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Friends of the Hermitage

Hermitage before RestorationCatherine Fetter, a distant relative living in the area, and her husband, Gardiner, visited and provided help to Mary Elizabeth Rosencrantz and Kate Zahner during their last decade living at The Hermitage. After the women died in 1970, the Fetters took the lead in the difficult task of protecting the house and its contents. Although they received cooperation from local and county police, the house suffered break-ins, theft, senseless vandalism, and even a small fire.

In the 1970s, the Paramus Historical and Preservation Society engaged the expert Loring McMillan to assess the historic value of The Hermitage. He declared it an outstanding example of Gothic Revival architecture, and the society succeeded in having The Hermitage listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On October 23, 1970, fifteen people interested in saving The Hermitage met with officials of the State of New Jersey, to which the house and grounds had been bequeathed. Three days later, workers employed by the state started clearing brush, installing security lights, and patching the worst holes in the roof. On November 30, Governor William Cahill approved the State’s acceptance of The Hermitage as a park and historic site. In the following year, the house was boarded up and surrounded by a chain-link fence.

The Hermitage 1970In December 1971, members of the Paramus Historical and Preservation Society met with Richard Riker, the superintendent of Ringwood State Park, who suggested that they form a nonprofit organization to raise funds to restore the house. In January 1972, some 200 concerned citizens formed the Friends of the Hermitage, Inc. Janet Norwood of Ridgewood was the organization’s first president; the historic architect Claire Tholl of Upper Saddle River was the vice-president. Additional members of the founding Board of Trustees were Catherine and Gardiner Fetter and Phyllis Williams of Ho-Ho-Kus; John Hill, June Bové, and Mildred Murray of Ridgewood; Rosa Livingston of Midland Park; Fritz Krieger of Wyckoff; and Billie Wassmann of Emerson.

During the first year, the Friends gained members, solicited donations from individuals and local organizations, obtained newspaper and television publicity, and held fundraising events. Their efforts had netted $30,000 by the end of 1972. Norwood and others continued to press the State government for financial assistance. The Division of Parks and Forestry paid for the installation of a temporary roof. The Friends began cleaning the interior of the house and collecting every scrap of paper and item of historic clothing that remained. All of the moveable furnishings were sent to Ringwood for safe storage and repair. The State employed a caretaker who lived in a mobile home on the property, and a state-run archeological dig was initiated. In late September and October, costumed guides led the first of several house tours for more than 1,000 visitors, who lined up around the block to get their first peek inside.

This was only the beginning. Throughout the 1970s, the Friends grew in number and financial strength through fundraising. Some $52,000 raised by August 1974 was used for restoration work. An additional $25,000 was used to save from the John Rosencrantz house from demolition and move it to the Hermitage grounds, where it is used as the museum’s visitor center and administrative offices. These endeavors were supplemented by the Friends’ vigorous efforts to push the State to pursue federal grants. By 1977, the State had spent more than $100,000 on restoring The Hermitage, enhanced in 1978 by a $65,000 U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant and nearly $100,000 from the National Park Service. The Friends were thus able to obtain a total of some $250,000 for restoration by the end of the decade. These funds were used to rehabilitate the foundation and exterior of The Hermitage 1974; to replace the roof, repair porch trim and window frames, and rebuilt the chimneys in 1977; and to complete the interior restoration and furnishing, which continued into the 1980s.

Throughout the 1970s, archaeological digs continued on the Hermitage grounds. A committee led by June Bové and trained with help from the Metropolitan Museum of Art was formed to restore the historic clothing. In 1975, leadership of the Friends of the Hermitage passed from Janet Norwood to Kay Fetter in 1975; to Vincent Minetti in 1979; and to Nancy Gay in 1980. Bové served as the curator and site director in the late 1970s until Florence Leon, the Friends’ first permanent, paid staff member, was hired as executive director in 1981.

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