Architectural Walk: Van Wyck Brooks Historical District
On Sunday, May 20th, 2007 the Historical Society of Plainfield sponsored “An Architectural Walking Tour” in the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District. The guide included descriptions of houses in the district dating from 1803 through the 1930s. With highlights of homes that featured architectural styles popular during the period, such as Shingle, Victorian Vernacular, Queen Anne, Italianate, Jacobethan and French Revival.
The Van Wyck Brooks District is a cohesive neighborhood of early suburban architecture significant in the historical development of Plainfield as a wealthy commuter railroad suburb during the late 19th century. The structures within the district represent fine individual examples of residential buildings from the 1875-1925 period. A number of the residences were designed by New York architects and some, like A.L.C. Marsh, who specialized in "country homes," lived in Plainfield. At least seven houses in the district were featured in the Scientific American between 1893 and 1905. Other homes in the area were singled out in various publications promoting Plainfield. A wide range of late 19th and early 20th century styles is represented in the district, including Italianate, Second Empire, Victorian Gothic, Stick Style, Queen Anne, Shingle Style, Colonial Revival, and Tudor Revival. These are large upper-middle class dwellings, conspicuous symbols of wealth, which are notable for their quality of construction and for their ornamental detailing. The highest overall design quality is exhibited in the Queen Anne and Shingle Style/Colonial Revival houses in the district.
The district is named for the Pulitzer Prize winning author Van Wyck Brooks, who spent his formative years at 563 West Eighth Street, a home built by his Grandfather Ames. In Scenes and Portraits Memories of Childhood and Youth, published in 1954, Brooks refers to Plainfield as the Wall Street Suburb. He goes on to further describe the financial brigands and robber barons who built vast red sandstone castles along the wide tree lined streets. In addition, however, were "the quiet men of money, unobtrusive often to the point of being mousy, whose dwellings lined the street in our corner of the town". In the 1890's Brooks observed there were over one hundred millionaires living in Plainfield.
The Brooks home at 563 West Eighth Street was as Brooks noted "not without some slight architectural pretensions". Later Brooks describes how the home fell at last into more affluent hands and the new owner, Congressman Percy Hamilton Stewart, doubled the house in size and plastered the interior with the panels and doors from an 18th century Scottish manor house that he purchased from the Duveens in London. After the alteration one of Van Wyck Brooks' friends dubbed the house "colonial outside, baronial-inside".