Steeped in history, strategically placed between New York and Philadelphia

JOHN SIEVERS


The restored Flemington Courthouse was built on the site of the original courthouse built in 1791.

One wonders what Samuel Fleming would think of the place he once called home.

Long a tourist destination steeped in history, Flemington, N.J., finds itself today at a crossroads.

The fate of the Union Hotel, recently named one of the nation's most endangered historic sites by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is unclear after a developer proposed plans to raze the hotel and several adjacent buildings and replace them with a new hotel, a plaza, apartments, restaurants and retail space with underground parking and a college.

Decades before the hotel was first built in the early 19th century, two men, Daniel Coxe and William Penn, proprietors of what was known as the West Jersey Company, held title to the lands that include Flemington.

In 1756 Fleming bought the land where the borough named after him now sits, building what was first known as Fleming's Tavern.

That structure exists today as the Samuel Fleming House, thanks to preservation efforts by Daughters of the American Revolution.

Historians say Flemington began primarily as a single street and once included what is now Raritan Township.

In 1834 there were at least four churches, a Masonic hall and an academy among some 120 buildings. A post office opened 40 years earlier. The Hall of Records was built in 1870.

Flemington has been the Hunterdon County seat since 1791. The 19th century saw the building of the Flemington Railroad to Lambertville in 1854, the Central Railroad of New Jersey in 1862, and in the 1870s connections with the Easton and Amboy and Lehigh Valley Railroads.

Flemington was an important stop on a road connecting Philadelphia and New York City and it also sat along a road connecting the South Branch of the Raritan River with the Delaware River.

By 1900, Flemington became one of the premier locations in the state as it is located about an hour’s drive from both Philadelphia and New York City. It is well-known for its 19th-century architecture and remains one of the largest historic districts in New Jersey.

The Hunterdon County Courthouse was built in 1828 as a replacement for a courthouse that burned down. The courthouse, along with Flemington itself, became known for the 1935 trial of German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted for the kidnapping and murder of Col. Charles Lindbergh's 20-month old son, Charles Jr.

Lindbergh, who lived on a West Amwell Township estate, became famous in 1927 for flying the Spirit of St. Louis non-stop from New York City to Paris, and the trial in January and February of 1935 captivated the world. The Union Hotel across from the courthouse also became famous during the trial.

Superior Court judges continued to use the Main Street courthouse until late 1996 when they moved to the Hunterdon County Justice Center a few blocks away. The courthouse continues to be used as a community space and Flemington Borough Council has used it when large turnouts for meetings are expected.

The hotel, built on the site of an old stagecoach stop, gets its notoriety for having housed the media, jurors, attorneys and others involved in the trial that took place across the street.

As Flemington approached the 21st century some of the landmarks the borough was known for began disappearing. Some of them were located in adjacent Raritan Township, like the Flemington Fairgrounds, which was home to the Flemington Speedway, the Flemington Fair, and camping. The Flemington Fair moved south and became the Hunterdon County Agricultural and 4-H Fair in East Amwell while the race track was razed to make room for a huge shopping and restaurant complex.

The old historic one-screen movie theater built before World War II was razed to make room for a retail store, which closed in short order. A pharmacy sits there now.

There has been a groundswell of public support to preserve salvageable aspects of the Union Hotel, closed for nearly a decade, and to not totally demolish the building and several other adjacent structures.

Borough officials have designated those buildings as an area in need of redevelopment.

Despite the public push for preservation, borough officials have backed a plan by Jack Cust Jr. It would appear to forever alter the historical character of the downtown area in an attempt to improve the local economy. Part of the plan calls for facades that would mimic the original style of the structures to be demolished.

Critics have accused borough officials of fast-tracking the proposal.
The Cust plan is at odds with the recommendations of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the borough’s own Redevelopment Master Plan.

At this moment it is not known if the history of downtown Flemington will follow the borough into its future.

That's a chapter in Flemington's history that has yet to be written.



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