Vail Mansion, the former estate of Theodore Vail, is one of Morristown, New Jersey’s most famous addresses. resting in the center of the main strip of the downtown area, the former home is one of the last few remnants of the wealthy enclave’s historic past.
Known as Millionaire’s Row in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the now heavily commercialized South street only showcases a few of its former gems. Though many have been razed since the Gilded past was laid to rest, the hills throughout Morris County and Somerset County, all the way south to Princeton are still covered in massive,hilltop, historic estates such as Blairsden, Natirar, Four Seasons, and the soon to be demolished, Dukes Farm estate.
Vail commissioned William Welles Bosworth to construct an Italian Renaissance Palazzo styled home and museum. The intent behind the design was to have the upper levels serve as Vail’s house while the main floor was a museum set to display his family’s inventions.
Bosworth has a notable resume. He worked on John D. Rockefeller’s famous Kyuit in the Pocantico Hills and played a vital role in the restoration of the Palace of Versailles.
The first walls went up in 1916 with the cost of the completed projected estimated to reach $150,000. Vermont Granite was used on the lowest level and anchored the home. White Vermont Marble dresses the rest of the large structure. Similarly to the exterior walls, many of the interior pieces were marble imported from Istria, Italy. The beautiful and grand staircase that stands prominently in the center of the hall, several fireplaces, and the overwhelming columns in the center room that was to serve as the museum are of this exotic, Italian stone.
Vail, who served as president of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and chief architect of the Bell System, celebrated the near completion of his marble palace in 1920. The 20,000 square foot mansion boasts 17-feet high ceilings on the main level and 12 feet on the second. The front of the house showcases a solid bronze front door directly below the thee large arched windows dramatically gracing the second floor. The door had eight panels with detailed depictions of historical events that took place locally. The images in the heavy entry door are: George and Martha Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Alexander Graham Bell, Alfred Vail, S.F.B. Morse, the first Presbyterian Church of Parsippany, and the Revolutionary War.
In 1920, the finishing touches were placed on Vail Mansion. Though the initial cost was projected to be $150,000, the actual total soared to $400,000. Sadly, after such a large investment, Theodore Vail never moved into the home. In 1920, 74 year old Vail died.
Vail Mansion remained in the family’s possession for two years until Vail’s son sold the vacant estate for $51K. Morristown used the un-lived in home for municipal purposes for three quarters of a century. After the municipal hall changed locations, the mansion began to deteriorate.
As a high schooler growing up in Randolph, I spent a large portion of my time on the downtown Morristown strip. I was always fascinated with the big mausoleum looking building that sat in darkness behind the massive reflecting pool. My friends and I would walk along the ghostly walls and look in the old, some shattered, windows. I remember being in awe of the large, marble columns thats lined the entry hall, and falling in love with the bronze entrance door. I kick myself to this day for not sneaking in an open side entry. The house looked cold. It had been many years since the last time a light illuminated the windows from inside. What was meant to be a home and showplace for grand accomplishments diminished to a marble coffin entombing the dreams of what could have been.
Fortunately, the South Street beauty avoided the wrecking ball that so many of its former neighbors had fallen victim to. Nearly 90 years after her completion, Vail Mansion adopted a new life as both a condominium and restaurant. Two wings (as seen in the pictures) were symmetrically added to each side of the original mansion. Though not made of the same marble, the exterior walls and roof are developed to replicate the color palette of the home. For the most part, the front and side facades remain the same, though the bronze door was recently removed. The mansion itself now serves as Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen. Customers enter the side door into the main hall. To the left, the grand, marble staircase triumphantly descends from the second floor towards where the museum space was intended to be. That area now serves as a bar and lounge area. Modern art dresses the interiors, but the original details still command a a striking presence. the second floor arched windows gives customers seated at tables a beautiful view of the reflecting pool below.
There are 36 units in the attached condominiums ranging from $450K-$1.2MM.
Written and Photographed by Matthew J Niewenhous
Staff, Star-Ledger. “Glimpse of History: A Majestic Mansion Erected in Morristown in Early 1900s.” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.