Boxwood Hall property should be preserved, historians say

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With the possible theater and cultural center proposed by the Boxwood Arts committee, Boxwood Hall and its woods would be preserved for public and educational use. Katherine Mansfield Tassini, an official borough historian, gave a brief history of the building to inform the public on why Boxwood Hall is so historical and why it should be preserved.

The house that stands at 65 Haddon Ave. is one of the few remaining 18th century dwellings still standing in Haddonfield. Its structure exists with very few alterations to its original design, as envisioned by its builder, John Estaugh Hopkins, grand-nephew and primary heir of Elizabeth Haddon Estaugh, the founder of Haddonfield.

John built the house in 1799 when he decided to turn over the New Haddonfield mansion to his eldest son, James, and to build a home that would be closer to town for himself, his wife and two unmarried daughters.

John died in 1806. The house continued to be used as a residence that descended through the female line of the family until about 1965 when it was sold out of the family and was used as a professional office for more than 20 years.

The house is one of nine in Haddonfield that are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey. It has been the subject of numerous family histories including a pamphlet published by the Historical Society of Haddonfield called “Boyhood Memories of Boxwood Hall” written by Samuel Nicholson Rhoads, who became a famous naturalist of the late 19th and early 20th century. In his detailed recollections, he emphasizes the diversity of trees, flowers, insects, mammals and birds he began to study while playing in his Grandfather Nicholson’s back yard and led him to become an important naturalist.

“Samuel N. Rhoads ended his reminiscences of Boxwood Hall with the following statement of hope. ‘And thus endeth … my Reminiscences of Boxwood Hall, its endeared people and its spacious and historic grounds. Let us hope they long may endure,’” Tassini quoted.

Tassini said Boxwood Hall is significant for a number of reasons. It is historically significant for its direct connection to the founders of the town and subsequent generations of the family who lived there and gave generously to the community over the centuries; it is architecturally significant for its simplicity of Quaker design and construction; it is important to the Historic District and the Master Plan for the park-like setting that has always surrounded it since its construction in 1799; and it is scientifically and educationally significant for the importance the gardens played in the early education in the natural sciences of the distinguished scientist Samuel Nicholson Rhoads.

In 2014, the borough purchased the 18th-century house along with a 20th-century house and 1.4 surrounding acres for $1.8 million to settle a developer’s lawsuit, which sought to build an apartment complex on the property. The house and its surrounding lot in its entirety were carefully included in the Historic District as a “contributing property,” worthy of the highest level of protection. According to the Haddonfield Historic District ordinance, “Every reasonable effort shall be made to provide a compatible use for a property which requires minimal alteration of the building, structure or site and its environment or to use a property for its originally intended purpose.” It further states “The distinguishing original qualities or character of a building, structure or site and its environment shall not be destroyed.”

The Boxwood Arts committee envisions the heritage-protected building would become gallery space for the Markeim Arts Center. A 365-seat theater to be built behind the house and a multi-purpose space below the theater would include a competition-quality ballroom/dance floor for Dance Haddonfield. A glass-walled lobby between the art gallery and theater is planned to connect the two buildings. The woods at the rear of the property would be preserved and made accessible to the public for cultural and educational purposes.

Though the committee plans to preserve much of the building, Tassini still believes historical integrity of the property would be jeopardized. She felt disheartened by the plans.

“I strongly believe that the house and its setting need to preserved as they now exist. A great deal of time, money and volunteer hours and efforts have gone into the various ordinances that protect this property, and it will all be for nothing if the town, its government and its boards fail to once again take a stand to protect this important historic site,” Tassini said.

If the Boxwood Arts committee plans to go forward with its development plans, the group has a few things it must do first. The property is currently zoned R2 with an R0 overlay, a single-family residence with office district overlay, so an arts center is not a complying use. It would have to go through the various boards of the borough, such as the Historic Preservation Committee, the Zoning Board and the Planning Board, as well as allowing time for public comment.

To learn more about Boxwood Hall and the property visit, the Historical Society of Haddonfield website at haddonfieldhistory.org. To see more about Boxwood Arts visit www.boxwoodarts.org.