Rescue & Restoration 1904 - Present
Though his time there was brief, the historic importance of William Franklin's association with the House had always inspired dreams of preservation, beginning in 1914 with the "Franklin Palace Association," though it never moved beyond a loosely organized group. During the Great Depression, among the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects to employ people was a massive effort to photograph and make plans of all the historic structures throughout the United States. Called the Heritage Documentation Project, it produced a valuable record deposited at the Library of Congress. In the 1950s, the Perth Amboy Lions Club proposed a plan to obtain state and federal aid towards turning what had become a rundown boarding house into a museum and community center. The Middlesex County Historic Sites Committee recommended restoration in 1955. Such good intentions, however, were slow to materialize into action.
During the 1960s, heritage activists worked to educate the community about this historic gem in their midst. In 1961, Dr. William Cole of New Brunswick, Chairman of the Historic Sites Committee, placed a plan to turn the Westminster into a museum before the County Planning Board. But associated funding was not forthcoming.
In 1966, the Proprietary House Association (initially named the Westminster Historical Society) was formed as a non-profit corporation dedicated to preserving and restoring the only remaining official royal governor’s mansion still standing in the original 13 colonies. Research undertaken by the Association was crucial in proving the historical and architectural significance of Proprietary House, and convincing the State of New Jersey to purchase the property under the Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres Program in 1967. Soon after, in 1970 and 1971, Proprietary House achieved listings in the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
In 1974, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection leased Proprietary House to the Association. Inspired by the enthusiasm and dedication of early volunteers like Elizabeth Frelinghuysen and Albert W. Seaman, as well as Dorothy V. and Gwendolyn M. Compton, sizable donations began to come in.
With the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial as an impetus, Association volunteers began to reverse decades of neglect and deterioration at Proprietary House by first cleaning out years of accumulated debris. Then the removal of interior partitions that were added during the rooming house days revealed the original dimensions of the historic mansion’s many great rooms. Though restoration had only just begun, on June 19, 1976, the Association opened Proprietary House for its first public viewing with a bicentennial re-enactment of Governor William Franklin’s arrest by Patriot forces. Restoration progressed but was slow during the 1970s and early 1980s, and the pace of the immense structure’s decay threatened its survival.
In 1985, the Restoration Partnership of Boston proposed a public/private partnership plan under which the Partnership leased the building and 3.5 acres of surrounding land. At its cost, the Partnership restored and renovated the building’s exterior and the interior of the 1809 wing and upper floors of the main house as offices. Income from office rentals went toward repayment of the Partnership’s costs until 1999 when its lease was terminated. Since 1999, office rental income has partially offset the State of New Jersey’s expenditures for Proprietary House.
The ground and first floors of the original mansion are leased by the State of New Jersey to the Proprietary House Association, which is charged with raising funds for programs, interpretation and restoration. Since the 1970s, countless volunteer hours and the financial support of history-loving donors have enabled the on-going restoration of Proprietary House and its museum. Much work remains to be done, as we continue to explore the full history of Proprietary House -- from Franklin’s time to the present -- and to tell the myriad stories of this amazing building’s many incarnations over the past 250 years!
See us on PBS featured in Benjamin Franklin by Ken Burns