On our NJ road trip last weekend, we spent an afternoon in downtown Somerville, NJ, where I once lived – and also where Grenville and I had our first date.
Somerville was settled in colonial times primarily by the Dutch. The early village grew up around a church, courthouse and a tavern built at a crossroads shortly after the American Revolution. There is no known information on how Somerville was named, except that it was known by this name around 1800.
Today, what is called the Somerville Courthouse Green includes 3 historic structures: The First Reformed Church, Somerville Courthouse, and the Lord Memorial Fountain.
At first, a sparsely populated farming community, Somerville grew after the completion of the railroad in the 1840s and development of water power along the Raritan River in the 1850s. It marked its 100th Centennial Anniversary in 2009.
The white marble, domed Somerville courthouse was originally built in 1909 in the neo-classical style. It underwent major restoration in the 1990s. The courthouse has been the scene of several famous trials, including the 1922 Hall-Mills murder trial. In spite of its monumental size, it was once considered for demolition. It was saved by a citizens group and is now on the National Register of Historic Buildings.
The Lord Memorial Fountain was erected in 1909 to honor John Haynes Lord, a well known resident and president of the Second National Bank of Somerville. His sister asked that in memory of her brother the monument be a drinking fountain for “man and beast.” The fountain was designed to resemble a Roman monument; a large basin with bronze chains was placed in the front for horses, while the backside of the fountain had a water fountain for people. Once designed, the fountain was placed in front of the Somerset County Courthouse where it currently remains.
After years of use, the fountain become non-operational for decades. Because of its prominent location, Somerville residents wanted it repaired, a renovation project that took over 8 months.
Somerville’s Main Street (the actual name) includes numerous historical buildings, many of which have housing on the upper floors and retail space along the street level. There are more than 2 dozen specialty and ethnic restaurants offering everything from bagels and pizza to gourmet dining.
A Woolworth’s was located in downtown Somerville. It’s now an antiques store and the original store letters are on display inside.
A Somerville native was Clarence Leroy Van Cleef Jr., better known as actor Lee Van Cleef. NJ native, Ruth Denis, a founder of American dance, made her professional debut at Somerset Hall, a former vaudeville hall on Main Street that’s now a popular Italian eatery.