A Notable Family Mansion

Reprinted from the Allentown Messenger dated August 3, 1911:


Among the noted old-time dwellings to be seen in this section of New Jersey might be mentioned the Imlay mansion at Allentown, Monmouth county, which stands as sound and solid as when first erected 121 years ago.


This well-preserved dwelling was built in 1790 by John Imlay, a retired merchant of Philadelphia, who passed the latter part of his life in this home. Mr. Imlay was born near Allentown [New Sharon] in 1740, and at an early age went to Philadelphia, where he began his business career in a mercantile establishment.


About the beginning of the Revolutionary War, in connection with a co-partner, he founded a general commission house. In addition to this, later on, they became engaged in the foreign shipping trade, their vessels plying to various ports in the West India islands. Owing to the continuance of the war for several years their vessels were in constant danger from British cruisers, and some only escaped capture by running from protection under the guns of the Danish fort on the island of St. Croix.


After a successful business career of several years, Mr. Imlay retired to his native place and built the mansion which has long been the admiration of builders and others for the superior character of both its exterior and interior workmanship.


The house is a wooden structure, with framework of kiln-dried oak, and the floors are laid with narrow boards of heart-pine. Of the fifteen rooms in the dwelling eleven have open fireplaces, the huge one in the kitchen still containing the ancient crane and pot-hooks intact.


A feature of the halls is the broad and easy ascending stairway leading to the third floor. It has been handed down that a practical stair builder was employed for six months in putting up this handsome piece of work, prominent in which are the unsupported landings at every turn of the stairs.


Some of the more noticeable examples of old-time carpentry are to be found in the parlor with its elaborate hand-carved cornices, wainscoting and panel work above the fireplace; also one in the bed chambers on the second floor.


But by far the most interesting feature in this old dwelling is the parlor wall paper [since acquired and removed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art], which was put on 117 years ago, only four years after the completion of the building. The paper was purchased by Mr. Imlay from William Poyntett, of Philadelphia, who imported it from London. The bill of sale has been carefully preserved and can be seen enclosed in a frame and covered with glass. The bill bears date April 18, 1704, the amount being L 13.3.6, this amount including that paid for the paper in the room over the parlor, which was put on at the same time.


Differing from the modern method, the paper was cut and laid on in small squares, probably for more convenience in handling. The pattern is a pleasing one, fruit, flowers, birds, festoons, etc., being liberally used by the old-time designer. Both papers are still in good condition, retaining their brightness to a remarkable degree, and bid fair to last through many years of the future.


Mr. Imlay’s death occurred in 1813, when the property by entailment passed into possession of his son, William Imlay. Since the latter’s decease, in 1880, the premises have been held by his son-in-law Jonathan Fisk, of Trenton; his widow, Mary A. Fisk; and the present occupant, Mrs. Emma Gordon, a relative of Mrs. Fisk.


During the silkworm craze that once swept through this portion of the country the above William Imlay, who was then the occupant of the homestead, became much interested in the new industry and he soon engaged in it largely himself, establishing a cocoonery for that purpose.


Among those who sometimes called on Mr. Imlay to watch his operations was Prince Lucien Murat, a nephew of Joseph Bonaparte, both of these French exiles then being residents of Bordentown. The breeding of silkworms seemed to have a fascination for the Prince and he desired to obtain all possible information on the subject by a personal visit.


The extensive grounds at the rear of Miss Gordon’s contain an old-fashioned flower garden where floral beauties of the olden time are still cultivated. Among these may be seen thrifty damask rose bush now about 100 years old, the same having been there and in bearing when the said William Imlay brought his young bride to his home in 1813, and where they first commenced housekeeping in that year.


There are a number of pieces of hardwood furniture in the various rooms of this house that are still in perfect condition after all their years of use, they being of the original lot bought when the house was first furnished [some displayed at the Winterthur Museum]. One of the most interesting of these is a “grandfather’s” clock which still stands in its original place in the corner of the room where it has solemnly ticked the hours for over a century.


There are also many rare and curious relics of the past century that have been carefully treasured through the four generations that have dwelt within these walls. Many of them are former articles of household use which in past times where considered indispensable to comfortable living, but which under modern conditions of life serve only as interesting reminders of days that are gone. C. H. F.