It would be difficult to find an area of New Jersey that isn't steeped in cultural history. The northeastern seaboard saw the majority of the United States' growth at our country's inception and, it's no wonder that "The Military Capital of the American Revolution" is right in the heart of New Jersey. Morristown holds this honor, and that's just one of the many things that makes this interesting little hamlet worth investigating.
Ye Olde Morristowne
In discussing Morristown's history (as well as its modern-day statistics) it's important to make the distinction between Morristown and Morris Township, as they often get lumped together.
Morristown is a historical city located within Morris Township, an area that comprises the communities of Madison, Chatham, Mendham, Randolph, Chester and Long Valley, among other, smaller towns around the area. The township is a vibrant, interconnected area, and Morristown is often discussed in relation to it. Activities, business opportunities and community news can be found by going to the township website at www.morristownship.com, though for particulars on Morristown, one ought to visit www.morristown.com first.
"Think of the township like a donut," says Jonathan Hancock, a real estate agent with Prudential Real Estate in Morristown. "Morristown proper is in the center of the donut."
In 2000, the population of Morris Township was coming in at about 20,000. The area of Morristown itself is only about 2.9 square miles, however, so the number is significantly smaller within its borders. Morristown is only 39 miles from New York City, and 20 miles from Newark, so it's easy to see that without going too far from a major metropolitan area, one can get a taste of small-town life. Morris County is considered one of the five counties in the "Skylands Region," an area of the country that claims over 60,000 acres of state parkland. To be sure, the vast parklands are one of the many reasons Morristown is a desirable locale for so many. The history of the area has kept the parks safe—there are many reasons the citizens of the region would want to preserve the land.
During the Revolutionary War, the countryside in and around Morristown sheltered the main encampments of the American Continental Army and the Ford Mansion served as headquarters for none other than General George Washington. Washington chose Morristown due to its strategic location; it was close to New York City, had defensible terrain, was near to important communication routes and had easy access to critical resources.
It was also noted that the area had a "supportive community," something that has not changed in more than 200 years since the war. Thankfully, those who came before us realized the importance of keeping these historic locales safe, so the National Park Service declared most of Morristown a National Historic Park—the Ford Mansion is still standing today and is a popular attraction for tourists and history buffs alike.
After the war, Morristown found itself in the thick of an iron boom. Industry flourished in the area, as there were seemingly inexhaustible amounts of ore to be mined, timber to fuel the forges and streams to glean power in order to operate the necessary machinery. Morristown and Morris Township flourished; the population grew steadily and transportation improved. In 1882, however, the industry collapsed, as ore was found to be more easily mined around Lake Superior and many of the mines in the Morristown area were abandoned.
In the years following the collapse, industrialists found ways to get business going again by manufacturing the ore they had—rather than selling straight ore, thus producing goods like nails and foundry equipment. Morristown, in fact, was the place where some of the first parts of the locomotive were manufactured.
By 1900, there weren't just industry folks living in the area, however. Millionaires from New York City had found Morris County, too. Not surprisingly, they fell in love with what they saw as isolated, unspoiled countryside and estates began to be erected at an impressive rate. It was said at one point that during this building boom in the early part of the last century, there were more millionaires living in the one-mile radius of Morris County than anywhere else in the world. This was an impressive distinction, but it didn't last long. In the 1930s and '40s, the largest mansions lining Madison Avenue (or "Millionaire's Row," as it was nicknamed) were largely demolished due to owners' desires to save more of their money after high income taxes and avoid skyrocketing property taxes.
These days, Morristown is home to people of many backgrounds and varying incomes. Industry has changed to focus more on light manufacturing and pharmaceutical research. There is less agricultural business going on and the area has become largely residential. Shopping centers, chain stores and multinational corporations have found their home in Morristown, though the parkland preservation has kept the land from resembling anything close to suburban sprawl. In fact, Hancock says, "Morristown is a village—the community feel is what brought me here. It's a wonderful place to live."
The heart of Morristown, an area called "The Green" is the center square—the hub of the town's commercial goings-on and the site of oft-held parades and holiday festivities. According to Bonnie-Lynne Nadzeika, director of the Morris County Historical Society, townspeople congregate and gravitate towards the town green. "It's the park in the center of town that predates the American Revolution. There are statues there, and you can usually find a hotdog truck. You see the women with babies—it's really a nice place, and Morristown is very safe so it's a great place for families." And, around this area, one can view the district's (largely Georgian) architecture and the historic homes found there.
Speaking of homes, what is the real estate story in Morristown? There's so much to see and do in the "village" one might think prices would be sky high—not too many places boast lush countryside and such close proximity to New York City at the same time.
Morristown, though, does have a wide range of real estate opportunities for whatever your price range—including rental apartments, condominiums and historic homes. Prudential's Hancock noted that a detached, single family home in Morristown (with homes in the township being comparable) started at about $350,000 and went into the million-dollars-and-up range.
"The million-dollar homes are going to be in the historic district," says Hancock. "As for two-bedroom condos, not much is going to come in below $250,000 and those will go up to $500,000."
The condo shopper should note that there are several new condos that have just been built in the area. When asked if there was a lot of new construction going on, however, Hancock said that's not booming, as the areas of Morristown are basically already built out. There is some building on "spot lots," but other than that, buyers will be purchasing older homes, not newer ones. As far as co-ops are concerned, Hancock said that a two-bedroom co-op will be 25 percent to 35 percent lower than a condo price, however there are "very few" in Morristown or surrounding township area.
Condominiums and townhomes are plentiful within the Morris County Skylands region. Broker Carolyn Weiss, of RE/Max Properties Unlimited in Morristown, who specializes in condominium/townhouse sales, says "the market started to boom in 2000 and has gotten very strong" until this summer when prices began to drop slightly. Although the market is still moving briskly, we're not seeing as many bidding wars as you did previously, she explains. Instead of property staying on the market for only days or a week, some are lasting as much as 45 days on the market, she says. Interest rates are still low enough for demand to continue, she believes.
"Morristown—everybody's calling it 'Hoboken-West'," she says, because Hoboken and the surrounding areas are getting built up, the developers and builders are beginning to search westward for buildable land. "Everybody wants to be in Morristown. It has a nice downtown area—we have a lot of museums, community theaters. It's really amazing, especially the young people will say 'I want to be able to walk right to the center of town. Well, you know, and spend $250,000, you're not going to find it.' The prices have gone up tremendously. Basically, it's been booming since 2000."
The result, Weiss says, is that "it's been a convergence of several populations—you've got the baby boomers scaling down, you've always had the empty nesters looking for maintenance-free space, you've got the young first-time buyer who wants to be in Morristown and some of the investors have started to get back into the market."
Within Morristown, there is Twombly Estates, a luxury townhouse condominium community, where prices, according to Weiss, average between $435,000 to $470,000; Convent Mews, in which townhouse units sell for between $320,000 to $360,000; and Belantrae Greens, a gated community, where units go for between $410,000 to $485,000. Townhouse condos in the Rose Arbor development sell for between $400,000 to $412,000 and units in The Moore Estates in Morris Township sell for between $440,000 to upwards of $1 million. Homes in Liberty Greens average between $421,000 to $500,000 and luxury townhouse condominiums at Woodside are $483,000 to $529,000.
Once you're settled in, there's enough to do in Morristown to keep a newcomer busy for quite some time. In most of the vast parkland, trails have been set up for hikers and runners, as well as camping groups for kids involved in one of the many programs run by the park district. In Morristown Historical Park alone, there are 27 miles of preserved trails to explore.
If indoor excitement is more your style, you can tour Acorn Hall, a Victorian mansion built in 1853 which has retained 95 percent of its original furnishings. This structure is also the home of the Morris County Historical Society.
If you're interested in purchasing some of Morristown's history, "There are a lot of antique shops here," says Nadzeika, "which brings in some tourism and you can usually find whatever you need without leaving the town itself."
For cultural attractions slightly more recent, head over to the Grace Fine Art Gallery, specializing in 20th century European and American Impressionists (www.graceartgallery.com) or take a trip to the Morris Museum on Normandy Heights Road for their latest exhibit. The museum's permanent collections cover all the bases; rooms in the museum are packed with artifacts for every taste, from textiles to decorative art, from European oil paintings to sculpture, and even a toy and doll exhibit.
The Frelinghuysen Arboretum—while impossible to pronounce and harder to spell—is a 127-acre preserve that astounds visitors with its pastoral woodland beauty, as well as its formal gardens. Many activities at the arboretum are organized through the Morris County Park Commission, whose headquarters are at the center of the preserve.
Also definitely worth a visit is the Community Theatre of Morristown, which has featured acts like the late, great Ray Charles, Vonda Shepherd and the New Jersey Philharmonic since 1937, and which Nadzeika says is one of her favorite places in town.
"It was a movie theater in the '20s and '30s and was falling apart for a lot of years. A group of concerned citizens got together to restore the building and now the theatre brings in all kinds of entertainment. There are kids' plays produced there, and I saw [folk singer] Art Garfunkel not long ago. There are events year round—it's fabulous."
After enjoying a show at the Community Theater, you can stroll into one of the many fine restaurants located nearby. The Grand Café serves up French contemporary cuisine and you can have your dinner in their quaint courtyard. For a treat, stop in at the Swiss Chalet Bakery and sample one of the items from their case of over 200 fresh baked goods—a cannoli or éclair might be just the thing after a tour through this historic town or a midday hike through the park.
With all that it has going for it, Morristown inspires devotion from many of its residents. "It's fabulous to live here," says Nadzeika. "There is so much history here, so many museums and historical sites, it's an exciting place to be for anyone with an interest in our country's history. And there is history from so many different time periods. There are Civil War reenactments, American Revolution events, you can go to a battlefield if you want to or you can visit a fort. And the other thing that's nice is that the historical community is so good—professionally, it's the perfect place for me."
For more information on Morristown, Morris Township or other areas in the Skylands Region of New Jersey, visit the following sites online at: www.morristownship.com, www.morristown.com or www.nj.morristown.org.
Mary Fons is a freelance writer, performance artist and frequent contributor to The Cooperator.
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