History in Madison

History IN Madison NJ

The Presbyterian Church from 1747 anchored the community, and the earliest settlers were typically Presbyterians of Anglo-American stock who migrated into the area from Long Island, Elizabethtown and Newark, seeking land, commercial opportunities and political autonomy. By the early 19th century, Bottle Hill had a Catholic church as well, founded by French-speaking immigrants, and an academy, or private school, to promote the education of the area’s young men.

The school was called the Madison Academy, after James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and a man of considerable learning and erudition. Locals began to chafe at the intemperate and rustic-sounding name “Bottle Hill” and a movement to rename the community “Madison” for both the former president and the academy was successful by 1834.

Almost as momentous as the change of name to something more genteel was the construction of the Morris and Essex Railroad, and the opening of a railroad station in Madison in 1837. Railroads were the new technology of the day, and the notion of a “commuter” – someone who lived in the country but made their living by daily work in the commercial centers of the city – was a brand new one. With the arrival of the railroad, Madison changed from being a village outside the county seat of Morristown to a vibrant commuter suburb of Newark and New York.

Madison’s natural beauty, with low rolling hills combined with access to a railroad link to the metropolis, brought an evolution to a residentially oriented, suburban-style development from the mid-19th century onward. Commercial development concentrated near the railroad station, defining a core downtown, and large-scale industry never took hold here as it did in many other New Jersey communities. The tight concentration of surviving buildings from the 19th century reflects the fact of the pedestrian-orientation of the town, with neighborhoods established within easy walking distance to the town center and the railroad station. Spread out from the core were the great estates that characterized the Madison-Morristown area at the turn of the 20th century. These were often one residence of many owned by titans of industry who were focused on business in New York City, and spent weekends or a season in a “country house” in Morris County.

The presence of Millionaire’s Row, as Madison Avenue between Madison and Morristown was called in the latter 19th century required not only wealthy owners but legions of staff to run the houses. Immigrants, particularly from Italy, were attracted to Madison for the opportunities to ply traditional skills in landscape gardening and masonry at the estates. They clustered in Madison and in other nearby towns, adding a vibrant new cultural overlay to the town.

Gardening was of course a way of life for many people, but the estates introduced the idea of greenhouses and hothouses as a way to extend the growing season, and of flowers as a culture and a cash crop. Madison became a center for greenhouse cultivation of flowers for the New York florist’s trade. Roses were particularly valued. By the time of Madison’s incorporation as a Borough in 1889, the community became known informally as “The Rose City” for the millions of cut roses sent by train to New York throughout the year. The nickname remains in use, and can be seen in the town’s logo, and in street names like “Rose Avenue” and “Greenhouse Lane” but the last commercial greenhouses closed in the 1970s as airfreight made flowers from warmer climates more economical than those grown locally.

The wealthy and prominent were not disinterested in the activities of the little town of Madison, and in many ways they promoted ideals of the Progressive Movement through direct political influence or philanthropic gifts. The downtown of Madison in particular reflects a strong tradition of local philanthropy. This generosity, reflected in the donation of land in 1877, allowed for the expansion of Waverly Place to the wide, gracious street it is today.

Also of note, the gift of the architecturally beautiful Webb Chapel, helped re-locate the Presbyterian congregation to the center of the downtown in 1887 and the gift of a free public library and park by D. Willis James in 1900. Perhaps the most significant of gifts, the Hartley Dodge Memorial (Town Hall) by Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge in 1935.

Suburban development in the 20th century paralleled the increasing use of the automobile. Land previously farmed or used for greenhouse production of roses became increasingly valuable as the setting for middle and upper-middle-class single-family houses. Many of the 19th century estates were subdivided into housing tracts in this era. The presence of an estate wall or specimen trees or a street name is the only reminder of the former use of the property.

As a mature, built-out community, Madison needs to balance preservation of the past with the necessary development for the future. Almost any new construction will involve demolishing existing structures and sites. Private homeowners have largely been respectful of the architectural traditions of the building stock in town, and there are many well-preserved structures reflecting 18th, 19th, and 20th century styles.

The Historic Preservation Commission, along with the Downtown Development Commission, the Sign and Façade Committee and other groups within town, have worked together to help preserve the character, use and appearance of the vibrant downtown that gives Madison a unique identity in the region.