I love to discover new places and I love anything shore-related, so when I heard about “Coastal Impressions” at Morven Museum and Garden in Princeton, I knew I should take a field trip soon. And, after I visited Morven and had a tour and conversation with Barb Webb and Elizabeth Allan, Director of Development and Curator of Collections and Exhibitions respectively, I was very happy that I’d followed my hunch. Morven is a remarkable place that passionately adheres to its mission of preservation, interpretation and cultural heritage in an inclusive and forward-looking way.
The house was built in the 1750s by Richard Stockton, one of the founders of what is now Princeton University and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It was rebuilt in 1758, following a devastating fire, and named Morven (“big mountain” in Gaelic) by Richard’s wife, Annis. The house descended through four successive generations of Stocktons until 1928, when it was leased to Robert Wood Johnson, of Johnson & Johnson, who lived at Morven with his wife and daughter until 1944.
In 1945, Governor Edge bought Morven from the Stockton family, with an agreement that it would ultimately go to the State to be used as an executive mansion or a museum. From that time until 1982, Morven was the Governor’s Mansion.
In 2004, after extensive research and renovations, Morven opened as a museum and public garden. And, while the house and its outbuildings and grounds are elegant examples of times gone by and a particular lifestyle, Morven is so much more than that.
“Morven is a house, and it is a museum, but it is not a house museum,” Webb pointed out.
“We weren’t looking to do period rooms, but we do have one here,” Allan said, pointing to the dining room, furnished in late 18th century style with pieces on loan from the Princeton University Art Museum. Because most of Richard and Annis Stockton’s belongings were destroyed by the British, the furniture at Morven is not from the house. However, Allan tells me that the dining room set there is the largest intact collection of New Jersey Revolutionary-era furniture. “We are really lucky to be able to show it here.”
An intricately carved piano in a front room is a new acquisition. “Someone called and said they had a piano that had been at Morven,” Webb said. “We contacted Steinway and verified, with the serial number, that the instrument was indeed purchased in 1864 by Commodore Robert Stockton. Although it most likely lived at Stockton’s posh city home in Philadelphia and not at Morven, the piano is still a marvelous addition to the house.
A room at the far side of the house, which was a library and served as the Governor’s office, was architecturally restored to the footprint of 1850. It now holds stately portraits of Richard and Annis Stockton and Annis’ brother, Elias Boudinot, who married Richard’s sister Hannah.
The first floor is otherwise unfurnished, allowing the “bones” of the house to shine and providing room to move when there are special events held at Morven. “This is a very, very active place,” Webb said.
The 5.5-acre property has other original structures, including a wash house, home to Morven’s abundantly stocked gift shop; a barn; and a pool house that was built in 1939 by the Johnson family. Completely restored to its original condition in 2011, the pool house is a “cutting edge mid-century modern building” and offers a surprising element to the Morven exterior landscape. The existing apple-shaped pool, in need of extensive repair, will be removed and a splash fountain that retains the original design will replace it.
Another future project is construction of a 3,000-square-foot building. “We’re calling it an interpretive center,” Webb explained. “People will come in and get an idea of what the whole property has to offer. And,” she adds, “the jewel of the building will be a room that is able to seats as many as 130 people for programs.” The property’s current largest gathering space holds only 35. “It will be very modern,” she says, “made of glass and brick, but designed to blend into the garden.”
These future plans exemplify an aspect of Morven that I find especially compelling. Clearly, the goal is to illuminate the history and culture of New Jersey, but Morven does this without focusing on one particular period. “We can show over 200 years,” Webb notes, “from Revolutionary times through the early 20th century.”
The same is true of the exterior spaces. The brick wall and the rounded wooden gate are original. The wisteria that drapes across the porch is decades old. But an outdoor installation that features 20 trellises designed and built by a variety of people, is new this spring. The exhibit idea came from Morven’s horticulturist, Pam Ruch, and is part of a Garden State Gardens initiative called “Art in the Garden.” There will be an opening reception at Morven for the Garden Trellises on June 13th from 6:00 PM -7:30 PM.
The eight-plot kitchen garden is another example of connecting the past with the present. “The house had one; all houses did,” Webb said, “and it was likely near where the current kitchen garden is.”
Morven has a willing and able work crew each summer through a partnership with Isles of Trenton, an organization that – among other things – arranges internships for at-risk students through YouthBuild.
“The kids are here for five weeks and learn about landscaping and gardening,” Webb said. “Last summer, they were very focused on the kitchen garden. We are incredibly proud of that program. We donated more than 600 pounds of produce to area food banks last year.”
Morven also offers plenty of public space. Open from dawn until dusk each day, the gardens and lawn are lush and inviting and the front porch rockers beckon visitors to sit and meditate on nature. There are programs that feature the outdoor spaces, including a very popular weekly yoga class and the Wednesday Tea & Tour that offers tea and goodies in the Garden Room overlooking the back grounds and a docent-led tour of the museum (reservations required). There are also many activities that are suitable for adults and children alike, like the Art Scavenger Hunt that was part of the recent Morven in May weekend, and a holiday program that features snacks and a very authentic Santa Claus.
“We know that coming to one of our special events could be a child’s first museum experience,” Webb said, “and we want children and their parents to feel welcomed and comfortable here.”
And then – at last, but so far from least, is “Coastal Impressions: Painters of the Jersey Shore, 1880-1940,” an exhibition that will be on view in the five second-floor gallery spaces through September 29. Allan, who curates the exhibitions, told me that “Coastal Impressions” is a first for Morven, in that it focuses on the collection pulled together primarily by one person – Roy Pedersen – and showcases works by a group of artists who lived, worked and found inspiration from the coastal area of New Jersey.
“Pedersen has been collecting works by this group of painters for at least 25 years,” Allan said. “He is quite knowledgeable about the Bucks County painters and understands that New Jersey also had its own ‘school of painters.’”
Allan admits that, though she studied art history and is a New Jersey native, she didn’t know about this treasure trove of Jersey coastal-themed work. “I had no idea,” she said, “but it makes perfect sense that artists would find the New Jersey skies and sea as appealing as those they found in Maine or Cos Cob (Conn.).”
The fact that Allan is able to present changing exhibits three times a year means that visitors are more likely to return again and again. “And, when we can tie in an exhibit with the house – like we did with ‘The Pine Barrens’ earlier this year – that’s even better,” she said.
That exhibit featured photographs of the Pines and explored the history of the preservation efforts – from John McPhee’s landmark 1978 book to the 1979 executive order issued by then-Governor Brendan Byrne, who resided at Morven, to the state of the Pines in present time.
“We try to help establish a sense of pride in New Jersey,” Webb said. “We feel that there is a need for that. And the more we do at Morven, the more we hear from people who are excited and want to be a part of it.”
Webb notes that there is an enduring interest in regional history and culture, and while other museums address that, Morven has an advantage. “We are in Princeton,” Webb said, “which is a place that people love to visit.”
“Coastal Impressions: Painters of the Jersey Shore (1880-1940)” on view now through September 29, 2013. Group tours of 10 or more available any day by advance reservation. Call (609) 924-8144 x106. Docent-led tours of Morven are available January through November, featuring a guided tour of the home’s history and exhibited collections. For more, go to http://morven.org/visit/.