One week ago, a fire of indeterminate cause consumed this building, known to the Centenary College community as “The President’s House”. Many nearby fire departments and agencies responded to the 4:45 pm call, and battled flames until well after midnight. Their hard work and tenacity could not prevent the house from being severely damaged, but undoubtedly prevented the fire from spreading to neighboring homes – not a small feat when you consider the obstacles they had to overcome: intense winds threatened to carry flames to close-by structures and bitter cold caused some of their equipment to freeze!
There has been no decision yet as to the future of this house. It’s been such an important part of Centenary’s history and actually has a very interesting history of its own! The building that Centenary College knows as “The President’s House” was originally part of a much larger home called “Brightstowe”, built in the 1890s by Wheeler Hazard Peckham. The mansion, located in the wealthy Normandy Park section of Morristown, had been sold to railroad baron William M.V. Thorne in the early 1900s. Thorne intended to destroy the building and build an even bigger mansion in its place. Before the Peckhams signed over the title to Thorne, Mrs. Peckham hired carpenters to restore and repair Brightstowe – even though she knew Thorne was going to flatten it!
The Hoffman family learned of the mansion’s impending demolition and had Brightstowe dismantled and parts of it shipped to Hackettstown, where it was reconstructed as 407 Moore Street. Hoffman had enough leftover materials to build a house next door for his mother. Other parts of Brightstowe went elsewhere; the center doors were said to have gone to a funeral home on Speedwell Avenue.
According to an alumni publication from August 1945, Centenary College – then known as Centenary Junior College – purchased the house from the Hoffman family in 1945. The Hoffman family had built the house facing Moore Street but Centenary College considered the main entrance of the President’s House to be on Jefferson Street, facing the campus.
The three-floor home boasted 17 rooms and five fireplaces. The foyer of the house featured an enormous mural painted by Maria Haydon-Buttner, a Centenary art major from the Class of 1985. The mural depicts local scenes of the school and its students.
In the dining room there was Indonesian wood paneling, and the rugs there and in the two parlors were made especially for the house.
Beyond the kitchen, the breakfast room included a pressed tin ceiling.
The back parlor of the home had beautiful woodwork trim and an open stairway dominated by a stained glass window.
Seven presidents used the house, although not every president chose to live in it. The first president to live in the house was President Hurst R. Anderson, who resided there between 1945-1948. The list that follows contains the name of each president and their years of residence/use: Edward W. Seay, 1948-1976; Charles H. Dick, 1976-1984; Stephanie Bennett-Smith, 1984 – 2001; Kenneth Hoyt, 2001-2008; and the current President, Barbara-Jayne Lewthwaite, 2008-present (President Lewthwaite did not use the President’s House as a primary residence, so there was no one inside when the fire started).
Here follows several pictures of students at the President’s House. President Seay held a monthly Birthday Tea for all students and faculty who celebrated birthdays that month. Often guests of the college would also attend. Many former students have fond memories of their time in the President’s House.
The Bulletin of Centenary Junior College, August 1945, pgs 6, 8.