Bernards Township Municipal Building
Collyer Lane, Basking Ridge, New Jersey
High on the ridge encircled on three sides by public roads stands an English Tudor style estate. Built in 1912, this Basking Ridge landmark was the home of four families; Owen, Lee, Bissell and Astor, before it was purchased in 1968 by Bernards Township. Commonly called the Astor Mansion after its last owner, this is the Bernards Township seat of government.
The original choice 100 acres have a commanding view of Collyer Lane, South Finley Avenue and South Maple Avenue. The entire tract extended to the northern boundary of Homestead Village and included what is now War Memorial Field, plus the properties of Cedar Hill School and Ridge High School.
This residence, built of brick laid in Flemish bond, was the dream of Samuel Owen of Newark, a pharmaceutical manufacturer and gentleman farmer. The manor house contained 20 rooms, had an attached servants’ quarters for the head outside man, an unfinished third floor storage and servants’ quarters, an attached three stall garage and a small building for garden equipment. There also were two auxiliary structures on the grounds--a gate or carriage house on South Finley Avenue and the estate manager’s cottage on South Maple Avenue.
The Owens named their new home, “Cedar Hill” and spent six months there and the remainder in Newark. Alice Burford Owen was related to Sir James Horlick, president of Horlick Malted Milk Products. To reflect his wife’s British ancestry, Mr. Owen attempted to reproduce an English country home with beautiful brick-walled formal gardens, a rambler rose-covered arbor and a rose garden. A handsome native stone wall surrounded the entire acreage.
Features of the house include a red tiled roof, French and pocket doors, mahogany and birdseye maple paneling, etched crystal and brass wall sconces, unique moldings, green and rare red marble fireplaces with large marble hearths. The Owen family crest appears on the fireplace wall in the crystal chandeliered dining room. Townspeople were invited to picnic in Owen’s woods; 35 acres were planted with 5,000 peach and 1,500 apple trees. Cedar Hill Farm provided summer jobs for local students and at harvest time, for residents.
Trustees of the Owen estate sold the property to Mr. and Mrs. George Ludlow Lee Sr. in 1940. Mr. Lee was owner/treasurer of the Red Devil Tool Company of Irvington, 1937-1950; he later became chairman of the board, renamed Red Devil, Inc., now at Union, N.J. Mr. Lee served on the Bernards Township Planning Board and was its vice-chairman in 1944. He and his wife, Dulcinea Harrison Smith Lee, continued operation 3of the flourishing fruit farm, where local markets and roadside stands were supplied with the produce. He would later donate property where Cedar Hill and Ridge High School sit today.
In 1946, 28 acres were divided into two tracts: 11.3 acres Lee retained in its natural state; 17 acres including the house were sold to Eugene V.N. Bissell and Zita Gatlin Bissell. John Jacob Astor VI bought the smaller tract of 11.3 acres from Lee in 1947. In the mid-50s, Lee donated 60 acres of land to Bernards Township Board of Education to build Cedar Hill School and Ridge High School with their associated athletic fields. An additional 12 acres were donated to the Neill Card Post #114, American Legion, War Memorial Foundation, for its field on South Maple Avenue.
Mr. and Mrs. Bissell renamed the estate “Maple Way” and lived there from 1946-1950. Mr. Bissell was executive vice-president of the Continental Grain Company in New York City. They sold the property to John Jacob Astor VI in 1950. Mr. Astor acquired an additional 17 acres from the Bissells, adding to his original 11.3 from the Lees. He lived in the mansion infrequently, but employed a staff to run it. Vacated in 1960, it remained unoccupied for eight years before Bernards Township purchased the hilltop house and 28 acres for $140,000 in 1968. (Mr. Astor was the son born posthumously to Colonel John Jacob Astor IV, who perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.)
An addition to the estate included a new police wing in 1974 (the office and Police Headquarters would later move to a new facility) and further remodeling paved the way for the Bernards Township government from the municipal and court that was at the Brick Academy, the 1809 Federal style school house on West Oak Street. In 1975 for the first time Township offices were in a centralized location.
This picturesque real estate is almost entirely surrounded by public and semi-public lands. To the rear is Ridge Hight School (4 year) and Cedar Hill elementary school; across Collyer Lane is the St. James Church and School; and on the opposite side of South Maple Avenue is Lord Stirling Park, which includes the Somerset County Environmental Education Center and the Somerset County Riding Stables, covering 900 acres.
The Bernards Township Committee invites you to tour the municipal complex and the surrounding grounds.