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SAVING THE HOUSE THAT SYRUP BUILT

By John Gomez, JERSEY JOURNAL COLUMNIST, LEGENDS & LANDMARKS

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of "The Restorers," a special Legends and Landmarks series highlighting outstanding restoration projects in Jersey City.

Some works of architecture are merely remembered, eventually forgotten - others are etched and burned in our memory, taken with us wherever we go.

At the northeast corner of Summit and Manhattan avenues in the Jersey City Heights across from Pershing Field Park, the Joseph H. Rudiger Mansion has made itself known to citizens and passersby for well over a century. If you are from Hudson County, you might even know it as well as you know the Loew's Jersey Theatre in Journal Square or the old Jersey City Medical Center in Bergen Hill.

The mansion's formidable Queen Anne form is inescapable; its presence amid the sycamore tents of the streets and nearby park powerfully felt. But there is more to this iconic landmark than its soaring pillar-rimmed rotunda reveals from the sidewalk.

Fate fills its timber frame. Names, faces and voices from different eras emerge and converge under its front portico. Three extraordinary stories, separated (and yet linked) by a hundred years, are superimposed on site - that of its turn-of-the-century rags-to- riches builder, Joseph Rudiger, who made a fortune in syrup; its talented Ogden Avenue- based architect brothers, Herman and William Nuemann, who designed some of Hudson County's most magnificent homes, churches, bank buildings and factories; and its passionate 21st-century restorer, Hope Susan Baratt, who despite the challenges of bricks-and-mortar conservation has persevered and given new life to one of our finest and most architecturally significant mansions.

THE SYRUP CZAR

In April 1907, what was then The Evening Journal The Jersey Journal's predecessor - took notice of the 21/2-story hipped-roof, conical-towered manor rising at 880 Summit Ave. in the shadow of the newly landscaped Pershing Field Park.

"There are numerous residences in that locality," the newspaper wrote, "but this will surpass all, and doubtless do much to improve the neighborhood and inspire the property owners to follow Mr. Rudiger's example and build equally handsome homes in the vicinity."
Surpass all it did. Rudiger, self-made, was determined to seriously show off his wealth and reflect through grandiloquent vernacular architecture the hard work that was its foundation. His narrative, he felt, was worth celebrating, even if in timber columns.

In the late 19th century he peddled syrup on Central and Webster avenues every day and eventually expanded the business across the Hudson River. His Standard Refining Company of New York became one of the region's largest and most successful sugar refining firms, making him a millionaire and allowing him to retire at the age of 50.

The house had to be over the top and worthy of his name, so he hired two of Hudson County's most prominent architects, Herman and William Nuemann, who had just completed the exquisite St. Paul's Lutheran Church at Five Corners and were working on the First National Bank of Guttenberg.

Herman, the older brother, was born in Germany and settled in America with his parents in the 1870s. In 1874 William was born, in Hoboken, and the next year the family moved to the Heights. Herman started the firm in 1887 at 202 Ogden Ave. and accepted William as partner in 1895 after his return from Berlin, where he had gone to study architecture at the Royal Technical College.

Rudiger's mansion, it turned out, would be Herman's last commission. He died a few months later, before its completion, of pneumonia, leaving William to fend for himself in the brutally competitive architectural scene.

When the house was occupied by Rudiger and his family in 1908, the pillars bracing the rotunda loomed large and drew the attention of all who walked by.

THE OWLS

Exactly a century later, Hope approaches the restoration with a knowledge of what is at stake on Summit Avenue - a standing testament that could easily have been erased and replaced with the type of horrendous cookie-cutter housing we have come to expect.

As she turns the mansion into a three-unit condominium complex, she has accepted the calling of heritage conservation. Her tradesmen on the job have, too, working long hours and crafting missing elements presumed extracted and discarded decades ago to make way for a dreary rooming house.

The mansion's transformation is noticeable from afar. We see hard-hatted workmen moving across the sumptuous grounds. We hear saws and drills droning. Walls are stuffed abundantly with insulation. A three-story steel balcony addition is rising and will blend in with the main edifice.

Outside, a series of cast-stone owls, which once lit up with glowing electric eyes, guard the house. Their vandalized orbs are now empty. Their exposed copper circuitry begs to be rewired - and Hope, cell phone and architectural destiny in hand, is more than willing.

JOHN GOMEZ, founder of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, graduated last month from Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He may be reached at historyrules1999@gmail.com.

© 2008 The Jersey Journal
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