METUCHEN – Little did they know when they moved into their new home on Lake Avenue in Metuchen in 2003, Robert and Rebeccah Seely would spend the following 16 years essentially living and breathing Mary Wilkins Freeman.
Freeman at the turn of the century lived in the home and was one of the top two most prolific and beloved authors along with Mark Twain.
The Seelys were instrumental in helping the 151-year-old home reach National Register of Historic Places status, which was made official on Jan. 17. The home is the second individual home to reach such status second to the Ayers-Allen House on Durham Avenue.
Along with the two individual homes, some 160 borough homes are collectively in the Middlesex Avenue-Woodwild Park Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.
Two important things happened when the Seelys moved into their new house in 2003.
First, a book of Mary Wilkins Freeman’s letters was left on the counter in the kitchen by the previous owners after settlement containing biographical information and years of correspondence, some of which describes her impressions and her life in the house, Rebeccah Seely said.
“This was the first we learned of the historical significance of our house,” she said, adding secondly, one morning after they had moved in, the archivist from the Metuchen-Edison Historical Society (MEHS) brought by a picture taken of Freeman sitting on the front steps of the house.
“We were hooked,” she said. “We spent the following 16 years restoring the house and researching Mary Wilkins Freeman and her impressive contribution to the ‘local color’ school of American Literature and her life in Metuchen as a world famous author.”
The Seelys worked with Tyreen Reuter, a board member of MEHS and director of the Borough Improvement League, and Nancy Zerbe, a professional preservationist and president of the Metuchen Historic Preservation Committee, in the nomination process.
Zerbe said the nomination process had to meet certain criteria and a checklist of items, which included finding out how Freeman was portrayed and compared to other writers in the literary world and how much of her writing was done in the house in Metuchen.
Seely said Reuter had been invaluable in providing additional research and a passionate commitment to establishing both the historic significance of the house and the important association of Freeman with Metuchen from 1902 until her death in 1930. Zerbe, she said, supervised and made possible the successful nomination of the house to both the State and National Registers.
Zerbe said the borough essentially had the “female Mark Twain.”
Freeman’s fame during the time she lived in the borough is represented by the news stories, both announcing her new short stories and describing her personal life, that appeared in newspapers around the country.
In June 1902, a Boston newspaper held a contest where they placed photographs of 12 prominent women in their Sunday edition and offered prizes to readers who could correctly identify all 12 women. The following Sunday they announced the women, which included Freeman along with American poet and author Julia Ward Howe; Clara Barton, a pioneering American nurse who founded the American Cross; and two first ladies, Ida Saxton McKinley, wife of William McKinley, 25th president of the United States, and Edith Roosevelt, wife of Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States.
In December 1905, Harper’s magazine president Colonel George Harvey invited the Freemans to a banquet at Delmonico’s in New York City in honor of Samuel Clemens’ (Mark Twain’s) 70th birthday. As reported in The New York Times, when it was time for the 170 guests to proceed into dinner, “Mr. Clemens led the way, with Mrs. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman on his arm.” A photograph in the news article shows Clemens seated at dinner Freeman by his side.
Seely, who is a member of the borough’s Historic Preservation Committee, said the State Historic Preservation Review Board commented the nomination was the best nomination of a property associated with a famous person that had ever been submitted for review.
“Bob and I made a commitment to restore this elegant 151-year-old house and are proud to have been the stewards of its legacy, important to Metuchen and it’s rich history,” she said. “And, we hope that the significant honor of the house being placed on the State and National Historic Registers will ignite a deep appreciation and preservation of Metuchen’s rich architectural history.”
Reuter said she tried to showcase the property wherever possible with the MEHS and featured the home on the Borough Improvement Leagues’ Holiday House Tour.
“Also, [the home] was the setting for one of the interviews on the Travel Channel’s show, The Holzer Files,” she said. “The show was about Hans Holzer’s investigations into our own house, but they needed a place to conduct some taped interviews so what better than the home of Metuchen’s most illustrious author.”
Reuter and her family live in the Ayers-Allen House on Durham Avenue, the other individual borough home on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s wonderful to have the house and the author recognized,” she said. “Nancy should be commended for the brilliant work she did on the nomination, Becky, too.”
The collaboration of work is an example of what was said over 100 years ago in the Metuchen Recorder in 1910, Reuter said – “The honor we enjoy of being known as ‘the brainy borough’ is principally due to the brilliant women who adorn our community.”
During the nomination process, Zerbe represented Metuchen at the town of Brattleboro’s dedication of a plaque in honor of Freeman, who lived in Brattleboro, Vermont, as a young woman. The dedication was part of Brattleboro’s annual Literary Festival in October.
Battleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell read a proclamation from the Vermont Governor Phil Scott declaring Oct. 17, 2019, as Mary Wilkins Freeman Day in Vermont. Following the governor’s proclamation, Zerbe was able to read a letter from Metuchen Mayor Jonathan Busch.
Zerbe said she, along with members of the Metuchen Historic Preservation Committee, Seely and Reuter were very pleased to learn of their successful efforts to have the house placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Our committee’s goal is to assist the borough in historic preservation efforts, including honoring the home of an internationally acclaimed author,” she said.
Contact Kathy Chang at firstname.lastname@example.org.