Hallowed History

Research and photography by Rutgers University–Camden students leads to a historic designation for a 145-year-old Camden County mansion

Lucy Davis, right, a graduate student in history, and undergraduate Jacob Lechner

Seventeen years before Abraham Lincoln moved into the White House, Ephraim Tomlinson and his wife, Sarah, built a three-story Greek Revival brick mansion with a cupola that offered an expansive view of their farm, a saw mill, and a grist mill in what is now the Borough of Stratford in Camden County. The grand edifice with a Greek portico and Ionic columns preceded railroad service in South Jersey and would go on, once it was wired for electricity and no longer used as a residence, to house a maternity hospital, a military academy, a YWCA, and, most recently, a private Christian school. “It has had quite a history,” said Lucy Davis, a Rutgers–Camden history graduate student from Hammonton whose research led to the Tomlinson mansion being placed on the state and federal registers of historic places.

In 2018, three years after the private school closed and the abandoned mansion’s future was uncertain, a request for help in listing the house on state and federal registers received by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) at Rutgers University–Camden became an independent study assignment for Davis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Rutgers–Camden in 2014. A year later, after Davis did exhaustive research and wrote a 55-page, singlespaced report about the house as part of the application for historic designation, it was approved and officially listed on both the New Jersey Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places, which the U.S. Department of Interior describes as a registry of “resources significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, or culture.”

The Tomlinson mansion in Stratford, New Jersey

Charlene Mires, a professor of history and director of MARCH, assigned the project to Davis and oversaw her work. “Nominating a property for the state and national registers of historic places requires the highest level of scholarship, based upon extensive research and deep knowledge of architectural history,” Mires said. “This is a rare achievement for a graduate student, so we are very proud of Lucy Davis’s work to document such an important property.”

Davis was assisted by Jacob Lechner, a studio arts major with a concentration in photography, who took photographs of the house that Davis used in the application. “It was great to use my photography for something good and to help try to preserve a place,” said Lechner, a senior from Medford who will graduate after the fall semester.

Although the house now has status as a historic place, it is not fully protected from the possibility that it could be demolished. The state and national registers offer some financial benefits, such as tax credits, to the owners and the house has a “degree of review and protection” from destruction by public agencies. As of September, the vacant house was privately owned and listed for sale. John Gentless, a former mayor of Stratford and an advocate for saving the house, fears that a developer will not save it. “That would be a shame,” said Gentless, a podiatrist who is a 1979 graduate of Rutgers–Camden. “It is one of Stratford’s oldest buildings.”

For more information about MARCH and historic preservation programs, visit march.rutgers.edu.

Posted in: 2019 Fall, Features

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