HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP – The Noah Hunt House sits back from the road on a scraggly piece of Rosedale Park. The 1750s farmhouse, once a shining example of early American craftsmanship, has fallen to ruin after years of disuse.

The building’s white shingles have discolored to gray, and most are cracked or peeled back, if they remain at all. The structure’s door, once a vibrant green, has faded to dullness, and graffiti spelling out a crude “Welcome” is the only invitation offered to onlookers.

Hunt House

From the weather-worn shingles to the sealed-up fireplaces inside, much attention is needed to restore the dilapidated 18th-century farmhouse on Blackwell Road. But a $734,000 grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust to Mercer County’s Planning Division promises to improve the house’s condition.

The grant, approved by the state Department of Community Affairs in November, is part of a $6.4 million spending authorization for the Garden State Historic Trust Fund. The Assembly approved the spending last week and it is expected to pass easily in the Senate early next year.

According to Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, the grant will be matched with an equal amount from county resources to move the Hunt House toward restoration. That means almost $1.5 million for the project.

The house, the dirt road it sits on and a series of dilapidated farm buildings have served as the unimproved back entrance to Rosedale Park for years. The area was frequented more often decades ago before vehicle access was restricted. Usage is limited mainly to fishermen and hardy walkers now.

Hughes, who has been involved in preserving the Hunt House since 1998, said the building possibly would serve as a headquarters for Rosedale Park’s 20-mile Lawrence-Hopewell Trail, which runs alongside the structure.

“It’s going to be a functional restoration, not a museum-quality restoration,” Hughes said. “That’s our challenge – to bring it up to be a kind of facility that will be useful, something that is vibrant and alive.”

The New Jersey Historic Trust has come to the aid of many area structures considered worthy of preservation, among them Morven, the historic home of former governors in Princeton Borough; the Princeton University Chapel; and the Trenton Masonic Temple.

For grants exceeding $200,000, applicants must match the funds provided with an equal sum from their own resources.

The Hunt House, which is on the state and national registers of historic places, received a new roof in 2001 to prevent further deterioration, and it was examined so a preservation plan could be formed.

“We’ve done some stabilization, but there really hasn’t been any restoration,” Hughes said. “We want to restore the rooms to what they originally looked like.”

The giant center hallway now looks dark and small, and is strewn with pieces of ceiling and concrete. The fireplaces that once lit almost every room, upstairs and down, have been sealed with concrete.

Hughes said New Jersey is rich with history and the Hunt House is a part of it.

“You can’t put a value on being able to come out and get a feel for that kind of history,” he said. “(Restoring the Hunt House) has been something a lot of folks have wanted to do for a long time.”

One of those who has advocated for preservation of the house over the years is Lawrence Councilwoman Pam Mount.

Mount and her husband, Gary, have owned and operated Terhune Orchards in Lawrence since 1975. Their farm sits down the road from the Hunt House, which Mount described as a first-rate piece of history.

Mount recalls how the farmhouse looked years ago, down to the detailed woodwork and molding in the three large living rooms. She also noted there is a space in the attic that might have been used to conceal runaway slaves during the Civil War, though that is pure speculation.

“It’s a small, hidden place,” she said. “It looked like no one would know it was there.”

Mount said she feels especially close to the house because her husband’s grandmother was a Blackwell, the family after which the road beside the Hunt House is named.

Mount said she has joined forces with other historical advocates over the years in an attempt to preserve the house. About 20 years ago, she said, repairs for the house would have cost an estimated $150,000 – an amount that has increased greatly with inflation and the recent years of neglect.

According to Mount, initial efforts were made to preserve the house while it was in generally good condition. “Now, it’s in really bad shape,” she said.

According to Hughes, Mercer County residents have shown a growing awareness of the need to preserve historically valuable agricultural land in the area. He cited a November referendum that gave the county permission to raise its open space tax from 2 cents to 3 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

Both Mount and Hughes said they look forward to transforming the Hunt House to a trail headquarters, an educational center and a hub for New Jersey history.

“It’s going to be a well-used building,” Hughes said.

©2004 The Times.