The house in the early 2000s.
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 house in 1945, looking from Moore Street towards Centenary College. You can see the main building peeking out through the trees on the right.
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.
One of the front doors of The President’s House. The house’s address is 407 Moore Street. Centenary College uses 401 Jefferson Street as its address.
The Jefferson Street entrance, c. early 2000s.
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.
The Jefferson Street Foyer in May 28, 1987
Looking into the house from the Jefferson Street Foyer. 1990s
A close-up of part of the mural.
In the dining room there was Indonesian wood paneling, and the rugs there and in the two parlors were made especially for the house.
The dining room as it looked in 1945.
The dining room as it looked in the 1990s.
Beyond the kitchen, the breakfast room included a pressed tin ceiling.
Looking from the kitchen into another room (possibly the breakfast room?). 1990s
Another portion of the kitchen, a long narrow room that stored kitchenware. 1990s
The back parlor of the home had beautiful woodwork trim and an open stairway dominated by a stained glass window.
A photo of students in the back parlor. 1955
President and Mrs. Seay with students in the back parlor in 1959
The back parlor as it looked in the 1990s
The back parlor and stairwell of the President’s House in the 1990s.
The staircase from the back parlor in May 28 1987
The second floor landing, looking at stained glass windows. 1990s
The Front Parlor in 1945
The Front Parlor. May 28 1987
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.
President and Mrs. Seay welcoming guests, 1959.
Students waiting in line for tea in 1960
October 23, 1960: Miss Forbes hands a cup of tea to Midori Iaoki during the first birthday tea of the school year.
October 21, 1961: President and Mrs. Edward W. Seay entertain students, faculty, and guests at tea. Standing from left to right: Martin Bry-Nildsen, Mrs. Seay, Mrs. Norman Grayson, mezzo-soprano Miss Doris Okerson (Mrs. Martin Bry-Nildsen) President Seay, and Norman W. Grayson, chairman of Centenary Junior College’s fine arts division.
November 11, 1962: Guest of honor, Norman Cousins, editor of the “Saturday Review” talking to freshman Grace Helden at the first birthday gathering of the school year. Looking on are freshmen Virginia Dando and Ann Crissman.
November 11, 1962: Mrs. Edward W. Seay, makes a hostess check with freshmen Dayna Kinley and Joan Thompson.
The Bulletin of Centenary Junior College, August 1945, pgs 6, 8.