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Saturday, May 21, 2016

The History of Perth Amboy New Jersey

To learn about the KKK Riots of 1923 in Perth Amboy, see this documentary on Vimeo:

Here is the city historian Anton Massopust, Katherine's father, relating his account of the story of how Perth Amboy residents drove the KKK from the city before they could gain a foothold here:

I have been endeavoring for many years to create a comprehensive resource for Perth Amboy teachers on the history of our incredible city. Fortunately many knowledgeable people have been eager to put a huge amount of work into preserving this information for future generations. The city historian, Anton Massopust, took 20 of my Shull school students on a three hour walking and bus tour of our historic city free of charge. Learning from him was like a trip through a time machine. My students were in awe. Here are some videos I took of him sharing his knowledge:

Peace and Plenty by George Inness was painted in Perth Amboy and was given to Marcus Spring as payment for the house that Mr. Spring built for Mr. Inness in Eagleswood, the progressive artist colony started by Rebecca and Marcus Spring in Perth Amboy NJ. Eagleswood was known as a haven for runaway slaves, a resting place at the end of the Underground Railroad.

Mural by students at Perth Amboy High School, under the direction of Mrs. Massopust, art teacher and wife of historian Anton Massopust, depicting George Inness painting in front of the house that Marcus Spring built for him on Convery Boulevard near Smith Street. This mural may still be seen at Perth Amboy High School on Eagle Avenue, in Perth Amboy.

Mr. Massopust  also mentioned that the great wildlife sculptor, 
Edward Kemeys lived in Eagleswood. Click here to read about this famous artist and here to see examples of his art from the Smithsonian Collection

North lion at the Art Institute of Chicago, pose informally designated by Kemeys as "on the prowl." Bronze, 1893, was cast in Perth Amboy. at Eagleswood.

The Mayor was out of town on city business but the staff at City Hall were gracious enough to let us into her office. Mr. Massopust even mentioned that she was his former student.

City Hall
"Perth Amboy is also home to the oldest City Hall in continuous use in the United States, built during 1714-1717 or 1718, to serve as the County courthouse and jail. It burned in a fire in 1731 and was not rebuilt until 1745. It was again burned in 1765 or 1766 when a man named Martin, angered by his earlier imprisonment in the City Hall on debt charges, allegedly set fire to the building. It was rebuilt in 1767. City Hall contained court chambers, rooms for the Provincial Assembly until 1775, and was used as a schoolhouse and for community meetings. It was in City Hall that the State of New Jersey became the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights."*
*Information on Perth Amboy's Historic City Hall courtesy of the city's official website:

One of my students asked me recently; "If Perth Amboy is so important historically, why don't more people come here to learn about US history?" The answer to this question is in the video below. Mr. Massopust explained to them that in Colonial times Perth Amboy was known to be predominantly populated by loyalists to the crown. When the rebels ended up winning the war things did not go well for the loyalists. They were exiled to Nova Scotia where some of their descendants still live to this day. 

"Perth Amboy is home to the only official Royal Governor’s Mansion still intact since Colonial days, commonly known as the Proprietary House. The Proprietors of East Jersey were responsible for its construction during 1762-1764 for the Royal Governor of New Jersey. In 1774, William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin, was Royal Governor at which time he took up residence at the mansion with his wife. However, since he was arrested by the continental army in 1776, the house did not remain a Governor’s mansion for long. After the Revolution, the Proprietary House became a private home. In 1809 it became a resort hotel, but business was ruined by the War of 1812. In 1883 it became a rooming house for retired Presbyterian ministers, called the Westminster. Currently, the Proprietary House is owned by the State and maintained by the Proprietary House Association."*
*Information on the Proprietary house courtesy of the city's official website http://ci.perthamboy.nj.us/the-history-of-perth-amboy.html

Mr. Massopust did not want to discuss the ghosts in the Proprietary house with young students but those who are curious about them can watch this video on Vimeo:

Another local historian I would like to pay homage to is the late Evelyn Serado. She was a third grade teacher at Number 10 school on Smith Street in Perth Amboy. She researched the history of this great city and created this wonderful coloring book for young children. I scanned one of the original books and present it to you here in it's entirety:

If you visit the historic city hall in Perth Amboy they will give you the wonderful pamphlet below. It is a walking tour of all the historic sites in the city. Many teachers have copies of this walking tour and use it in their classrooms. I scanned my copy so that students would have access to it. Here is a PDF document that you can read or print.

Here are some photographs of a few of the buildings mentioned in the walking tour:

On State Street, across from William C. McGinnis School, is the Masonic Temple. The portico is meant to recreate the look of an ancient Greek temple. This style of column and pediment was used in both Greek and Classical Revival architecture. 

Simpson Historic Church and Clock Tower, 1866
The church is an Italianate design. At one time this clock tower was the tallest structure in Perth Amboy. The clock is considered city property although the building belongs to the church. Municipal workers are in charge of making sure the clock is properly wound and that it says the correct time.
Another beautiful mansion on High Street in Perth Amboy
Next to the First Baptist Church near the circle on High Street, you can see this exquisite Queen Anne Victorian.

The first Baptist Church on High Street has beautiful Gargoyles protecting it. You have to look up to see them far above your head. All the wonderful architectural details you see in Perth Amboy were created locally at the Terra Cotta works or in the artist colony of Eagleswood.

First Baptist Church, Perth Amboy NJ
Gothic Revival Style with architectural details created at the local Terracotta Factory 

Interior of the First Baptist Church, stained glass window

Below is a very unusual house on Water Street in Perth Amboy. Gothic revival architecture in New Jersey is most commonly used on churches. It is quite uncommon to see a Gothic Revival style residence. The pointed arch window and ginger bread detail indicate that this house was built, like so many others in the area, during the Victorian era.

First Presbyterian Church Perth Amboy NJ, High Street

Here are some details of Saint Mary's Catholic Church in Perth Amboy. The pointed arches immediately identify it as Gothic Revival.

Many beautiful Gothic Revival Churches were built in Perth Amboy in the late 1800's. Below is a photograph of Our Savior Danish Lutherine church, erected in 1889

This is the rectory of Saint Peter's Church. It is located on Rector Street and was also built in the Gothic Revival style.

Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company

Three Kilns at the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Factory

Below are some sculptures that were created at the Terra Cotta factory in Perth Amboy. They are at the Yacht Club today on Water Street

Terra Cotta Mural of The Three Little Pigs from the Perth Amboy Children's library

Thomas Mundy Peterson School

The late Fran Tripka, a school librarian from Perth Amboy, collected a wonderful archive of historic material on a website called the Historic Perth Amboy Virtual Museum.
This postcard depicts Thomas Mundy Peterson School on State Street in Perth Amboy. It was the first public school built in the city, right after the Civil War. It was originally called 'School Number 1'.
Here is a more recent photograph of this wonderful example of Italianate architecture:

Who was Thomas Mundy Peterson and why is he important to the history of Perth Amboy? To answer that question, you need to go back in a time machine to March, 1870 right after the passage of the 15th amendment to the US constitution, giving African Americans the right to vote. The late William C. McGinnis, school superintendent and city historian, until his death in the early 1960's, explains Mr. Peterson's story best in his series of books: 

History of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, 1651-1960

Both Mr. Peterson and Dr. McGinnis are buried in Saint Peter's Cemetery. Saint Peter's Church houses the oldest Episcopalian congregation in the Americas. 
Saint Peter's Church and Cemetery

My students from William C. McGinnis School (where I used to teach) thanking Mr. Peterson in 2014

My students from William C. McGinnis School (where I used to teach) thanking Dr. McGinnis for teaching them so much about the history of their home town.

William C. McGinnis School is now a middle school. When it was first built in 1899, it was Perth Amboy's high school. It is filled with magnificent artwork from the time of the Great Depression. With so many people out of work and starving, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was desperate to put Americans back to work any way he could. In order to stimulate the economy he started the Works Progress Administration. Part of the WPA mandate was to finance the creation of works of art in public buildings. Dr. McGinnis, in addition to being superintendent of schools during that era, was also in charge of administering the WPA program in the state of New Jersey. Part of his legacy is the wonderful artwork which you can still see today at the school that bears his name.

Anton Massopust, our city historian, directed me to William Whitehead's History of Perth Amboy, 1856. Available as an ebook for free! And here is what he wrote about the property McGinnis School is on, before there was a School.

Details of the historic plaster work in the lobby of
McGinnis School. Created in 1936 by Herbert T. Silbermann

 William C. McGinnis school was built in 1899 in the Jacobean style. This style of architecture originated in England during the reign of King James after the great fire of London. After the fire the new rules were all buildings in London had to be faced with either brick or stone (no more wood) and the front of the building had to extend higher than the roof line to act as a fire break.

Inside the William C. McGinnis School auditorium
Photo credit Thomas Rhetig

The plaster mural above depicts the progress and enlightenment of human kind. This celebration of human achievement was created by Herbert T. Silbermann in 1936 and is on the left side of the lobby as you enter McGinnis School. In the center of the mural is Prometheus bringing fire down from Mount Olympus

Detail from the right hand mural depicts General John J. Pershing, the Wright Brothers, carrying a model airplane and aviator goggles and Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, carrying a Red Cross flag.

Below are links to my 360 panorama photographs of the lobby of William C. McGinnis School:

Here are the amazing Thomas Ward murals hanging in the spiral staircase at McGinnis School. Compare them to the paintings by the same artist on the wall of the mayor's office:

Mr. Ward painted these murals with McGinnis School 7th and 8th grade students, mentoring them and teaching them his techniques. 

By special request I am including some photographs of the historic 'Halls of Ivy' that so many remember when they think back with pride to their days at the original Perth Amboy High School, courtesy of the late Fran Tripka and the Historic Perth Amboy Virtual Museum.

The Halls of Ivy, Perth Amboy High School, Circa 1935
Now William C. McGinnis School

The Woman on the right was Mr. Massopust's Mother
She was the art teacher at Perth Amboy High School
Photograph from the 
1937 PAHS High School Periscope

These historic murals, painted by high school students in 1934, were covered over in the 1990's during a renovation. There was some talk of trying to preserve them but it was decided that they were in too poor condition to be salvaged.

Photos of the Cafeteria
Courtesy of Perth Amboy Public Library
Article is from Perth Amboy Evening News
250th Anniversary Supplement
Perth Amboy, New Jersey
Monday, June 11, 1934

Special thanks to Anton Massopust for the wonderful three hour historic tour, the late Evelyn Serado for the magnificent coloring book resource, the late Dr. William C. McGinnis for his amazingly detailed history of Perth Amboy, the late Fran Tripka for her incredibly informative blog, the late William Whitehead for his amazingly informative book and Christopher Garrick, vice principal of McGinnis School, and Michael Heidelberg, principal of Samuel E. Shull school, for helping to rescue the writing of Dr. McGinnis and preserve it for generations to come and always supporting me whenever I have an idea.

Student Art Gallery
Acrylic Paintings by middle school students of historic Perth Amboy architecture. These students had the opportunity to photograph their favorite historic homes during our field trip. Afterwards they were able to use the classroom iPads to find the addresses on Google Maps and view the buildings from various angles before painting them.

Student painting of the First Baptist Church, High Street, Perth Amboy

Student Sketch and Painting of The Proprietary House


  1. Beautiful! Wish there were some pictures with the ivy covering the school, as it would always be referred by some to as 'The Halls of Ivy'.

    1. Try this link

    2. Here you go! And thank you for your suggestion. A photograph of the 'Halls of Ivy' is just what this article needed!

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