How did the Van Vleck House and Gardens come about?
In 1856, the rural village of West Bloomfield, now known as the Township of Montclair, became an integral part of the newly developed and sophisticated railroad system of both Morris and Essex Counties. The trains ran regularly to and from Newark, connecting with the Morris and Essex Railroads for New York. At the time, railroad trains consisted of one locomotive, one baggage car and just two passenger cars, which was ample accommodation for train travel during the 1850’s. The expansion of railroad travel in the area attracted new settlers from New York, who were tempted by the promise of summer vacation rentals as well as new agricultural business.
After almost a decade, it was apparent that the new colonists had discovered a quaint little rural village to call home. One of those settlers, Joseph Van Vleck, arrived in 1872 from Brooklyn, N.Y. with his wife and their nine children. As a business executive for lumber and a mining titan for Phelps Dodge, Van Vleck fell in love with his new country living surroundings and decided to stay. After becoming the Commissioner of Public Roads, he would spend the next decade buying land, moving into different homes, and ultimately settling at the northwest corner of 59 Upper Mountain Avenue.
During this time, the couple welcomed a 10th child, Joseph Jr., and only a few years later in 1886, Van Vleck Sr. died. Joseph Jr. eventually became an architect and helped start the architectural firm Van Vleck & Goldsmith. It seemed that along with his knack for architecture, Joseph Jr. had also inherited a penchant for horticulture. In 1914, the family matriarch, Amanda Van Vleck passed away. Joe Jr. then demolished their small tudor-style home, and rebuilt a Mediterranean-style mansion complete with 30 rooms in its place. The Van Vlecks moved in by 1916, and Joe Jr. decided to pursue his passion for gardening full time, developing a large beautiful garden on their grounds. In the same year, a gorgeous limestone villa was constructed for Howard, the son of Joe Jr. Howard’s love for horticulture grew to be more intense as he became the landscaper for the family property. His passion for horticulture can still be seen today.
In 1993, Howard’s familial heirs donated the entire Van Vleck property to the Montclair Foundation, eventually opening its doors to the viewing public in 1996. Better known today as Van Vleck House and Gardens, this sprawling six-acre property has become a hub for nonprofit organizations to host fund raisers, seminars, meetings and receptions.
Throughout the entire year, visitors are welcome to enjoy the beautiful gardens and architecture of the grounds, where free tours and educational workshops are offered to the public. Mainly featuring ericaceous plants, the most popular flowers are azaleas, rhododendrons, and magnolias. Not to be ignored is the stunning array of wisteria. One of my personal favorites to ogle at are the spooky, but gorgeous vine-like trees and branches that snake around the pillars and gazebos across the property. They seem alive with long, spiny, tendrilous snake-like grasps on these historic structures, as if proclaiming their grip on the property forever.
For over 140 years, the Van Vleck family lived and worked on this land. You can almost feel the history as you walk along the paved pathways throughout. My first visit to this wonderful place left a lasting impression. I have gone three times in the past two years, each visit during a different season, and each time I found myself marveling at the breathtaking spectacle of horticultural and architectural wonder. I look forward to the day when I can visit with my family as well.
Van Vleck House and Gardens is supported by fundraisers and donations, as well as it’s Friends Program. You can become a supporter today by offering a donation, large or small, to help maintain its beauty and splendor. Come visit the gardens for yourself today, located on 21 Van Vleck St. in Montclair, N.J.!
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