The historic Hunt House is now home to the Mercer County Park Commission offices. (Staff photo by Joe Emanski.)
When Noah Hunt constructed his home along what is now Blackwell Road in the 1760s, the building was no ordinary structure.
Its size and grand decor easily alerted passersby to the wealth of the Hunt family, wealth that Noah Hunt would have created for himself by farming the previously unturned land on his property.
Throughout the years, the house has remained a local landmark on the border of Lawrence and Hopewell, easily noticeable for travelers of the winding roads through Mercer Meadows. Now the house, which was restored and renovated as a historical structure, serves as a rest stop for travelers on the Lawrence Hopewell Trail and has also been the site of the Mercer County Park Commission’s offices since 2011.
The house’s historical architecture is still recognized today, most recently at Mercer County’s day-long symposium, Mercer by Architecture, Aug. 9 and Historic Mercer Open House Weekend Aug. 10-11, as part of the county’s 175th anniversary celebration.
Noah Hunt was the first to build a home and farm the land at the current Hunt house property. His family had previously owned land at another Hopewell farm, which had been left to Noah in a will. Instead, Noah sold the property and built the first section of the current Hunt house in about 1760.
The house evolved over the years with several additions. In roughly 1765, Noah added a larger addition to the first building, raising the roof of the original structure to make one large building. Even today, that evolution is visible; the two, second-floor front windows on the left side of the house are lower than the three windows on the right.
Throughout the years, several smaller additions were also built onto the house.
Noah only had one son, Stephen, who took over the property when Noah died in 1805. Stephen married a distant cousin Ruth Hunt, and the couple had two children, though it is believed the children died, according to David Blackwell, an officer of the Hopewell Valley Historical Society.
Ruth was left to run the property by herself after Stephen died in 1825. Because their children had not survived, the house was next passed on to Ruth’s cousin, Asa Hunt.
In the early 1900s, Asa Hunt’s oldest son Stephen sold the farm to Cornell Blackwell, the last resident to farm the property until he sold it to the county around 1950.
Although the Hunt family was very influential and one of the wealthiest in Hopewell Township in the 1800s, few artifacts have been found in the house from them.
Part of the reason why, David Blackwell said, is that their money would have been spent on more practical things: most obviously the size of the house and its decor, but also on necessities like a new carriage or farm tools. Wealthy farmers at the time often invested money, too, lending it out with interest to many individuals.
However, there have been a few interesting finds relating to the family, Blackwell said, such as drawings and calculations in a sewn paper notebook discovered in the house by its last owner, Cornell Blackwell. The calculations seemed to be advanced trigonometry, and Blackwell guessed Hunt had used them to determine the expansive acreage of the property.
Though the size of the property was also impressive, much of it would not have been used at the same time.
At the time Noah Hunt farmed the property, all farming was done by hand, making labor more difficult and time consuming. And, as a result, not as much land could be farmed at one time.
“The amount he could actually farm would be small, it might only be 20 or 30 acres,” Blackwell said. “What he would typically do then was use 20 or 30 acres for a while, and when productivity went down, he would just go to another patch on the same property.”
Wheat was the main crop farmed on the property, from the time Noah Hunt first purchased the land to the time Cornell Blackwell sold it. Wheat was the “cash crop” of the time, Blackwell said, and was sold out of Philadelphia to the international wheat market.
The extensive farmland now remains as preserved open space, and since 2011, the Mercer County Park Commission has used the Hunt House to house its offices.
But it was only about a decade ago that the once grand house had been in a state of extreme disrepair. After Cornell Blackwell had farmed the land until about 1950, he sold the property to Mercer County. The house was rented out to tenants for a number of years, until about 1995, when the county boarded up the house, and the property remained vacant.
During that time, it was subject to many detrimental conditions. The empty building attracted thieves, partiers and vandals—by the time Michael Mills, of Mills + Schnoering Architects, came on the scene to perform the structure analysis, various pieces of hardware, including doors, hinges, moldings and more, had been stripped from the house, and symbols and graffiti were found painted on the walls, he said.
Water damage was also an issue in the house, partly due to extensive damage to the roof that Mills believes was the work of raccoons.
The restoration project began in 2003 after the county had already purchased the surrounding land now known as Mercer Meadows, county executive Brian Hughes said, and was looking for a headquarters to draw together the areas of Rosedale Park, Mercer Meadows and the Lawrence Hopewell Trail.
The project started with a historic structure report, Mills said. Because of the historic nature of the property, an extensive look at the history and archeology of the site was also necessary.
Materials used in the construction of the house, including paint, were analyzed to determine how the building had been used over time and how best to restore the house.
Because the house is a local, state and national historic landmark, the restoration had to follow specific guidelines, Mill said. The team of architects got to work with consultant Hunter Research, who advised which areas of the property might be historically sensitive so the architects didn’t disturb them.
Even in its dilapidated state, the house, which was among the first to introduce the Georgian style of architecture to Hopewell Township, probably remained standing throughout the years of neglect because of the impressive building techniques used.
“It was so substantially built at the time, well above the buildings that were built at the same time, that that was really the only reason it survived [the neglect] it went through,” Blackwell said.
Houses in the 18th century were built to last because of the materials and how they were used. Much of the structure was made with hand-hewn oak timbers; the large beams were used in constructing queen post architecture, which uses two central supporting posts instead of one.
“The earliest sections of the house survived better than the later sections did,” Mills said. “It was easier to fix them because it was more of [the materials] there.”
Blackwell said the Hunt house still stood taller, wider and deeper than other homes built at that time. Its Georgian architecture also featured a front parlor and a back parlor, with a side hallway connecting the two.
However, other Georgian style homes in the area helped the architects get a sense of some features that might have originally been part of the Hunt house. An existing porch at the Glencairn house on US 206 in Lawrence, which was built at about the same time, served as a model for a porch added to the Hunt house during the restoration, Mills said.
Historic paint analyst Frank Welsh was even able to determine the original colors of the house, including grays, beiges and greens, with black baseboards.
Funding for the restoration cost came from the county’s Open Space and Historic Preservation Trust Fund and grants from the New Jersey Historic Trust, and New Jersey Preservation Trust Fund, which amounted to about $2.1 million, Hughes said.
Of course, the restoration did have to add in some modern amenities to make the first floor wheelchair-accessible, Mills said. Public restrooms and a park office were also included in the new design for visitors traveling through the parks.
“The fact that it’s being used is a very good thing…there’s so many house museums that if you tried to save every historic house and make it into a museum, it would be too much,” Mills said.
“It’s a beautiful site that now people can have more access to and appreciate. That’s really important.”