Ellis Frazer Ayers House, 428 Main St – Metuchen, New Jersey

Isaac Kremer/ June 16, 2021/ Writing/ 0 comments

Following the death of John Hampton, Sr., a major landowner in this area, a large amount of real estate came to market and for sale May 15th, 1855. Ellis Frazer Ayres bought property fronting Main Street and built his residence between Hillside Ave (then Union Ave) and Middlesex Ave. Highland Ave had not yet been put through.[1] Then he moved from Newark and built his house here in 1857.[2] Ellis Ayres then went on to build 20 more houses that “added to the size and neatness of the village, as to give it a more townly and inviting appearance.”[3] The 1861 Map of Metuchen Village shows “E.F. Ayres” and the house set back from Main Street and prominently occupying its site.

Captain Nathan Robins (1782-1858), a merchant of New York, and formerly of Monmouth County, N.J., relocated to the Metuchen area in 1840. Members of his family included sons Nathaniel, Amos, and Wright.[4] Sometime between 1855 and 1860 Nathan Robins (1811-1875), the son of Captain Nathan Robins, moved along with his family from Oswego, New York to Metuchen.

Robins Hall

In 1873 Nathan Robins built the prominent three-story Robins Hall on Main Street that also bore his name. The first floor was used for business purposes, including the post office that was located here from 1877 to 1885. The second floor served a variety of functions at times as a community room, a theater, a ballroom, and as the public library.[5] Around the time he built Robins Hall, Nathan and his wife settled on the Ellis Ayres property on Main Street between Hillside and Highland Ave in in the 1870s.[6]  His wife Hannah Maria Ayers (1812-1879) may have been a relation with Ellis Ayres who had previously owned the property.

From Middlesex County 1876, New Jersey Published by Everts & Stewart in 1876

Nathan Robins died in 1875. The 1876 Everts & Stewart map of Metuchen shows a residence, barn, and meandering roads and paths here, though no name associated with this particular property. That likely reflects the fact that no one was living there at the time. Nathan Robins, Jr. (1847-1929), son of Nathan Robins and grandson of Captain Nathan Robins, continued to be engaged in agricultural pursuits.  In June 1882 it was reported how “Nathan Robins of Metuchen bought a number of Jerseys, at a cattle sale in New York last week. He has since been offered $2,000 for four cows.”[7] A colt that Robins owned won a race with Mr. Moore’s Black Stallion at the Middlesex County Fair Grounds.[8] Later in 1892 he served as Grand Marshal in a parade of local Democrats through Metuchen a 1,000 people strong.[9]

Some of the land to the east was subdivided and recorded in “Map of 94 Building Lots, Estate of Ellis F. Ayres, Metuchen, N.J., 1891. This included Washington Place, Pleasant Street, and the area around it.[10] Metuchen Club leased the Robins Mansion to use as a temporary headquarters “until a new club house can be built.” They had an anniversary dance there on the night of Washington’s birthday in February 1899.[11]

Edward Busch began his Metuchen Inn business in 1903 in the former Robins homestead.[12] Shortly after starting the property was sold in 1905 by Mutual Loan Association of New York City to William Gross of Fords Corner. Edward Busch continued to lease the property through the time that his lease expired. The newspaper reported “Some say that Mr. Gross has ideas of his own concerning his new property. The property is as valuable as any in the borough.”[13] Gross was proprietor of a general merchandise store at Fords, selling liquor and cigars.[14] Gross asked Busch as a condition of continuing to run the Inn that sell his wares. Busch refused.

Advertisement, October 7, 1903 [15]

Busch eventually gave up managing this property while continuing to run another one in town also under the name “Metuchen Inn.” James J. Herson, formerly the proprietor of the Packer House in Perth Amboy was given a new lease from Gross. Then there was a dispute about whether he could continue referring to the property as the Metuchen Inn.[16] Subsequently an injunction was made against William Gross restraining him for calling his hotel the “Metuchen Inn.”[17] Busch ultimately prevailed in April 1906 getting his license for the name “Metuchen Inn.”[18]

Postcard of the Hillside Inn, 1907.

1910 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Sheet 3

The following month it was reported Edward Busch opened “The Bradford” on LeGrand avenue (later Amboy Ave) and Sydney Hulsizer opened the Metuchen Inn on Main Street.[19] Signs with the name “Metuchen Inn” were put up on the former Robins House where the Metuchen Inn had originally been on Main Street. This created confusion for travelers. Meanwhile, Busch continued to refer to his new establishment as the Metuchen Inn. A subsequent suit gave only Busch the right to use the name Metuchen Inn.[20]

Subsequently a fight emerged about transferring the license for the Metuchen Inn. Busch refused to transfer the license and pressed his case in the District Court. Busch met a tragic fate in April 1908. He was run over by a hose carriage from the Eagle Horse & Ladder Company on its way to helping respond to a fire on Lake Ave where the tracks of the Lehigh Valley Railroad crosses over the road. He was killed instantly.[21] A few weeks later it was reported that the Metuchen Inn that Busch owned was to be closed.[22] An auction was held of all the contents on Thursday, September 24, 1908.[23]

Hillside Inn

Despite the untimely passing of Busch, local forces continued to be arrayed against the opening of the Hillside Inn. This fed in the larger context of advocacy for temperance in Metuchen at the time. The Order League of Metuchen planned to oppose the petition for Mr. Gross for a license for the Hillside Inn.[24]  Another tactic employed was to recommend the Hillside Inn site as a potential location for a new school.

Ultimately when the issue of a license came up before the District Court again, a veritable “who’s who” of Metuchen people showed up in favor of granting the license. A feeling was expressed in the proceedings that the inn would not be economically viable without a bar. Influential speaking on behalf of granting the license was Truman T. Pierson, then postmaster and an insurance agent.[25] The license was granted and the Hillside Inn allowed to open, though the bar would remain closed until the court session opened in September.[26] Finally, in September 1908 the District Court relented and allowed alcoholic beverages to be sold at the Hillside Inn. The decision was challenged to the Supreme Court who refused to support the claim for a writ of certiorari against the license.[27]

The good times kept rolling for only a few short months when fire broke out from an overheated furnace in January 1909. A total of $2,000 of damage was done on the property that was worth around $10,000 at the time.[28] Truman T. Pierson who had spoke on behalf of the Hillside Inn opening also carried the policy and was responsible for paying out.

Classified advertisement, The New York Times, June 25, 1911, p. 12.

Classified advertisement, The Central New Jersey Home News, July 12, 1912, p. 1.

More mundane events occurred as well from meetings, to wedding receptions, to banquets.  Rosalie Jones and around 50 women stopped at the Hillside Inn as a suffragist march from New York City to Washington, DC. The event was widely covered in newspapers.[29] An “Annual Pig Roast” occurred on December 8, 1916.[30] The Hillside Inn factored prominently in real estate development for Metuchen as well. An auction of 118 lots occurred here in 191X. A sizable property on Maple Ave was announced for a master’s sale on September 18, 1917 at 2pm. The location for the sale was at the Hillside Inn.[31]

Rosalie Jones led 50 women on her march to Washington, DC in 1913, with an early stop in Metuchen.[32]

At a local option election Metuchen voted to go dry in May 1918. This augured poorly for the Hillside Inn that depended on alcohol sales. They apparently kept the practice of selling liquor active, for a year later their liquor license was challenged by the Anti-Saloon League of New Jersey.[33] The wholesale liquor business of David Gross had their license removed and the business was placed into receivership. Further, a restraining order was made against William Gross, brother of David Gross and proprietor of the Hillside Inn. The pressure on the Gross family was too great from loss of their primary wholesale liquor business and the inability to sell liquor at their hotel. A few months later in July 1919 it was announced the Hillside Inn was sold for $30,000. The new owner Philip Goldsmith announced plans to demolish the building at once, subdivide the property into 11 lots on Main Street, 13 lots on Hillside Avenue, and two lots on Highland Ave. Henry Hide of Metuchen was designated as the agent responsible for selling the lots once cleared.[34] Nicholas G. Vreeland, civil engineer, prepared a map of the tract with lots set out that was named “Hillside Park.”[35]

David Gross moved from the inn to an apartment in Newark, though had plans to build a new house in Metuchen at the time. The new owners of the Hillside Inn property sought to convert the old hotel into an apartment house for four families. Additionally Mrs. A. Goodman and E. Gold bought three lots on Main Street. They intend to build stores and apartment buildings on the property. A dry goods store and millinery establishment were planned for one of the buildings.[36] By November 1919 an additional two lots were sold to Samuel Schwartz, accounting for 150 feet frontage on Main Street sold for a total of $16,500. These properties also sold for a then record price of $7,500 for 50 feet frontage.[37] Yet a future plan in January 1920 called for removing the second floor of the building and making a “Community House” with a floor that could seat six hundred people and a balcony above with 200 more. At this time a street was planned parallel to Main Street going behind the building and accessible from Hillside Ave. The location with its high ground, big shade trees, and access by railroad, trolley, or omnibus, was deemed an attractive location for “dances, concerts, basketball games, lectures, or what not.”[38]

Plans for apartments apparently foundered. For in November 1919 it was advertised the lower floor of the Hillside Inn of about 2700 square feet was to be leased “for light manufacturing.”[39] Though this too apparently never materialized. By February 1920 an offer was pending for purchase of the old Hillside Inn and seventeen more lots. [40] A year later in January 1921 it was reported that Rayfield and Peter Chicki of Boone Ave purchased the old Hillside Inn and surrounding lot of 60 by 140 feet, and an additional 25 foot lot facing Main Street. The paper reported “The new owners will occupy the building as a residence and will build a store facing Main Street.”[41]

Two additional lots of 25 by 125 feet were sold to J.H. Schlau and wife, and another two to Mrs. Otto H. Drews, and a plot of 50 by 50 feet and another of 10 by 50 feet to Frances Denruder, the last being sold to straighten out the lot lines of the original Dewinder tract.[42]

Andrew Checke was living at the Hillside Inn property in March 1922. We hear of this because his dog bit a girl on Hillside Avenue. Police Chief Hutchinson went to the Hillside Inn and shot the dog dead.[43] A few months later in August 1923 Pietro and Rafael Checke sold the Hillside Inn to A. Dallesandro of 169 Suydam Street, New Brunswick. He expressed the “intention of remodeling the building and opening a first class hotel,” at the time. Previously he had been proprietor of a hotel on Hiram Street in New Brunswick, and another in Monmouth Junction, which later burned down. The land with the building at the time was 175 feet by 135 feet, or about half an acre.[44] Apparently after the property was sold Ralph and Peter Cheche kept an association, for in December 1923 warrants for their arrest were issued “charging possession and sale of intoxicating liquors.” The old Hillside Inn was raided by Federal Prohibition Agents Swackhamer and Dey. The found eight quarts of moonshine whisky, which was seized and sent to Newark.[45]

That was apparently the last action the building saw for some time. It remained vacant for over a year when on January 28, 1925 a fire broke out at 2:30am in the morning. All of the Metuchen fire companies responded. Flames were in the cupola and the top of the building and damaged the two upper floors of the building. Later at 9am the fire broke out again and gained quick headway, but the firemen were able to put it out. The source was unclear because there were no wires, no heating plant or other cause for the flames, and “the building has been unoccupied for some time.” The same article recognized “The Hillside Inn is one of the landmarks of the county. For many years it was a favorite resort for dinners and parties. Since prohibition it has changed hands many times and was recently sold, it is said, to Antonio Dallesandro of New Brunswick.”[46]

169 Suydam St, New Brunswick from Google Maps

A review of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps shows that by 1929 the Hillside Inn (formerly Metuchen Inn) was demolished giving way to infill commercial development as the downtown arrived on its present form.

Advertisement for Special Hallowe’en Party at Hillside Inn, October 28, 1928 [47]

Hillside Inn Redux

An advertisement from October 28, 1926 referred to the Hillside Inn, this time on Lincoln Highway and not Main Street. A “Special Hallowe’en Party” was being held there November 1, from 9pm to 2am. James J. Healey was listed as the proprietor. This venture was short-lived for little reference can be found to it afterwards.

Metuchen Inn Redux

In modern usage the name “Metuchen Inn” carried on, this time on Middlesex Ave in the former Litterest house. The restaurant officially opened September 16, 1923.[48] It is there where proprietor H. Holstein offered a lunch and dinner service, and afternoon tea on the porch. The ad announcing their opening touted a “Homelike atmosphere, with service and cuisine of high quality at moderate prices.”[49]

[1] Metuchen, The Central New Jersey Home News, August 1, 1914, p. 7.

[2] Metuchen, The Daily Home News, August 1, 1914, p. 7.

[3] Microsoft Word – METUCHEN AND HER HISTORY (metuchen-edisonhistsoc.org)

[4] Microsoft Word – METUCHEN AND HER HISTORY (metuchen-edisonhistsoc.org)

[5] The balcony between the second and third floors was removed and the storefronts altered. In the 1950s major renovations filled in many of the windows with brick.

[6] Street Railway History, The Central New Jersey Home News, February 9, 1922, p. 7.

[7] Local Miscellany, Monmouth Democrat, June 1, 1882, p. 1.

[8] Races at the Fair Grounds, The Courier-News, July 21, 1884, p. 1.

[9] Metuchen Ablaze!, The Daily Times, November 22, 1892, p. 1.

[10] Sheriff’s Sale, The Central New Jersey Home News, April 9, 1915, p. 4.

[11] Metuchen Club Anniversary, The Daily Times, February 23, 1899, p. 8.

[12] Busch Wins His Fight for Name, The Central New Jersey Home News, September 14, 1906, p. 1.

[13] Robins Mansion Changes Hands, The Central New Jersey Home News, May 16, 1905, p. 1.

[14] License Fight on To-morrow, The Central New Jersey Home News, May 16, 1905, p. 1.

[15] Advertisement for Metuchen Inn, The Central New Jersey Home News, January 7, 1903, p. 7.

[16] Hotel Name Leads To a Law Suit, The Central New Jersey Home News, August 7, 1906, p. 1.

[17] Metuchen Inn Case Decided, The Courier-News, September 15, 1906, p. 1.

[18] Busch Wins Inn License, The Central New Jersey Home News, April 13, 1906, p. 1.

[19] Metuchen, Local Items, Perth Amboy Evening News, May 1, 1906, p. 6.

[20] Busch Wins His Fight for Name, The Central New Jersey Home News, September 14, 1906, p. 1.

[21] Killed on His Way To a Fire, The Central New Jersey Home News, April 17, 1908, p. 1.

[22] Metuchen Inn To Be Closed, Perth Amboy Evening News, April 22, 1908, p. 3.

[23] Metuchen, The Central New Jersey Home News, April 17, 1908, p. 6

[24] Metuchen Mad About Transfer, The Central New Jersey Home News, April 10, 1908, p. 1.

[25] Prohib. Speaks for a License, The Central New Jersey Home News, May 1, 1908, p. 1.

[26] Gross Must Wait for his License, The Central New Jersey Home News, May 12, 1908, p. 1.

[27] Gross Can Now Sell, Perth Amboy Evening News, October 3, 1908, p. 1.

[28] Barkeeper Gave the Alarm, The Central New Jersey Home News, January 30, 1909, p. 1.

[29] End First Day’s Hike, Dixon Evening Telegraph (Dixon, Illinois), February 13, 1913, p. 8.

[30] Notice, Perth Amboy Evening News, December 8, 1916, p. 1.

[31] Master’s Sale, The Central New Jersey Home News, August 16, 1917, p. 9.

[32] He Heralded the Hikers of Suffrage, The Central New Jersey Home News, February 13, 1913, p. 1, 3.

[33] Anti-Saloon Counsel Objects to Gross License, The Central New Jersey Home News, May 9, 1919, p. 11.

[34] Hillside Inn Sold for $30,000; Site To Be Used for Lots, The Central New Jersey Home News, July 31, 1919, p. 1.

[35] Real Estate Doings Over in Metuchen, The Central New Jersey Home News, February 22, 1920, p. 14.

[36] Group of Houses Offered for Sale by Railroad Co., The Central New Jersey Home News, October 1, 1919, p. 1.

[37] Daily News Budget From Brainy Borough, The Central New Jersey Home News, November 12, 1919, p. 13.

[38] Metuchen, The Central New Jersey Home News, January 17, 1920, p. 7.

[39] Classified advertisement, The Central New Jersey Home News, November 21, 1919, p. 31.

[40] Real Estate Doings Over in Metuchen, The Central New Jersey Home News, February 22, 1920, p. 14.

[41] Woman Anxious to Risk Life to Save Pigs, The Central New Jersey Home News, January 23, 1921, p. 9.

[42] Several Sales of Metuchen Lots Reported, The Central New Jersey Home News, January 23, 1921, p. 9.

[43] Badly Bitten by Dog, The Central New Jersey Home News, March 7, 1922, p. 10.

[44] Hillside Inn Sold,

[45] “Hillside Inn” Arrests Will be Made in Metuchen, The Central New Jersey Home News, December 31, 1923, p. 1.

[46] Fire Damages Hillside Inn at Metuchen, The Central New Jersey Home News, January 28, 1925, p. 9.

[47] Advertisement, The Central New Jersey Home News, October 28, 1926, p. 14.

[48] Metuchen News, The Central New Jersey Home News, September 15, 1923, p. 6.

[49] Advertisement for Metuchen Inn, The Central New Jersey Home News, September 14, 1923, p. 12.

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About Isaac Kremer

A nationally recognized downtown revitalization leader, downtowns Isaac managed achieved $350 million of investment, 1,300 jobs created, and were 2X Great American Main Street Award Semifinalist and a 1X GAMSA winner in 2023. His work has been featured in Newsday, NJBIZ, ROI-NJ, TapInto, and USA Today. Isaac is a Main Street America Revitalization Professional (MSARP) with additional certifications from the National Parks Service, Project for Public Spaces, and the National Development Council.

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