By Jane Primerano
When the Allamuchy Township School District proposed buying the former Villa Madonna and converting part of it into a school, the suggestion was met with considerable skepticism.
The elementary school was getting crowded and its proximity to Trout Brook made expansion impossible. The district owned a parcel of land near the township municipal building, but the property was less than ideal and building a whole new school is an expensive proposition.
The former convent was slated for a condominium development but the Highlands Act curtailed any building in the region.
So, defying the objections of some of Allamuchy’s elected officials, the board of education embarked on its grand experiment.
Today, Villa Madonna, rechristened Rutherfurd Hall as it was called when it was a private home, is proving a little imagination can go a long way.
First, a little background. The Hall, which is on the state and national register of historic places, was built in 1903. It was designed by architect Whitney Warren, who also designed Grand Central Terminal for Winthrop Rutherfurd, son of Lewis Morris Rutherfurd and Margaret Chanler Stuyvesant. Winthrop was a descendent of Peter Gerard Stuyvesant.
As if the platinum New York City pedigree wasn’t enough, after the death of his first wife, Winthrop married Lucy Mercer, his children’s nanny. Lucy Mercer had been Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretary when Franklin was secretary of the Navy and her relationship with the future president was close, and continued. Roosevelt visited Lucy at Rugherfurd Hall after Winthrop’s death and while FDR was in the White House. It is the evidence FDR visited Lucy at the Hall that propels much of the local fascination with the building.
Laurie Rapisardi, executive director, is the sole full-time employee. She juggles rentals of the property and programming for the community.
“Everything we do at the house is a history lesson,” Rapisardi said during a recent interview on the patio of the mansion. “Even at weddings, they want to know about the family and the house.”
The house is a perfect setting for weddings, with a brick terrace overlooking Allamuchy Pond and a large ballroom for dancing. It is also rented out for birthday and anniversary parties, showers, bar and bat mitzvas, christening parties and other events.
These rental events help pay the cost of upkeep of the mansion. The Friends of Rutherfurd Hall also raise funds through applying for grants and through charges for events they sponsor.
Summer camps for kids, especially the Percy Jackson and Harry Potter camps are very popular. Another camp presented this summer taught traditional games like kickball, Othello and chess. The camps are run by two Hackettstown High School teachers who recruit their students as counselors. Early campers are now coming back as junior counselors, Rapisardi said.
The monthly “Mommy and Me” painting classes routinely sell out.
The room the nuns used as a chapel is a nice setting for entertainment. Music presented there includes county and western, rock and jazz and comedy nights are also popular.
Series talks have been well attended since the beginning. Many have dealt with the history of the hall or the Rutherfurd family. Others have been on topics of local history: Jim Lee spoke on the Morris Canal, an agricultural expert on local heirloom tomatoes. Other talks originated because the speaker wanted to see the hall, such as Pulitzer-prize winner Jonathan Alter who was sponsored by the New Jersey Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and enjoyed a tour of important sites to the Stuyvesant and Rutherfurd families by hall volunteer Charlie Fineran.
The current series, sponsored by House of the Good Shepherd, brings Centenary University faculty to the hall. Stephen Davis, a theater professor, will speak on arts education; Dr. Lauren Bergey, associate professor of biology, will speak on invasive species. Emilia Phillips, assistant professor of creative writing, will speak on “Why Poetry Still Matters in the 21st Century.”
New Centenary President, David Haney, and his wife, Lisa Baldwin, will be at the hall on Fri., Sept. 30, for a meet and greet.
The Women On the Watch series, run by Sarah Brelbi will continue with Hackettstown Mayor Maria DiGiovanni on Nov. 1.
The fall and winter schedules are full, but Rapisardi is constantly looking for more ways to bring the public into the hall. She is considering flower arranging and dance classes.
Groups schedule breakfast or luncheon meetings and the hall has caterers who regularly work with the groups.
Collections specialist Joan Salvas coordinates history talks. Jessica Taenzer coordinates marketing. Most of the rest of the work at the hall is done by volunteers, many members of the friends group. A foundation to help with fund raising was just launched, Rapisardi said.
The hall is open every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. for tours and group tours can be arranged. Rapisardi welcomes anyone interested to come to see the history and the activities at Rutherfurd Hall.