When it was first opened in 1877, the Union Hotel was considered one of the finest full service hotels in the entire state. The new hotel was built for $13,200 by contractors Titus and Conrad, following plans drawn up by architect’s C. Graham and Son. It had heated rooms, and limited indoor plumbing, a restaurant and two dozen guest rooms; it was furnished with the most up-to-date amenities, including pressed tin ceilings and encaustic tile floors on the main floor and gas lighting throughout. The exterior was designed in the very fashionable Second Empire style of the time; exemplified by its high mansard roof, which rises high above a bracketed cornice. Amazingly, with very few alterations, almost all of the original fabric of the building remains intact today.
A roof of grey slate with a subtle fish-scale pattern runs between two tapered towers on each end of the rectangular block; while in the center a larger tower rises up to an arched roofline which is so characteristic of many buildings in Flemington. Old photos and renderings show a flagpole rising from the top of the center tower. Dormer windows with semi-circular heads and pediment roofs break up the expanse of the mansard roof; at the corner towers the dormer windows have flat heads with quarter-circle cutouts at the corners. The central tower has a pair of these windows under a segmental arched roof.
The main block measures 100 feet long by 38 feet deep, and is three stories high; the twelve-inch thick exterior walls are built of local red brick. The brick walls rest on a cellar level, built with 18 inch thick rubble stone walls capped by a sandstone band at the level of the first floor. The original wood windows remain; two-over-two vertically proportioned double-hung sash with segmentally arched heads and brick hoods. On the north end, there is a lovely oriel window projecting from the second floor; a half-octagon in plan, it has three arched windows, a coved base and lace-like iron cresting at the roofline.
A wonderful two story wooden porch runs along the whole expanse of the building along Main Street. Its delicate woodwork and slim posts contrast with the solid brick box behind. Ten wood arches beat out a rhythm on its upper level above a low pierced wooden guardrail, a band of simpler gingerbread spans between the first floor posts.
The hotel was built in two phases, the southern half (to the right) was built in 1877, the northern half (to the left) was built in 1878. One can still see the joint between the two sections, running right down the middle of the brick wall. The window pattern also reflects this, there are five windows per floor on the south side, but only four on the north side. The staircase is located in the center of the southern half, as is the second floor doorway to the upper porch. The northern section has two storefront onto the porch, these are original, and quite advanced for their time. The large sheets of thick storefront glass are original, but due to limits on the size of a piece of glass at that time, each section is made of two pieces of glass, and the upper piece simply rests atop the lower piece.
There is a one-room wing which projects out from the center of the back wall of the Hotel. This room is built of brick, and its windows and cornice are similar to the main block, but it has just a simple flat roof. On old plans, it is labeled the “Bar”, or a Billiards room. This wing was likely a very early addition, in its construction and details it seems to be nearly as old as the rest of the Hotel.
Behind the brick block, and on the south side of the brick wing there is a three story wooden wing. The first floor of this wing has always been the kitchen for the hotel, and this area has been heavily altered through the decades. Upstairs, the second and third floor of the wood wing each contains a narrow hall, a back stair, and a single row of small rooms; these may have been bedrooms for hotel staff or for the servants of travelers. There is a projecting bay and a hoist at the third floor, so these rooms may also have been storerooms. This wing connects to the main block at the second floor landing of the main stair.
Inside the Hotel, the first floor has been altered, but not too much has changed on the upper floors. The attic level behind the mansard roof has never been finished, and one can still see the sloping sawn hemlock timbers which support the pine boards behind the slates, and the complex framing for the towers. The floors are built with solid 3 inch by 14 inch sawn hemlock joists, these timbers were typically cut in New York State and floated down the Delaware River in the spring floods to local sawmills. Ceiling heights measure 12 feet on the first floor, and 10 feet on the upper floors. The second and third floors still have the original guest rooms; larger in size along Main Street, and a bit smaller to the rear of the building. Some rooms have connecting doors to make two room suites, but in 1877, there was no indoor plumbing, and no bathrooms. A hallway runs the length of these floors, leading to the one room on the north end of each floor that was made into a hall bath when indoor plumbing was added. The interior is finished with plaster walls and ceilings, elegant wood trim, and six-inch wide pine floorboards. An open stairway leads from the first floor lobby up to the attic level; it has a wide and low mahogany rail, turned balusters and newel post. A solid brick wall interior runs up through the center of the building, all the way through the attic; this was the original exterior wall, left in place when the northern half was completed in 1878, the year after the southern half was built in 1877.
The biggest change to the first floor of the main section is that the central brick wall has been removed to open up the current bar area, a large steel beam now supports this wall on the upper floors. The southern half of the first floor still has the original tin ceilings, these still reflect the room layout when the building was first finished. Two arched Victorian stone fireplace mantels remain, but some of the original chimneys which rose above the mansard roof have been lost.
The Union Hotel served as the commercial and social hub of Flemington for decades. It is where town and country met; out of town visitors and merchants, local businessmen, and farmers come to town for the day all met to socialize and do business in the Hotel. During the Depression, local artists Kurt Wiese and Carl Ritz were employed by the WPA to paint murals depicting scenes of local history for the Hotel. They were paid only $35.
For six weeks in 1935, the Union Hotel became the center of the world. The Lindbergh Kidnapping “Trial of the Century” brought hundreds of newspaper and radio reporters, photographers, writers, experts, celebrities, and hangers-on to Flemington. The Hotel, sitting directly across the street from the Hunterdon County Courthouse and Jail, quickly became the social center of the media-fueled sensation that swirled around the trial. The Hotel’s bar and restaurant were jammed full day and night. The most famous visitors all stayed in the Hotel; and everyone important gathered there to met, work, eat, drink and sleep. The jury was sequestered in the hotel, and were permitted to use the second floor porch for their exercise. After its brief burst of fame, the Union Hotel and Flemington quieted down as agriculture became less important after World War II. Successive owners never invested in upgrading the upstairs guest rooms with private bathrooms, and as a result the last overnight guests stayed at the hotel in the 1970’s. With the upper floors abandoned, the Hotel became solely a restaurant and bar, and had the only active liquor license in town. An interior renovation in 1986 added oak paneling and a stained glass room to the restaurant, but did little to stem the Hotel’s long slow decline. What was once the beating heart of the town for 100 years now faces imminent demolition.
Written for 11 Most Endangered Nomination:
The Union Hotel is one of many places of national significance in New Jersey, but it is one of only a few that were known throughout the world. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the most famous man in the world by flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean. He sought to escape his fame by settling in rural New Jersey, but shortly after moving here in 1932, his infant son was kidnapped and murdered. The months-long trial of Bruno Hauptman for that crime took place in Flemington in 1935, and became a source of fascination all over the globe. The trial took place in one of New Jersey’s first Greek Revival buildings, the 1828 Hunterdon County Courthouse. The County has recently restored the exterior of the Courthouse. It has also restored the interior of the courtroom to its appearance during the trial; securing the history of the legal half of the “Trial of the Century”. The social half of the story, however, was centered across the street in the Union Hotel. The Hotel served as the sleeping, meeting, and work place for the hordes of reporters, radiomen, writers, socialites, celebrities, lawyers, and profiteers who descended on Flemington. The jury was sequestered on the second floor, and took the air on the porch, overlooking the crowds in the street below. The new media of radio and telephone enabled a world-wide audience to follow the trial in close to real time, setting the pattern for media sensationalism to this day.
The Union Hotel is now perhaps the last surviving small town hotel in New Jersey, a state of few cities and many small towns. As the commercial center of an agricultural economy, Flemington once had three hotels, two are long gone. Since 1877, the Union Hotel has been the physical and social heart of Flemington, where businessmen, lawyers, and locals had lunch or a drink at the only bar in town. It sits directly across Main Street from the Hunterdon County Courthouse. The Hotel’s Second Empire style high mansard roof with three towers and its two-story porch dominate the four-block-long downtown, and are known to everyone in the county. The second- and third-floor guest rooms are original; indoor plumbing, as added about 100 years ago, remains – a toilet and claw foot tub in a room at the end of the hall. A familiar tale of disinvestment, poor decisions, and neglect lead to its closure eight years ago. Many in the county have memories of the Union Hotel in better days. Its name has never changed, and marks hometown pride in the Union cause; local Civil War soldiers gathered nearby and shipped out and returned via the railroads in town.
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