Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Baxter Homestead--a Glenwood (and Vernon) Landmark

Ron Dupont

The Vernon Township Historic Preservation Commission, relatively inactive for some three years, has sprung back to action over the last year under the leadership of chairperson Donna Wilson. Moving to Vernon several years ago from West Milford, Wilson brought with her a wealth of experience in historic preservation. She was long active with the Friends of Long Pond Ironworks State Park, and in moving to Vernon quickly became involved in historic preservation here.

Under her guidance, the Historic Preservation Commission has successfully advanced the first new nomination for a Town Historic Landmark in three years. The property in question is the home of Mike and Lisa Taplinger of Glenwood, historically known as the Baxter Homestead. Located on Route 517 in Glenwood, just south of Pochuck Valley Farms, the house has been a Vernon landmark for a century and a half.

Vernon’s Historic Preservation ordinance requires that the Commission review actions that could negatively affect the historic character of an officially registered site—such as alteration, additions, or demolition—at the same time they would normally be reviewed by other Town boards. The intent is to promote and encourage the preservation of historically significant structures while allowing owners to make improvements, repairs, and even convert the use of the structure.

Listing on Vernon Township’s Historic Landmark Registry can only occur with the consent of the owner. Mike Taplinger didn’t have to be convinced to let his house be listed. In fact, it was his idea. He purchased the historic home in 1989, and was immediately intrigued with the history of the property. Over the last decade and a half, he has undertaken the restoration of the exterior of the home, repairing and replacing intricate Victorian gingerbread, scraping and repairing original siding and trim, and returning the home to a traditional color scheme.

Vernon’s landmark registration process is based on that used for the State and National Register of Historic Places, and requires that a property be deemed significant for either archaeology, architecture, history, or its association with significant persons of our past. The Baxter Homestead was deemed significant for its architecture, and for the significance of the Baxters themselves, many of whom went on to notable careers.

The oldest part of the homestead was built c.1816 by Charles Baxter (they sometimes spelled their name Backster, too). The original dwelling was about half the size of the present one, which was the result of an addition, built in 1864 by Charles Baxter’s son John C. Baxter. The large wood frame house has decorative elements from both the Italianate and Gothic Revival styles, and would generally be described as “Folk Victorian.” It represents a well-preserved example of a fairly typical large, upscale farmhouse of a well-to-do Sussex County farmer from the Civil War era, and is architecturally significant for that reason.

It’s also significant for the Baxters themselves. Charles Baxter and his son John C. seemed to have been ordinary, prosperous farmers who led relatively unremarkable lives, but the third generation of Baxters made their mark. This was a time when farming could bring in real wealth, and it afforded the Baxters the ability to advance beyond farming into other endeavors.

Of the third generation of Baxters to live here in the mid-1800s, Charles J. Baxter (1841-1915) started out a schoolteacher and went on to become New Jersey State Superintendent of Schools. His brother John E. Baxter attended the United States Military Academy at West Point, and rose to the rank of Army Colonel. Another brother, George T. Baxter, graduated from Columbia University Law School and worked for the U.S. Treasury Department. All in all, not bad for the sons and grandsons of Sussex County dairy farmers!

After nearly a year of winding its way through the Township bureaucracy, the Historic Landmark Registration for the Baxter Homestead was finally approved by the Town Council in October. Though it was the first Landmark Registration to be advanced for a few years, it won’t be the last. Nominations for at least two more sites are in progress, and the Commission is putting the finishing touches on a master index of some 160 historic sites in Vernon Township. This will serve as a guide for future preservation efforts.

With every recent year seeing the destruction of one or more historic structures in Vernon Township, Commission members are hopeful that the Historic Landmarks Registry, along with their master index of historic sites, can reverse this trend. That is certainly Mike Taplinger’s hope for his home. Some folks might wince at the idea of needing more Township approvals to make changes to their property. But Taplinger was instead looking to the day when he might no longer be around to look out for his house, of which is he is so obviously proud and protective. He states it plainly: “I hope these efforts will result in the preservation of this house for years to come.”

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