THREE CENTURIES OF ARCHITECTURE
AND URBANISM IN TEANECK
Mark Alan Hewitt, AIA
Associate Professor of Architecture
New Jersey Institute of Technology
This publication commemorates the centennial of the incorporation of Teaneck as a township in 1895. After many years of consolidated existence, it seceded from Englewood, Ridgefield Park and the boroughs of Leonia and Bogota. Only in the 1920s did the town become fully urbanized with its familiar street grid and commercial centers, a fact which may surprise many residents of this well-ordered community of homes and businesses. New Jersey's hundreds of Progressive-Era municipalities were part of a borough movement which transformed the state from a largely agricultural region into the dense, suburban megalopolis we know today. While the majority of the landmarks to be found in the following pages date from the past 100 years, the 6 ½ mile square township has a history of European settlement dating to the early seventeenth century, and a native American presence stretching back even further.
Teaneck takes its name from "Tee Neck," one of two early Dutch and Huguenot settlements lying within the Kiersted Patent, a 2120 acre tract bounded to the east and west by the Hackensack River and Overpeck Creek. The land was granted following the Dutch-Indian Treaty of 1645 to Sarah Kiersted, who, it is said, learned the native language and befriended Chief Oratam of the Lenni Lenape clan who had long inhabited the territory. She received confirmation of her land rights from Lords Berkeley and Carteret, Proprietors of East Jersey, in 1669 and retained her deed until 1686, but no written records of a permanent settlement exist before 1704. At that time two small agricultural villages were located in the vicinity of Fycke Lane and upon the bluff at Brett Park. The origins of the town's name are not known precisely, but it probably derives from a native American word meaning "villages."
The landscape of this part of Bergen County is distinctive for the high ridge (Teaneck Ridge) which lies between the Overpeck Creek (Tatanqua to the Lenape tribes) and the lower marshy meadows of the Hackensack River. To the east are the dramatic cliffs of the Palisades and to the west the old town of Hackensack and the land routes to the iron mines of the Ramapo Mountains. Robert Erskine, proprietor of the Ringwood mines and George Washington's cartographer, located New Bridge and Tee Neck on his map of the evacuation of Fort Lee by Washington's army in November 1776, one of the first depictions of the settlement landscape. The early Cultural and material characteristics of the area were distinctive, marked by the use of native sandstone by the Dutch builders of the seventeenth century. Agriculture was the mainstay of the settlers here from the 1640s until the late nineteenth century, and the distinctive architectural type was the farmstead. A number of Dutch farmhouses are preserved, and several fine examples are in Teaneck.
During the Revolution much of Bergen County was torn by the divided loyalties of pro-British and pro-Revolutionary forces. Citizens were at the mercy of raiding parties from both sides in search of food, arms and supplies throughout all seven years of the war. Following the end of hostilities the centers of commerce were Hackensack and New Bridge, and to a lesser extent communities along the Hudson, where Teaneck's farmers attended church, sold their goods, and socialized. The leading landowners continued to be the descendants of early Dutch settlers - the Zabriskie, Ackerman, Demarest, Van Buskirk, Van de Linde, and Brinkerhoff names remained prominent for another century. There were 13,000 inhabitants of the county in 1790. Churches in the town of Hackensack and Schralenburgh (today's Bergenfield and Dumont) served the needs of most residents of the area. Two separate neighborhoods grew along early Indian trails, one along the banks of the Hackensack River where a small number of residents built a Lutheran church (the Van Buskirk Cemetery marks the site)- and another along the edge of Overpeck Creek on the east side of the ridge. There were otherwise few public buildings in the area.
Transformation of the county came with the construction of the first railroads in the years before the Civil War. Subsequently the New York Central ran its West Shore Branch line northward, constructing a station in what was then West Englewood. The first commuters in the county built villas and country houses on agricultural properties, where they could retreat from their businesses in New York City. It was then that New Jersey played a major role in the development of America's suburban ideal, cultivated in such publications as The Architecture of Country Houses, by Andrew Jackson Downing (I 85 0), and Frank J. Scott's The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds (I 8 70). In nearby West Orange Andrew Jackson Davis had designed the first planned suburban enclave, Llewellyn Park, where picturesque gardens surrounded comfortable Victorian cottage residences with their characteristic piazzas or verandas. Teaneck's few examples of this dwelling type have largely disappeared, but telltale traces of their presence remain in the landscape and form of the town. Following the Civil War the area maintained its largely agricultural base of large farms and occasional country seats - 1 9 000 acre farms stretched between River Road and the Overpeck. The most significant land transaction in the town's history occurred on April 10, 1865, when a young and ambitious lawyer from New York purchased 88 1/2 acres in what would later become the center of Teaneck. That man was William Walter Phelps, son of the wealthy mercantilist and railroad magnate, John Jay Phelps. When his father died in 1869, the younger Phelps relocated from New York City to his country estate in Bergen County and began to take an active interest in New Jersey, national and later international politics. At the center of the estate he expanded an existing Dutch farmhouse into a rambling, 350-foot-long, somewhat Richardsonian manor dubbed "The Grange." But architecture was not his abiding interest; Phelps was a pioneer in the management and stewardship of land, a trait shared with contemporaries Frederick Law Olmsted and his pupil Charles Eliot. He planted over 600,000 trees on his properties (later to total over 5,000 acres), developed thirty miles of roads through land that had heretofore been in cultivation, and built sixty bridges. He controlled railroads and speculated in real estate in the northern part of the county and throughout the U.S. When he died in 1894 over half of the present township of Teaneck was left in his estate, to be managed by his son and two executors. The largest portions of this land remained undeveloped until the death of Mrs. Phelps in 1920.
Because this major landscaped tract occupied a prime area stretching east to west between Teaneck Road and River Road, Teaneck's early development occurred mainly on the fringes of the present township. Incorporation in 1895 brought the first organized subdivisions, the first municipal services including police and fire brigades, and a political and community organization long desired by residents. This was the age of the streetcar suburb, and Teaneck benefited greatly from the web of trolley and rail lines which ran westward and northward from the Hudson River and Newark's rail hubs. A key intersection developed at Fort Lee Road, on the southern end of town, and it was here that one of the first large subdivisions was constructed under the auspices William Bennett (1841-1912), a Binghamton, N.Y. builder who became the first council chairman in 1895. (Bennett had previously managed the Phelps estate lands). Walter Selvage purchased the 70-acre Brinkerhoff tract and developed his Selvage Addition Subdivision along Teaneck Road in 1901. Between 1900 and 1909 256 new homes were constructed. The town began to take on the characteristics of a garden suburb, with the added attraction that the tree lined streets and verdant landscapes of the Phelps tract formed a kind of park at the heart of the community. By 1910 the Population had increased 200% to over 2,000.
When the Phelps estate opened its holdings and began to sell parcels in 1922, a development boom occurred reflecting that of the greater New York metropolitan area- New York City issued its first regional plan in 1929, a document with far-reaching prescriptions for northern New Jersey, the five boroughs, Connecticut and Long Island. New housing, infrastructure and transportation were major elements in the plan. In this context, Teaneck's planned subdivisions and smaller speculative home tracts may be seen as constituent elements of a vast middle landscape spreading in a ring around New York. Only a few miles distant, in 1926 Clarence Stein (1883-1975) and Henry Wright (1878-1936) designed their experimental new town of Radburn (now Fair Lawn), one of the seminal planning and housing projects of the twentieth century. The design featured a mix of residential types, segregation of pedestrian and auto circulation, greenbelts woven through the housing tracts, and integration of schools, businesses and housing into a multi-layered fabric. in Teaneck, a smaller but very similar venture, the Fred T. Warner subdivision, attempted to create the same sense of community. On a less utopian scale, Teaneck's developers sought to win the hearts of prospective homeowners by offering trim, comfortable dwellings at a modest cost in a community linked by ready transportation to the urban hub of New York City.
By the mid-1920s a hectic real estate boom was underway - 1,065 property transfers were recorded between July 1924 and July 1925 alone. "Three Years Ago Farmland, Today Beautiful Homes," proclaimed one promotional brochure. The dominant style for these houses was "Tudor," a cozy and sentimental variation on old English models of the late 19th century. Districts like the Standish Road subdivision put Teaneck on the map with Mamaroneck, Chestnut Hill, and Great Neck as desirable communities for the aspiring middle income family. Teaneck's Collegiate Gothic high school and Georgian elementary schools reassured residents that children would be reared in the core values America's dominant work ethic. A stately Colonial Revival town hall and library reinforced patriotic virtues. And a friendly, domestically scaled main street commercial district developed along Cedar Lane, in what once was the heart of the Phelps preserve. By 1930 a town had appeared which could rival nearby Ridgewood and Montclair for coherence, convenience and community pride. Moreover, a new transportation linkage would give added incentives to choose Teaneck over rival communities. New Jersey Route 4 and the opening of the George Washington Bridge in 1931 increased the value of Bergen County property despite the worsening economy. During the Depression years up until World War II Teaneck maintained its dramatic population growth, climbing to nearly 20,000. By then the defining years of the town's physical identity had passed, and with them the most significant period of suburbanization in America's history. Teaneck was a part of that historical moment.
Following the long struggle of World War II which consumed the country during the 1940's, the town began its final period of development, building upon the strong armature established by the Phelps tract and the community planning of the interwar years (the first zoning ordinance was passed in 1928). Teaneck had a medical center at Holy Name Hospital, begun in 1924 on the 10-acre Griggs estate owned and occupied by Mrs. Phelps at her death. In 1954 Fairleigh Dickinson University began its Teaneck operations on a river front site along River Road. And parkland, vital to the health of any community, was set aside by astute township officials, much of it according to the original 1933 master plan. By the 1960s there were 11 parks, four separate playgrounds, two long park strips, and nine small circles, all maintained by the township. One of the most far-reaching decisions was the bold concept of purchasing land for an easement along either side of Route 4, providing a necessary greenbelt and insuring privacy for residents in adjacent subdivisions.
The dominant models for post-war housing were garden apartments, split level and ranch style houses, trim colonials, and a few Tudor survivals. Subdivision occurred in areas at the fringes of the township, including the eastern and northwestern edges. The construction of Interstate 80 and its ancillary system of regional highways in the 1970s brought increased traffic, the commercial/residential project at Glenpointe and other development pressures to the township and county. By 1980 development of new land had ceased, and like much of America Teaneck turned to slow growth initiatives and increased planning controls to preserve its quality of life. Bergen County's population was nearly a million, and its infrastructure was strained to the limit by traffic and population expansion. In the mid-1980s New Jersey joined many states in passing enabling legislation for historic preservation. Teaneck entered in the fight to conserve historic and natural resources with the establishment of a Historic Preservation Commission to administer its preservation ordinance.
Teaneck began as landscape held in the balance of ecological and political forces between European settlers and native American cultivators. The treaty made between the Dutch and the Indians in the mid-seventeenth century to divide and share the land depended
Upon the intentions and commitment of both parties to make it work. Similarly, present efforts at conservation, limitation of development and planning also depend upon intention and commitment. This brochure is a celebration of history, heritage and perseverance. It marks the collective memory of a community via the trail of history preserved in artifacts--architecture, landscape, infrastructure, and the telltale creations of our ancestors. In its pages will be found reminders of a past which, though sometimes dimly recalled, will shape the future of this land and its human inhabitants for years to come.