Source: Teaneck Shopper, Wednesday, 8/5/1970.
The William Walter Phelps Mansion "The Grange"
By Mrs. Mildred Taylor
Teaneck was a pleasant farming community in the latter half of the 19th century. There were 35 farms between Liberty and Fort Lee Roads with mileposts all the way from Jersey City to Tappan. Teaneck Road was a sweet sight in the spring when cherry, peach, pear and apple blossoms perfumed the air.
John V. H. Terhune operated a saw and grist mill in Fycke Woods below Teaneck Road at about Johnson Avenue. A creek ran through the Fycke to the Overpeck in the vicinity of the present Thomas Jefferson Junior High School. One of the stones from Terhune's mill is now a doorstep at the Teaneck Public Library.
This was the atmosphere in Teaneck when William Walter Phelps arrived. He came in a horse-drawn station wagon, draped in mouring for President Lincoln, who had been assassinated on April 10, 1865, the day before Phelps signed an agreement to buy the Garrit Brinkerhoff place in Teaneck from Jacob Finck.
The Late Mrs. Nellie Clausen, told me of hearing her parents often speak of Phelps' dramatic arrival in Teaneck. Her parents, Charles and Mary Kuntze, owned a farm, which was later bisected by the Jersey City and Albany Railroad tracks, now crossed by the Grayson Place Bridge.
Phelps was 25 when he came to Teaneck. He and his bride, the former Ellen Maria Sheffield, had returned from a year in Europe and he had set up law offices in New York. He was a man of aesthetic tastes and delicate health. He wanted a home in the country to use as a summer place.
Phelps' selection of Teaneck as his place of residence, determined the character of what was to become a township of distinction. At first he intended to use the Dutch farmhouse built by the Zabriskie family before the Revolution as a temporary home and later build a large new house. Following the birth of a daughter, Marian, the old place became so dear to Mr. and Mrs. Phelps, that they decided to keep it and add on to it.
And add onto it he did! The Grange, as he called it, stood on the site of the present Municipal Building. With the aid of architects he made additions and alterations until at last, 1886, the old Dutch farmhouse had been transformed into the residence he and Mrs. Phelps desired. The low, rambling building was about 350 feet long and varied from 25 to 50 feet in width. He occupied a room at the north with a fireplace so high, a man could stand in it. His bedroom was a platform above the huge room that served as a study, office and workshop. Adjoining this room was a huge library. The living room, dining room, and music rooms looked out over the broad park that surrounded the house.
Upstairs were the sleeping rooms. In the basement the billiard room, kitchen, servants' quarters and laundry. The final touch to the home, described as the most pretentious in Bergen County, was the picture gallery at the southwestern end of the building.
When Phelps father, John Jay Phelps, who was a noted financier, died in 1869, he left an estate so large that looking after it became a full time job for his son. He gave up his growing law practice and settled in Teaneck. It was his dream to make Teaneck a select residential community like Tuxedo Park. He continually added to his land holdings, buying up a farm here and a farm there, until he owned more than 2,000 acres in Teaneck. Before the panic of 1873, he formed the Palisade Land Company at Closter. Among the investors in this enterprise which bought large acreage between the Hackensack and Hudson rivers, were U. S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel J. Tilden and General Van Buren.
Young Phelps so charmed a group of commuters with whom he traveled to New York, that he was sent as a delegate to a political convention in Paterson in 1870. There he met several influential Republicans and started a brilliant political career. President Garfield latter appointed him minister to Austria. President Harrison sent him as ambassador to Berlin. He was twice elected to Congress and was appointed judge of the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals by a Democratic Governor.
He attracted and courted the favor of bright people. Many of these followed him to Teaneck. General Van Buren, who married one of the Phelps' sisters, moved here and lived in a large house on the site now occupied by the Volk Funeral Home. Van Buren was for many years, consul general in Yokohama. Lebbeus Chapman, a New York Banker, moved into a comfortable house at Teaneck Road and West Englewood Avenue. Griggs, a New York cotton broker, built a handsome home on the present site of Holy Name Hospital.
Although Phelps traveled extensively, Teaneck was on his mind whenever he went. Trees and roads were his absorbing interests. He began planting trees the year after he came here and did not stop until he died. In all, he planted 70,000 Norway spruce, 65,000 American elms and 50,000 white pines. He make the most of every dig and rise in the land he owned. He built 30 miles of roads on his own property.
Roads to the Teaneck and Englewood railroad station radiated from The Grange. He build gate lodges at intersections with public thoroughfares. Carriages could pass confortable through the arches which were closed by gates part of one day a year to maintain legal privacy of the roads. One such gatehouse still stands at Mackay Park in Englewood.
The Phelps mansion went up in flames on April 1, 1988. An explosion in the art gallery which was lighted by 75 gas jets caused the fire. Phelps was in Washington at the time. There were no telephones. Messengers summoned fire departments from Englewood and Hackensack. When Phelps returned and viewed the ruins of his home, he leased the Griggs home on the south side of Cedar Lane, later buying the house and 20 acres of land. Later he purchased more land, so that his farm took in both sides of Cedar Lane.
He served as ambassador to Berlin from 1889 until 1893 when, in failing health, he returned to New jersey and was appointed to the judgeship. Tuberculosis forced his retirement in the spring of 1894. He died at his Teaneck home on June 15, 1894, a year before Teaneck became a township with William Bennett, superintendent of the Phelps property, as the first chairman of the Township Committee.
Many old timers remember the phelps ruins, which stood for years on the site of the present Municipal Building. Covered with vines and luch growth, the tall chimneys, foundations and the eyeless windows were beautiful reminders of past grandeur.