Robinvale – Metuchen, New Jersey

Isaac Kremer/ March 28, 2020/ preservation, Writing/ 0 comments

Where there are suburban streets and single-family houses today, Metuchen once had a number of sizable estates. While most are long gone their memory lives on in street names and written sources. Uplands was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Holden Spear (Upland Ave and Spear St today), Henry Redfield (Redfield Village Drive), and Wright Robins (Robinvale).

Before getting into the story of each estate, it’s worth saying a word about Woodbridge Avenue. Among the oldest thoroughfares it runs westward from Main Street. Around 1920 when there was a dispute over the property line, a court case cited old lines that had been in effect 150 years dating back to 1770. Other accounts take it even further than that. Naturally, Woodbridge Avenue provides a convenient dividing line to compare activities on the north and south sides of this historic thoroughfare.

Robinvale Depot, Metuchen, New Jersey (Images of America – Metuchen, Arcadia Publishing, 2000)

Among the earliest references to a residence on the south side of Woodbridge Ave were for “Capt. Robins.” This would have been for Captain Nathan Robins (1782-1858), a merchant from New York, and formerly Momouth County, N.J. He relocated to the Metuchen area in 1840. Members of his family included Nathaniel, Amos, and Wright Robins. Of the three Wright Robins achieved perhaps the greatest success.

Wright Robins (1824-1882) was a prominent Democratic politician and one-time presiding officer of the New Jersey Senate. Among his accomplishments were the construction of a little known train station north of Henry Street near where it meets Grove Avenue. Built in 1879 for $25,000, local sources claimed this was one of the first concrete buildings in New Jersey. Wright Robins gave it to the Pennsylvania Railroad. Robins himself died in 1882 at the age of 56. The railroad continued to operate a station here until 1905. Subsequently John Welsh resided on the upper floor. In 1913 a fire burnt the station to the ground. The legacy of Robins lived on even after the station was lost in the name of the neighborhood all around it that shared his name – Robinvale.

A brief news article from July 27, 1891, breathlessly anticipated the laying out of Robinvale and what it meant for Metuchen, that had a population of 770 people at the time:

If all the plans are carried out that are said to be under the consideration of the Pennsylvania Railroad for the improvement of property at Robinvale, there is every probability of that little suburb of Metuchen becoming a place of beauty and importance. Rumor says that they have purchased or are about to purchase the beautifully located property known as the Redfield place, and they have had maps drawn up showing a most complete net-work of streets and building lots, upon which they intend building cottages… There is no better place than the Redfield property for building a small colony of cottages, and were such a plan put into effect, the result to a large company like the Pennsylvania would be profitable.

A Big Movement on Foot by the Pennsylvania,” The Daily Times, New Brunswick, New Jersey, July 27, 1891, Page 1.

Over a decade later it 1904, a local paper had the report: “William T. McAdams has announced an auction sale of 2 lots at Robinvale for May 30.” The article went on, “This is a move to boom Metuchen and its real estate” (“Metuchen,” The Central New Jersey Home News, New Brunswick, New Jersey, May 25, 1904, Page 7).

Around 1922 a paper recounted the story of the railroad depot being built and hopes for development of the neighborhood, though was forced to conclude:

But some reason the new improvement did not bring the hoped for speedy settlement of new people and the hoped for extra business to the railroad. Gradually trains were cut off and when the depot was partially destroyed by fire, the railroad company instead of rebuilding tore the remnants down and abandoned the business.

Facts about Robinvale,” The Central New Jersey Home News, New Brunswick, New Jersey, February 9, 1922, Page 7.

This subdivision was in a sorry state of affairs in the 1920’s with the train station that once anchored it now gone. The local paper in 1922 called Jonesdale Avenue at the time as “little more than an alleyway, twenty-five feet wide.” The paper further lamented for how aside from the collection of taxes “Municipal authorities seem to have forgotten the experience of the people of Robinvale” (Ibid). When an attempt to get improvements was rebuffed by the Borough Council, residents produced a petition and attended a subsequent council meeting. Of the proceedings the paper wrote “One man was especially emphatic in declaring that never more would he vote for a Republican ticket, if the work did not begin, and a lady home-owner gave due and proper notice that war would be declared if the work was not begun speedily and then some” (Ibid).

This time the call was heeded and sidewalks laid out on Wilmer Place, Henry Street, Grove Avenue, and Jonesdale Avenue covering 6,000 linear feet. The newspaper wittily concluded: “That the people of Robinvale would be the first beneficiaries of the ash collections scheme that is to be put into effect in about a week, in that all the ashes collected in the neighborhood would be deposited as a bed for future road improvement. All of which proves that if you want something, ask for it, and if you back up your request with proper emphasis the people that collect your taxes will give you a quid pro grio” (Ibid).

A Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from August 1920 shows how the neighborhood looked around this time. Maps like this were created for purposes of helping agents assign insurance policies by showing conditions of the surrounding properties and their relative placement near one another. This made it possible to issue policies without actually having to visit the property. For the historian these are a treasure trove, providing a time capsule of buildings, neighborhoods, and entire cities at an interval of every few years. The 1920 map is important in that it shows the former Robinvale train station property as a parallelogram in the upper right corner. Large stretches of undeveloped lots adjoin it. A smattering of houses grouped together defined the neighborhood at this time.

1920 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Sheet 7, Metuchen, New Jersey, with the Robinvale neighborhood outlined in red as laid out between Jonesdale Ave, Woodbridge Ave, and Grove Ave.

Another feature of the 1920 Sanborn of considerable interest is how streets and lots had been laid out to the south side of Woodbridge Avenue between Woodbridge Avenue and Amboy Avenue. Several north-south street including Peltier Avenue, Carson Avenue, Eggert Avenue, McCoy Avenue, and Sidney Place are bisected by Hanson Avenue that runs east to west and connects these streets to form a compact neighborhood. This subdivision was laid out the very people whose names are recorded in the street names.

One final detail is to the far right near the center of this important map are outbuildings associated with Robins Park, the home of Wright Robins, on the south side of Woodbridge Avenue. This estate was situated just beyond the edge of the map to the east. Likewise, the presence of another estate just north of this is remembered through the street names Upland Avenue and Spear Street.

In our next post we’ll share a little bit more about the Uplands estate of Holden Spear.

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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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