The adaptive reuse, preservation and restoration efforts for a Mahlon Fisher masterpiece, the Reading-Large House 119 Main Street in Flemington, has resulted in an innovative and welcoming meeting and business hub in the heart of Hunterdon County. Preservation New Jersey was one of many organizations to visit and enjoy the historic venue for its modern utility, hospitality, and celebration of historic preservation.
On July 30, 2022 PNJ welcomed guests for its Annual meeting and walking tour of Historic Flemington, with the annual meeting held at the Reading-Large House, headquarters of the Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce. The chamber’s next door neighbor is Chris Pickell, AIA, principal of Pickell Architecture at 115 Main Street. Chris led our PNJ tour of Flemington for 40 enthused attendees. A reception followed on Stangl Road at Lone Eagle Brewing Co.
The innovative Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce has grown to over 600 members since its beginnings in 1916. Nearing its 100th year mark, ideas evolved for a new home base.
Chamber President & CEO Chris Phelan spoke about the interests of investing in the county seat of Flemington, and how the chamber board reached their decision to do so.
“We looked at the county’s landscape and needs of the business community, and at the same time for us coming back to the county seat of Flemington was critical. There was a real intentionality to purchase a building, and this space had been blighted for a number of years – but an iconic building in need of restoration. One of the best investments supporting the county’s existing businesses and helping ensure their continued longevity and potential for expansion. Small to midsize companies have the need for resources, additional training and support. As companies become vested they become active in the community, and part of the strategy was the creation of the Center for Business & Entrepreneurship,” he noted.
According to Phelan the business community’s investment of dollars was planned for a facility. Flemington’s Main Street had declined with a high vacancy rate, year after year. But this property and its purpose remained a constant through a few evolutions.
The mansion on Main Street was home to the influential Large family, as notable residents included George Large – president of the NJ State Senate who also played in the first-ever collegiate football game between Princeton and Rutgers on November 6, 1869.
At one point the First National Bank of Hunterdon County was located in the basement of the 119 Main Street mansion. The bank’s vault still remains in the basement. During the recent renovations taken on by the Chamber a chute was discovered, so Flemington area store owners could deposit directly into the vault.
“A lot of business history transpired through these halls. Hunterdon County’s first chartered bank operated out of the front portion of this building. The two families that were early owners of the building – the Readings were key in the establishment of the county, and the second family (the Large’s) were also very connected. For decades, Flemington was a place of great tax incentive and then a tax haven for corporations. The Large’s law firm was a registered agency for over 150 of the nation’s largest businesses. Companies would come here year after year to hold their annual shareholder meetings in the Flemington area, continuing up until 35 years ago,” Phelan explained.
Former Congressmen and NJ Assembly members Leonard Lance and Dick Zimmer once kept an office on the second floor of the Reading-Large House.
In 2018 the Chamber began operations in the building’s front, and a year later construction on the Center for Business & Entrepreneurship took place to create synergy where 10 separate offices previously stood.
Work on the center was completed during the pandemic. The venue now bears Unity Bank’s name as a sports stadium or arena for anchor sponsorship. The interior reception area is named for another prime sponsor – BKC, a Flemington-based CPA firm.
George Eckelmann is the owner of Stangl Factory and general contractor behind the chamber’s restoration of the Reading-Large House and creation of the Center for Business & Entrepreneurship. For decades he’s admired three “magnificent Main Street” buildings courtesy of Mahlon Fisher, a self-taught architect born in 1810 on a Hunterdon County farm.
In addition to the Reading Large House, a Greek Revival Fisher completed in 1847, he built the Doric House (home of the Hunterdon County Historical Society) as well as the John and Philip Reading House (151 Main) which Eckelmann and a partner own. All are listed in downtown Flemington’s State and National Register district, New Jersey’s second-largest historic district after Cape May.
The New Jersey HPO was consulted with all exterior work at 119 Main. Eckelmann said lattice work under the porch, made of different kinds of pine, was rotted – his choice was restoring it with sapele mahogany in the same carving and dimensions.
“Before this project the Large house was in poor condition. Besides complete restoration of the exterior there were tons of structural issues to address inside, and a rebuild of its porch foundation. The preservation program kept all of the front as original as possible. Like with many projects I’ve done, this was a building ready to be torn down – thankfully it was salvaged, repurposed, and serves as a magnificent facility. As a community we’re lucky the chamber came in and decided on doing this,” Eckelmann said.
The Center’s windows were replaced; two ADA-compliant bathrooms were installed as was new insulation, HVAC and LED lighting.
The Chamber installed modern screens, up to 83 inches, on the walls of each room, funded through a grant of $75,000 from the USDA Rural Development for technology, with a 50/50 match for services the Chamber allocated.
Phelan spoke about physical and technical elements that clearly support entrepreneurship and augment the Center’s value.
“Technology adds to the adaptive use of the building for continued office use. There’s some unique plans the Center can do programmatically, and we plan for an ecosystem that serves to bring folks in from different parts of Hunterdon and our neighboring counties.”
He considered how the Center section was used as “trial prep meeting space” by the prosecution in the 1935 Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial. The design by architect Tom Fitzgerald laid out large meeting and conference room spaces in the existing footprint. With a new ADA ramp and parking, the first floor is completely accessible. The rear space served as a law office in the 1800s and it was still in that use until the Chamber purchased the property.
Preservation goals for this Flemington gem continue. George Eckelmann’s team investigated a 1937 HABS (Historic American Building Survey) file for documents and drawings of the house’s former state. They discovered an elaborate trim that adorned the roof when it was built; cresting that remained until the 1960s.
Though the trim was removed nearly 60 years ago, Eckelmann is hopeful funding for a project to restore it takes shape.
Phelan notes the opportunities for the Center to be “a place of resources, collaboration and bringing other educational and training partners to the table.”
He states enhancement and deliverability will be strengths of the Center, citing the Hunterdon Chamber as ‘a nucleus’ for the business community and an eager partner for organizations from the county itself, the Flemington Community Partnership, other merchants’ groups and local nonprofits.
“Although the pandemic changed the way businesses conduct their meetings/training, including more virtual components and hybrid formats, the fundamental of any business remains relationships. The chamber wouldn’t be the voice of business unless we’re connected to businesses. You must build trust in your organization and with others. In our vision, this Center is a space for people to partner, leverage and do business with one another. I believe Unity Bank sees that potential and the longevity of the chamber in the county for the last 106 years,” he said.
On February 21, 2023 the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick group launched their St. Patrick’s Day Parade program by naming its Irishman of the Year, and unveiling the annual commemorative pin – continuing its recent tradition of celebrating landmarks in Hunterdon County. The 2023 pin features the Reading-Large House.
Author, content strategist and historic preservation activist Rikki N. Massand serves as Associate Editor of his hometown Montgomery News in Somerset County. He also covers Hunterdon County government, planning and economic development for The Hunterdon Review newspaper and freelances for multiple tristate area ‘newszines.’
Massand is a regional historian and local advocate in his present municipal government-appointed roles on the Montgomery Township Landmarks Preservation Commission and as township liaison to the Delaware & Raritan Canal Commission. We are proud to announce he was recently appointed as an Advisory member of the Somerset County Cultural & Heritage Commission.
Massand holds master’s degrees from Columbia University and Quinnipiac University. His work has appeared in print titles including China Daily, amNew York, Syosset Advance, AsianWeek and more.