Original Preservation and Restoration of the Tunis-Ellicks House
By Patrick Burke & Leslie Potashner. Originally published in The Review Fall 2021, Volume LX, No. 2.
The Tunis-Ellicks House was built on the farm of Michael Parse, a Revolutionary War veteran from Scotch Plains, that settled in New Vernon after the Revolution. In 1795, Parse removed to Ohio and sold his farm to George Mitchel who built the house in a common colonial style now known as an East Jersey cottage. In 1838, Silas Tunis purchased the house, which remained in the Tunis family for 85 years. Many families lived in the house over the next decade. In 1934, the Ellicks family bought the house. In 1968, the Ellicks sold the house to Harding Township, which used it as offices for the Road Department. The house was named for the two families that lived there the longest, the Tunis and Ellicks families.
Circa 1975, Harding Township Mayor Hank Clifford had the task of building a new town hall for Harding Township. The 2.11 acre Ellicks property on Village Road was the only large open space owned by the town. Architect Patrick Burke was asked to assess the space needs for each department in town hall. Police Chief Ralph Behre wanted 5,000 square feet for his department. Sally Dudley wanted space for the library. Space was also needed for the administrators, as well as the building, zoning, and health departments. The resulting needs made the necessary structure too large for the scale and character of the village. The Kirby family donated $250,000 and the land to the township for the current municipal building on Blue Mill Road. The Tunis-Ellicks house was saved from demolition for a new town hall.
A group of concerned citizens worried about losing the colonial heritage of Harding Township formed a committee to preserve the Tunis-Ellicks house. In 1976, the Tunis-Ellicks House Preservation Committee was formed. This group was an outgrowth of the Bicentennial House Tour Committee of New Vernon. The Bicentennial Committee donated an initial $1,000 to the project. Cynthia Robinson, who was the president of the Environmental Committee, acted as chair of the committee. This group eventually became part of the Historical Society.
Three architects investigated the age of the house. They found that the larger section of the house was the older part of the building with hand hewn beams numbered by the carpenter affixed with trunnels—wooden dowels, hand-split lath, wide chestnut siding, and partially hand-wrought nails. Locals had assumed the smaller kitchen wing was the older section, but it was found to have machine-made nails and no exterior wall against the larger section. The nails were the type manufactured in the 1830s.
A plan was created for restoring the building and adapting it for public use. In 1977, the Harding Township Committee approved the restoration plan for the building. The Preservation Committee would oversee the 2.11-acre tract, but the township would maintain ownership in case the land was ever needed in the future. The committee had to be willing to move the house to another location if the town needed the property.
The restoration committee, headed by Peggy Thompson, believed the building to be in good shape, but found the underpinnings of the building needed to be rebuilt, and the electrical service, plumbing, and furnace needed be replaced. At first they decided not to replace the furnace, and use the building seasonally.
The original goal was to create a mixed-use building. The original kitchen section was restored to look authentic and to use as a museum. The original fireplace was restored and the beehive oven rebuilt. The other half of the building was designed to use as a community room for events. It is now used as an event, lecture, meeting, and exhibit space. It houses a display on the early history of Harding Township.
Two subcommittees researched the look of the building. The Decorative Arts Committee decided on colors, curtains, floor stains and furnishings. The Garden Committee researched period gardens using plant catalogs and gardening books from the period.
The Garden Committee decided on a parlor garden for the front of the house and more of a farm setting in the back. Local resident, Brent Saville, who designed the garden at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, planned extensive period plantings including geraniums, valerian, hollyhocks, lemon verbena and lavender. Later, the garden club added other period plants listed in 19th century garden diaries. They included lilies, bleeding heart, butterfly weed and Jacob’s ladder. A planned orchard was initially delayed by the construction of a new municipal garage. Six trees were planted in 1981.
The work on the building was done mostly by volunteers and funding was from private donations. In 1978, the Historic Society began an annual antique show to raise money for the restoration. The antique show ran until the recent Covid-19 pandemic.
In 1986, the parlor garden was refurbished by the New Vernon Garden Club to be authentic to the pre-1840 period. It contained more than 150 varieties of herbs and perennials.