorn Hall in Morristown and later of the Morristown DAR chapter’s Schuyler-Hamilton House (and which her daughter says she “inherited,” because she also did curatorial work there).
When Sanftner was invited to curate the renovation the Isaac Watson House, built in 1708 and the oldest house in Mercer County, she already had under her belt her work at Schuyler-Hamilton, where, she says, she “had worked closely with Morris County Tourism and had taken it [the house] from a basically unknown object to an object nestled in its historic community.”
As for her role at the Isaac Watson House, which followed, Sanftner says, “The ladies on the Founders Committee were interested in trying to take this house and get it out of the background and come into the mainstream, and they asked me to come on and help find the pathways.”