Take a stroll around downtown Clinton this time of year and you may feel as though you’ve stepped into a Christmas card. There are Dickens-inspired signs that hang on prominent downtown buildings, strolling carolers dressed in Victorian garb, and horse drawn carriages decorated with holiday greens. When it comes to celebrating their historic downtown, Clinton is all in.
“That’s what makes us who we are,” says Councilman Ross Traphagen, who is liaison to the Historic Preservation Commission, when referring to Clinton’s historic architecture. Having grown up in Clinton, Traphagen recalls family stories that highlight the beauty of the town and is determined to preserve it. As one of the youngest elected officials in the state, (he is in his early twenties), Traphagen
wants to give back to the community that he loves. “I began to see developments crop up around town, and I wanted to make sure I had a voice.” Traphagen’s biggest concern is that developers will buy multiple lots with historic structures and build something that is out of character with the surrounding neighborhood.
To that end, on December 8th, Clinton’s Town Council unanimously passed a demolition ordinance that will refer 277 historic structures to the Commission “that reflect 18th and 19th century architecture, industries, and the quality of life.” The ordinance goes on to say that “the Town has shown a significant interest in preserving historic properties and the quality and look of features significant in American history, architecture, and culture. Additionally, to encourage homeowners to renovate with historic integrity, the Town is working with Paul Muir, Executive Director of the Red Mill Museum, on a public-private partnership grant program. The Red Mill manages the funds that are raised through a restrictive account. Muir says he’s already received interest from homeowners. “These grants can help the homeowner with things like putting on the correct trim, and keeping the historic character of a home,” says Muir.
Mr. Muir (Vice President of Preservation New Jersey’s Board of Directors), who grew up in Mountainside, remembers going to the Miller-Cory Museum in nearby Westfield with his father where “his appreciation for historic structures only grew.” After obtaining a business degree, and working in the metal recycling industry, he became executive director of the Red Mill Museum in Clinton, which is often referred to as the most photographed place in New Jersey. The Red Mill Museum Village is an historic, early 19th century mill that connects to the downtown by a bridge over the south branch of the Raritan River. Today, it not only functions as a museum but hosts multiple family events throughout the year.
Muir states that when he came to this position, he wanted to create a community connection. “Clinton is really the downtown for 11 surrounding communities,” he says. “I wanted a place where families can gather and enjoy being on the museum grounds.” These events include historic reenactments, haunted weekends and this time of year, the extremely popular Winter Village at the Festival of Trees.
Commission member and local realtor, Rosemarie Platt says the historic architecture is what attracts families to Clinton and preserving it is important. “It’s the American Dream,” says Platt disputing the belief that young couples only want to buy new construction. “Young homeowners want a house with nooks and crannies and love learning about the home’s eclectic past.” This sentiment is reinforced by her neighbors, a young councilman and his wife, who recently bought the oldest home in town, built in 1732. “The character that’s within a 1700’s home has extra charm,” says the homeowner. “You walk into the living room and see a big stone hearth with its original mantle and beehive oven – you can’t recreate that ambiance in a new build.” And Councilman Traphagen couldn’t be happier with his purchase.
Maria Boyes is a journalist who has written for newspapers across the country and penned a column in the NJ Courier News for several years. As a member of Preservation New Jersey’s Marketing Committee and Chair of the Westfield Historic Preservation Commission, Maria values historic architecture.
She and her husband, Jim, live in a Victorian where they spend their free time, when not working on their home, volunteering for various organizations within their community.