Remembering The Hopewell Inn, Hopewell Borough in Mercer County NJ

By Rikki Massand, MS/CHP 

On Wednesday May 3, the Hopewell Public Library’s “Wednesday Night Out” speaker series at Hopewell Theater featured a look at the recently demolished, fondly remembered Hopewell Inn in the historic and charming borough. Hopewell is a designated village center in western Mercer County at the foot of the Sourland Mountains.

Doug Dixon, a board member of co-sponsoring nonprofit organizations The Hopewell Museum and the Hopewell Valley Historical Society, took the audience in-person and on Zoom through the Inn’s history over 120 years up to its ultimate fate. The Hopewell Inn was demolished in summer 2022 and locals advise that a mixed use building, with an upscale restaurant and apartments above, will supplant it, “invoking a historically familiar design based on the heyday of the building around the 1930s,” stated on the Hopewell Valley History Project website.

A presentation by Doug Dixon of over 120 years of history at The Hopewell Inn

The Hopewell Inn at the corner of Broad Street and Seminary Avenue, next to the Hopewell Borough Library, began as a three-story structure under a full-story Second Empire building with a mansard roof featuring dormer windows and decorative scrolls at the base. Its first iteration had a full-width front porch and stairs. Its original columns on the porch were square with decorative brackets on top. The building started its life with ¾ height windows on the front and side of its first and second floors. The iconic hitching posts, which line Hopewell Borough’s Broad Street today, were “curbside” in front.

The Inn’s top floor featured four-corner rooms, and the second story featured an unusual front door at its center, symmetrical with the first-floor main door for the dining room. With a left door leading to the bar room, the building’s left side was smaller than its right side. Dixon said the ratio came into decision-making as future owners renovated and reused the building. The original foundation of the Inn had an incredible mix of stones of various sizes and shapes, as well as bricks. In later years, newer foundations of the building created a hodge-podge base.

Four different design eras of the building were covered by Dixon, outlining the structure’s use and conditions from 1875 through its demolition in 2022. Its origin with traditional Second Empire architecture and the porch facing Broad Street (Route 518) were noted. The Hopewell Inn’s 1st floor had four rooms, one in each corner. An old view from the Seminary Avenue side of the Hopewell Inn showed the mansard roof as only on the front of the building, as the back portion was only two stories, suggesting it was an addition.

On May 3 Dixon challenged attendees to guess how many rooms were built on the Inn’s 2nd floor. People were surprised to learn the Inn had 10 rooms on the 2nd floor – eight guest rooms, two bathrooms and two in-room bathrooms crammed into the building.

“The 2nd floor’s right side had two corner rooms (on the Broad Street side) that were the two largest rooms and each had an in-room bathroom. There were in-between rooms, and back corner room #4 had the back steps going up to it to create a little suite. For a period of time the owners of the building lived below, on the Inn’s left side, and maybe it was their back stairs to the 2nd floor bedrooms. Rooms 5 and 6 are in the back, and 7 and 8 were crammed in, ‘stepchild’ rooms with a bathroom serving both…the unfortunate part to notice, but upstairs is a total loss – there was nothing historical about the upstairs remaining in our photos – no historic molding, no utilities like radiators or electrical. All of it was wiped away in the series of renovations before the demolition,” Dixon explained.

In 1883, Mrs. M.A. Carter opened the Inn as a millinery and fancy goods store, which operated for at least a decade using the Seminary Avenue side as its entrance. Dixon presented an 1880s ad for the store’s Grand Opening which was an extravagant affair. Shopping departments were described as “the latest styles were received daily from New York City.”

There were hints left with pieces of plaster and a room color, as well as a piece of wallpaper found in one of the closets. “The closet doors in the Inn were these solid wood doors with really interesting door hardware, but we do not know anything about them,” Dixon said.

He presented the first known image of the historic building from 1887 from a detailed, panoramic map drawn by T.M. Fowler. The first photo of the building from 1897 was also presented, followed by the timeline of entrepreneurs who operated the historic Inn as a hotel, restaurant and bar.

“In 1893 Andrew Cray, who grew up on a Hopewell Township farm, bought the property and converted it into the Central Hotel, and the term lasted for about 50 years. As an entrepreneur by 1882 he was running the Oyster Saloon on Princeton Avenue, which he advertised as having sold 7,000 oysters in one month. By 1889 he was operating the Hopewell House Hotel, a building which still stands down Broad Street, now as a liquor store. After purchasing the Inn he converted it to a hotel, moved in the Oyster Saloon and put in a bar and living complex,” Dixon shared.

In 1899 John Corcoran acquired the Central Hotel from Andrew Cray. Corcoran grew up on a Hunterdon County farm after immigrating from Ireland as a child in 1853, and he became Hunterdon County Sheriff before entering the hotel business, operating a Milford hotel. “Corcoran expanded the original square mansard roof Inn building with the addition to the back, with the wrap-around porch and side entrance,” Dixon said.

The presentation included a video from inside the old tap-room, U-shaped bar which contrasted the sit-down and outdoor dining of Hopewell Bistro restaurant.

PNJ’s summer 2020 Preservation Perspectives newsletter offered an overview of the Hopewell Valley History Project, as an ad hoc volunteer group of over 120 contributors continue to compile loads of information, photographs, documents and archives, “ to gather as much Hopewell history as we can find and get it digitized” according to Doug Dixon.

Doug Dixon speaks about the Hopewell Valley History Project

The call for old pictures, maps and images, documents, and local family or business memorabilia remains open as the archiving project continues. To date the History Project has amassed over 500 documents and maps, over 3,000 images and videos and many other materials online. With a tremendous amount of information collected and digitally scanned, research reports (a series titled History Briefs) are being produced by the Hopewell Valley Historical Society.

The History Brief on the Hopewell Inn, for example, is a 30-page report but a one-page PDF file on such historic sites can easily be downloaded, Dixon explained. Access to all this material is free.

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.