Saturday, September 29, 2012

100 Years Ago - part 5

A Village of Mansions

While 1912 was the flowering of a golden age in itself, it was, simultaneously, the twilight of an immediately preceding age of prominence, indeed, one grand era upon another. It was a time of transition. This earlier, Victorian era, was built upon the first output of the industrial revolution. The Industrial Revolution had dealt kindly with our town. In its latter stages, it was a time of barely imaginable opulence characterized by lavish displays of wealth, of towering affluence.  While the country at large was awed by the magnificence of the Morgans, Carnegies, Roosevelts and Rockefellers, Belleville had its own cast of characters to be classified as tycoons. It was these people who transformed our town into a graceful village of mansions.

Let us take a deep breath, summon up our best imagining powers, and allow ourselves to see the shadows of what once was in that time when the kings of industry walked the lanes of our village.  We can see it in our minds eye, yet we can hardly believe what we see.  Of course, walking is not the way to go, we must be transported in a fine carriage drawn by a matched pair of high-stepping horses whose hoof beats would sound in unison.  Dressed in our finest Victorian fashions; gentlemen in neat cut suits, vests, cravats and spats, ladies in afternoon frocks, flowers and picture hats; let's not forget to say "How-do" to those in a passing carriage.  Along Main Street, to the East, overlooking hedgerows and between the spikes of hollyhocks, we see; the sparkling waters of the Passaic with its man-sized sturgeons leaping, sailboats drifting, their sails puffed out with clean, fresh breezes and we see the healthful waters for which our resort town were known. To the West we would see one great mansion after another. The  shady streets are lined with stately elms, great oaks and graceful weeping willows.

We see remarkable homes with tall columns mimicking the grandeur of old Athens,  stately English manor houses, Italianate mansions with their prominent towers - a favorite of the period,  grand, imposing Dutch colonials, sea captains fantasies - replicas of villas seen in their world travels, classic Victorians with those wonderfully wide wrap-around verandas all bedecked with ornate gingerbread.  There were riverfront villas with fine docks for their owner's yachts.

Each entrance was finely designed and detailed to ensure you that you were about to enter the residence of someone of consequence, someone who understood elegance.  Awnings shaded almost every elaborately detailed window.  We cannot help but admire the stained glass windows, finely crafted cornices and braces; no fashionable architectural detail was forgotten, the wood crafters art was at its finest. At each manor there are stables with the finest horses, carriage houses with carriages suitable for the royalty of the Industrial Revolution.

Gardening was an art form enjoyed by many a lady of the manor. Everywhere there are beautifully manicured formal gardens, extended grounds, We see trellises crowded with climbing roses, arbors, white picket fences, gazebos, a wide variety of well cared for, delicate blossoms clamoring for our admiration.  Don't be surprised to see an occasional peacock strutting about the grounds.

This is Belleville as it once was, only a hundred years ago.  Our fellow citizens, our predecessors in 1912, were the last to see our town as a village of mansions.  Floods and pollution from up-stream industries took away the pleasantness of it all.  Your author-here-present, while living here in the 1950s and 1960s saw the last, faded remnants of the old mansions.  A couple of old timers, trying to survive as rooming houses, trembled in the wind on Main Street, but were in such poor repair, they could not last. Then, one might still see an abandoned mansion, brown with lack of paint for 40 years, peeking through an overgrowth of weeds, still looking proud and elegant though near collapse; a last and final reminder of a once grand era. They are gone now, all of them.

Surviving images from our Victorian age are few and most of those that do survive are in poor condition, but they must be presented here as they are as no others exist which allow us to peer through a window into this almost forgotten time. Twenty of the old mansions are shown here; do your best to imagine them back to their time of splendor.

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