|HISTORY OF THE BANK HOUSE, HACKENSACK, NEW JERSEY |
by Reginald McMahon
The Bank House is located on the north side of Hackensacks historic Green and is, with the exception of the nearby First Reformed Church, the oldest surviving building on the courthouse square. Built about 1831, it is also the earliest structure erected as a banking institution in the City of Hackensack and likely within present Bergen County as well.
The lot on which the Bank House stands was once owned by Judge Peter Zabriskie who built the celebrated Mansion House which on
The financial institution that would make its home on this historic ground began as the Weehawk Banking Company. Incorporated by an act of the New Jersey General Assembly on December 28, 1824, it was to be located in present Hudson County. Capital stock was set at $125,000 with authorization to extend it to $200,000, divided into shares of $50 each.3
Eleven months later, on November 30, 1825, the General Assembly amended the act; ...it shall be lawful for the Weehawk Banking Company, located at Weehawk, to change the name to the Washington Banking Company and to be located at Hackensack.4
The site chosen in Hackensack was the Mansion House. Heirs of Peter Zabriskie, members of the Elmendorf family, had previously sold the premises in 1815 to David Marvin, a physician.5 On February 22, 1826 George Washing-tons traditional birthday Dr. Marvin conveyed the Mansion House and two acres of ground to the Washington Banking Company for $4,500.6
The property fronted on what would later be Washington Place but was then simply described as the northside of the public Green. It extended from the Mansion House on the corner of Main Street, then the Turnpike Road,7 eastward to todays Church Street where the future Bank House would be built. Occupying the site at that time was the Barn of Peter Zabriskie, deceased.8
The new institution began operations in the Mansion House itself; an 1830 map prominently labeled the structure as a Bank.9 According to tradition, repeated through the years in various histories, the Washington Banking Company transacted business in the southwest parlor of the historic building.10
Apparently the directors felt that Hackensack offered opportunity for growth and decided to build a new banking house. A description of the village written in the early 1830s described Hackensack as a pleasant and neat town, stretching through the meadows, on the river, for about a mile in length. It contained about 150 dwellings and 1000 inhabitants, principally of Dutch extraction. There were three churches...two academies, one boarding school for females, ten stores, three taverns, two paint factories, once coach maker
There is no record of the exact year in which the Bank House was erected but a close approximation can be reached by the study of several documents and the architecture of the structure itself.
The aforementioned 1830 map is evidence that it was not yet in existence. The most contemporary reference to the age of the building is given in an 1835 deed for adjacent property that described its west boundary as a lot of land on which is erected a new brick house formerly belonging and in possession of the Washington Banking Company.12 This is not to suggest that it was built in 1835, for the deed states that it was formerly owned by the bank but the inference is clear that it must have been only a few years old at that time.
It was in 1833 that the Washington Banking Company sold the exact same acreage as purchased in 1826 for the sum of $7,00013 $2,500 more than they paid for the premises. The considerable increment reflects more than inflation for those years; there was likely property improvements such as a new building.
Therefore, using the 1830 map and the 1833 sale as documented guidelines, the earliest and most reasonable approximation for the erection of the Bank House would be circa 1831.14 The Federal style of architecture, even though in the closing years of this period, would be compatible with the written record.
After removal of Peter Zabriskies old barn, a new structure was erected on the site. It would be known as the Bank House for generations for it is so named in most subsequent deeds for the premises.
Todays building (36' x 50') is wider and longer than when first constructed due to enlargement in 1909. The Washington Banking Companys structure of the 1830s, however, was tall and narrow, measuring about 23 feet wide and 38 feet in depth. Also, at that time, only the facade was brick with the side and rear walls of frame covered with wood shingles. Some of the shingles are preserved on the original west wall garret and can be inspected from inside the present attic. Modern shingles have since replaced those on the east wall.15
Then, as now, it stood two and one half stories high with the half story garret, or attic, covered with a gambrel roof supported by pegged beams. The roof configuration was not surprising in view of the areas Jersey Dutch architectural heritage which frequently employed the style in houses since before the Revolution.16 The dormer is modern. The simplicity of the exterior was relived by decorative dentil wood moldings under the eaves17 but they were removed in recent times.
The cellar or basement18 foundation also reveals local architectural heritage in the use of sandstone (brownstone) ashlar which had been the building block of Bergen County for generations. In the Bank House this material was also used as lintels over the door and windows and for the front steps. Half the basement is above ground level; perhaps deeper excavation would have invited flooding because of the proximity to tidewater swamp, inlets and creeks which drained into the nearby Hackensack River.
The front entrance was at what was then the southwest corner of the building. An 1898 photograph19 shows two flanking columns suggestive of the Greek Revival style of architecture but likely they were added at a later date.
Beyond the door today is a foyer with a second entrance in typical Federal style with a surround of glass transom and side panel lights or windows overlaid with a design of metal tracery. There are also decorative wood moldings, particularly a square motif which is repeated elsewhere in the house, but again, they likely were made an a future time. However, the door placement in the foyer indicates that it had been moved here from the outside where it may have been part of the original entrance.
Off the hallway, door sled to the two first floor rooms and a rear staircase which provided access to two rooms above. Except for garret and cellar space, the Bank House was essentially a four room structure. It should be noted that the present stairs are not original and are situated within the rear 1909 addition.
The first floor front (south) room contained the Washington Banking Companys vault. Although the door is missing, the vault recess and hinge parts still remain. The four rooms each had a fireplace and two chimneys once surfaced above the garret roof on the east end of the building. The fireplaces were decorative as well as utilitarian and the one on the second floor rear is worthy of note, although altered.
As with most vintage buildings, the Bank House has been remodeled and enlarged over the years. The first significant improvement was the addition of a wing to the west wall. It was staggered back from the original facade about six feet and projected beyond the rear another few feet, measuring about 13 x 35 feet.20 The aforementioned 1898 photograph records it as one story in height with a flat roof and of frame construction. The front had clapboard siding with one door and a window. The year of construction is unknown but it was erected by 1860 for a map of that date depicts its relationship to the original Bank House.21
The wind was demolished for the 1909 brick addition which will be discussed later in this study.
The Washington Banking Company had a comparatively brief existence and today only a few persons can be identified with the institution.
The first president was Robert Campbell, 22 a lawyer born 1766 in Ireland but who lived most of his life in Hackensack. He was admitted to the bar in 1790 and served in the New Jersey State Assembly 1797-98. It is said he was gifted with the powers of eloquence and when citizens of the county were to be addressed on any important question, Robert Campbell was expected to be present as the orator of the day. He died in 1846 at about the age of eighty.23
Another president was John DeGroot, for when the premises were sold a few years later, he signed his name and company title to the deed of conveyance. In addition, he held the mortgage on the bank property soon after it was purchased in 1826.24
Degroot and his wife, Maria, lived for a time in the Township of Hackensack which was east of the river and not to be confused with the present city on the west bank. He had varied business interests25 as well as serving as a Bergen County judge in 1827 and 1833.26
With John DeGroot signing as president, and duly authorized by the Board of Directors, the Washington Banking Company sold the property on February 25, 1833.27 As previously stated, the price for the same acreage as purchased was now $7,000 which likely reflected the recently erected Bank House.
The sale was to New York city broker John E. Solomons, who ten days later deeded the property to John DeGroot personally. The consideration remained the same as well as the acreage with the buildings thereon erected.28
The bank was still in business, however, for there was a note issued by the Washington Banking Company in April of that year. It is of interest that DeGroots title was now treasurer and George W. Youtres was the cashier.29
It was probably sometime later in 1833 that the bank suspended operations and vacated the premises. According to a modern source, it was because of the financial storms of the year.30
However, there is contemporary evidence that some believed it was John DeGroot himself who was directly responsible for the failure. He was taken to task in doggerel verse written by Hackensack resident Henry Blackman which was printed and circulated throughout Bergen County at the time. The Washington Banking Company was not named as such and DeGroots name misspelled, perhaps purposefully. Part of the verse is as follows:31
JOHN DeGROATS EFFIGY.
The bank charter was finally repealed by an act of the General Assembly on February 22, 1843, a date which also fell on Washingtons birthday. The timing was a coincidence since many other New Jersey banks lost their charters at the same time.32
Demarest was an innkeeper and had purchased the former Peter Zabriskie house, now called the Washington Mansion House, from DeGroot some seven weeks earlier 36 and operated it as a hotel and tavern.37 For what purpose he leased the adjacent Bank House is unknown.
Hitchcock owned the property for two years before conveying the premises, commonly called the Bank House, to James H. Brinkerhoff on July 7, 1838. The lot was reduced in size to roughly 25 x 95 feet and the west line was specifically given as the westerly wall or foundation of said Bank House.39
Brinkerhoff paid $3,600 although it was subject to a $500 mortgage previously made by Hitchcock. Brinkerhoff also took out a $1,050 mortgage of his own on the date of purchase.40
Documented in the deed is the origin of Church (now Moore) Street. The east line of the lot was now to be bounded on a new street of thirty feet in width to be opened by...Abraham Hitchcock from the Public Green...to Bridge Street [and the] new street is to be called Church Street.41 Presumably, the road was constructed in 1838 or soon thereafter.
There is no record of when Washington Place was formally designated as a street. It probably originated as a lane leading from Main Street to the entrance of the Mansion House which faced south and the Green. With construction of the Bank House, the lane would have been extended to its entrance near the aforementioned Church Street. Washington Place was first known as Mansion Street.42
Little is known of James H. Brinkerhoff or his use of the property.43 He lived in the Township of Hackensack (east of the river in Teaneck) was forty-nine years old when he made the purchase, married to Anna Ackerman and had ten children. Later, his occupation was given as Assistant Marshall but earlier, in 1806, he was a Bergen County Sheriff.44
Brinkerhoffs mortgages remained outstanding, forcing a sheriffs sale of the premises which were deed to Abraham Westervelt, one of the mortgagees, on June 18, 1841.45
In the following November, Westervelt enlarged the lot with the purchase of two small parcels of adjacent land. The most important of these was a 13-1/2 foot strip that bounded on the west foundation of the Bank House.46 Acquisition of the strip enabled construction of the previously mentioned frame wing which was built by Westervelt sometime after his purchase and before 1860 when it was first shown on a map.47
While it is possible Westervelt erected the wing as a residence, a few years later he made his home a short distance north of the Bank House on Bridge Street.48
His choice of location near the county courthouse was obvious for Westervelt was a Bergen County judge in 1840 and 1842. Later he would serve as Master in Chancery, taking testimony, affidavits, oaths and acknowledgment of deeds.49
Westervelt was married to the former Sarah Zabriskie. having no children of their own he adopted his wifes niece, also named Sarah, who lived with them at their Bridge Street home. When Westervelt wrote his will in 1850, he planned to leave her my home fronting on the public green in Hackensack commonly called the Bank House. Young Sarah predeceased him and in an 1854 codicil to his will, the Bank House was devised to her two sisters, Rachel Ann and Adelia.50
Abraham Westervelt died March 18, 1863, at the age of sixty-nine and was buried in the nearby cemetery of the Church on the Green. The heirs were married women, Rachel to Christian A. Zabriskie and Adelia to William S. Banta.51
William S. (Sickels) Banta was a lawyer and it is possible that his office was in the Bank House. He had previously married youn Sarah, the original devisee of the premises and lived with the Westervelts at their Bridge Street home. After his wifes death he married her sister, Adelia.52
Banta, a graduate of Rutgers College, was admitted to the bar in 1847 and as counselor in 1851. He became a prosecutor, judge, Master and Examiner in Chancery and Supreme Court Commissioner. He also served as President of the Hackensack Gas Light Company and Superintendent of Schools on New Barbadoes Township.53
A year after their benefactors death, Adelia Banta and her sister transferred title to the Bank House on April 23, 1864, to their widowed mother, Caty Ann (Hopper) Zabriskie.54 Daughter Adelia Banta died in 1869 and in the following year Caty Ann sold the premises.55
Cornelius Christie took title to the Bank House on November 10, 1870, for the sum of $5,625. The property was conveyed in two lots, one which contained the original building and the other the adjacent 13-1/2 foot strip with the attached frame addition.56
Christie was born 1835 in what is now the Borough of Leonia and where he continued to reside as a bachelor. A lawyer by profession, he was a graduate of Yale College and had been admitted to the bar in 1860. Later in life Christie became President of the Bergen County Bar Association. Interested in politics, he was elected to the New Jersey Legislature as a state assemblyman and would serve as Mayor of Leonia.57
In 1871 Cornelius Christie abandoned the legal profession to launch a new career which involved the building he had recently purchased. He started a newspaper, The New-Jersey Citizen, with the Printing House located in the former Bank House. Dedicated to the principles of the Democratic Party, Christie as proprietor and editor assured his readers that he printed a family newspaper. Publication began with the first issue dated May 18,1871, first as a weekly and later a semi-weekly. According to an 1876 description, the paper was printed by steam, with a cylinder press, and has in connection with it a well equipped and well appointed job printing office. The machinery and its attendant boiler and coal supply to power the press suggests the printing plant was likely located in the cellar of the old structure.58
Judge Van Valen led an active life, including that of a Civil War soldier with the New Jersey Volunteers in the Army of the Potomac. After the war he organized and was active in Company C of the Second Regiment of the New Jersey National Guard. He also taught school in Bergen County and would later become Chairman of the Hackensack Board of Education. Business enterprises included the book trade in New York City and a wholesale and retail tobacconist operating the Excelsior Cegar Store in Hackensack at the corner of Main and Bergen Streets. The Judges legal profession began with admittance to the bar as an attorney in 1875 and three years later as counselor. Later in life he would become President of the Bergen County Bar Association.61
It is also of interest that in 1900 the Judge edited and revised a one volume History of Bergen County, New Jersey, which is consulted by local historians today (and cited in the end notes of this study).
Van Valen resided on Hudson Street, Hackensack, but his office was in the former Bank House. An 1898 photograph shows the upstairs offices were used by the law firm of Hart and Hart. Another occupant was the Judges eldest son, James A. Van Valen, who was a law student in 1900.62
The tax bill for the Bank House in 1903 amounted to $55.20.63 A year later, on May 19, 1904, Judge James M. (Monroe) Van Valen died two months before his sixty-second birthday. In his will, made many years earlier, he devised all real estate to his wife Anna.64 On September 15, 1909, Anna conveyed the Bank House to son James A. Van Valen who continued to occupy the premises after his fathers death. According to early Hackensack directories, young James was a lawyer but switched business activities to loan broker, real estate and other interests.65
Soon after he gained legal title to the Bank House, James enlarged and renovated the structure. First, the old frame wing was removed. Then a new brick addition widened the building west of the front entrance by 13 feet, providing a new tier of rooms. The rear was also extended by another 12 feet which allowed for two more rooms (one up, one down) as well as a new staircase set further back from its original position. Interior wall and ceiling coverings were of tine with bas-relief design which is still in evidence. Only the rear extension was excavated for cellar space. The roof of the west addition matched the original gambrel style of the 1831 structure.
The improvement was reflected by taxes; in 1909 it was $72.08 but in the following year the amount was $122.08.67
On March 1, 1926, James A. Van Valen sold the premises to John B. (Banta) Zabriskie and Grace (Quackenbush), his wife.68 The Zabriskies resided in Wyckoff in a historic home known as the Van Voorhees-Quackenbush-Zabriskie House which is commemorated by a Bergen County Historical marker.69
Zabriskie was no stranger to the Bank House for he had rented office
In 1948 Judge Zabriskie transferred title to his wife Grace. The Judge died in 1951 and in 1955 the widow sold the premises to the Latomo Corporation who, in turn, conveyed it in 1975 to Michael J. Breslin, Jr., Attorney at Law.72 It has since changed hands several times.
It is apparent that the building was often owned or rented by those in the legal profession, obviously due to its location opposite the Bergen County courthouse. Although in the twentieth century it was sometimes referred to as the Van Valen Building, it is significant that the structures original purpose was usually passed on in conveyances, for even modern deeds reiterated that it was known as the Bank House. A Bergen County Historical Society marker was placed in front of the premises in 1981.
Pictures in order of apppearance: 1. Village of Hackensack about 1831. The Bank House is among the cluster of buildings to the right of the church. NY Historical Society; 2. The Washington Banking Co. was aptly named. Top left George Washington's 1776 HQ, leater known as the Mansion House and first home of the bank. Fore ground is First Reformed churchyard where Washington stood at Gen Enock Poor's burial in 1780. BCHS photo; 3. Bank Notes, 1832 & 1833 4. Bank House and additions, R. McMahon, 1980; 5. Cornelius Christie; 6. James Monroe Van Valen; 7. The Bank House 1983.