This time of the year always brings me back to thoughts of the fall of 1776 and General Washington’s retreat from Fort Lee, or as we refer to it, "Washington’s Retreat to Victory."
As mentioned in previous pieces, General Washington led more than 2,000 of his troops west on Fort Lee's present day Main Street on Nov. 20, 1776 as they abandoned Fort Lee when they received warning that the British had crossed the Hudson River and were heading to capture Fort Lee.
This archives piece will deal with the area of Fort Lee where the main fortification of Fort Constitution, later named Fort Lee, was built in 1776.
While the Palisade Interstate Park has done a magnificent job in recreating the spirit of “Fort” Lee at the Fort Lee Historic Park off Hudson Terrace, the actual “Fort” was located near Monument Park, from Parker Avenue east to Kaufer Lane.
Also located in this English Neighborhood - this was the pre-colonial name of this section of Fort Lee - were the huts that served as living quarters for the soldiers, and the kitchens and ovens of Washington’s Army. As recently as the early 1970s, some of these ovens were still visible, carved out of stone.
As a kid, my friends and I rode our bicycles from our Coytesville neighborhood to see this stone oven, which sat where the Century high-rise was built. We witnessed the efforts of a lone woman who tried to save the historic artifact from destruction, but she unfortunately lost that valiant fight. However she inspired many of us then kids of Fort Lee, and those of us who witnessed her work ended up joining the Fort Lee Historical Society in the late 1980s. The result was the creation of the first museum in Fort Lee history, the Fort Lee Museum, which is in the historic Judge Moore House across the street from where the oven was destroyed.
In reading the history of Fort Lee and the Old English Neighborhood, there are many stories of residents uncovering artifacts from the Revolutionary War. The Federspiel family, who came to Fort Lee in 1848 and who created the road that bears the family name today, found many of these artifacts buried on their property.
When the former Hook’s Ice Pond, which no longer exists, was widened in 1898, the workmen uncovered along the east side of pond quantities of lead bullets, bullet moulds, cannon balls, a sabre, bayonets, bombshells, shoe buckles, a saddle pommel and stirrups, shovels, a pickaxe and other tools. These are just two incidents of dozens of documented finds of Revolutionary artifacts in this neighborhood, which is bound by Palisade Avenue to the west, Main Street to the South and Kaufer Lane and Old Palisade Road and lower Main Street – River Road to the east.
As recently as this past decade, a dozen boxes of Revolutionary War artifacts were uncovered during a state-mandated archaeological dig for the extension of Federspiel Street to Main Street. This was a state project, so the dig was mandated as this neighborhood is listed in the county registry as an historic area.
The artifacts where donated to the Fort Lee Historical Society, where they are housed in our Fort Lee Museum archive. We bring some of these artifacts into the Fort Lee school system each year as well as placing them on display in the museum.
Currently there are plans to develop portions of the area east of Kaufer Lane to lower Main Street and River Road. There is an application before the Fort Lee Zoning Board to build a high-rise on this land with components for affordable housing.
The Fort Lee Historic Sites Committee, of which I am chair, is a committee of the Borough of Fort Lee. We have been hard at work for the last year in the creation of an amendment to the Fort Lee Historic Committee Ordinance that would afford protection of the artifacts that we know exist in this specific section of Fort Lee.
We hope to have this old English Neighborhood designated an Historic District by the borough. This would not afford protection to any structures that sit in this area, for truth be told, there are very few left.
This effort seeks to make a minimal archeological dig mandated regarding any variance granted by the Fort Lee Zoning Boards for development projects in this specific Old English neighborhood. The cost of said digs are estimated to be from $500- $2,000.
The point of this local legislation would be to prevent the wholesale destruction of artifacts from 1776. We would hope the end result would be that the artifacts pulled from this neighborhood and saved would end up in the archive of the Fort Lee Museum for the benefit of future generations of Fort Lee residents.
As this neighborhood is changing, so has it always changed. The Palisades Condominium at 100 Old Palisades Road sits on the property where Fort Lee’s Castle sat from about 1900 until it burned down in the early 1970s. This old wooden Victorian building housed many occupants over the years, including the Ortlip family of artists.
In the 1960s it was leased by the artist Peter Max, and here was shot portions of the Warhol like film Ciao Manhattan starring “The Factory Girl,” Edie Sedgwick.
There are some buildings that have been saved and preserved in the borough, and they include the Judge Moore House, which houses the Fort Lee Museum. This building sits near much of this Revolutionary War history. However this being Fort Lee and its location near NYC, we realize we cannot save every structure, though we have tried many times to do just that even though they often seem like lost causes. But as Jimmy Stewart’s character, Senator Jefferson Smith, said in the 1939 film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, "Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for," and we members of the Fort Lee Historic Committee and the Fort Lee Historic Society will continue to fight for these lost causes as hard as we fought once for the preservation of the Barrymore house on Hammett Avenue in Fort Lee a decade ago.
Though the house where Drew Barrymore’s great-grandfather, acclaimed thespian Maurice Barrymore, lived with his son John Barrymore is gone today, destroyed for two large duplexes, that fight led us to start semi-annual historic jitney tours of Fort Lee and the creation of historic maps and markers to make citizens more aware of the history of our borough in the hopes that this awareness will eventually lead to the protection of some of our remaining historic structures.
We hope the creation of this proposed historic district in a small area of Fort Lee will pave the way for more history being preserved. For as we develop new structures in the 21st century, we need to preserve some of the structures and history that will sit in the shadows they cast.
Many of us support the development in the Main Street area because it will bring vitality, commerce and a new life to Main Street. Also the past is not being ignored in this development as it will house a modern, three-screen cinema with an attached film museum so we can celebrate Fort Lee’s role as the first American film town via retrospectives, independent and foreign films and, for the first time, a world class annual film festival in the town where the American film industry was born.
Perhaps such a theatre could be named "The Barrymore" as a way to preserve our history in a new building named after a famed family who lived in old Fort Lee.
Recently, I took the time to explore the area of Kaufer Lane, Old Palisade Road and lower Main Street to River Road. Check this area out because soon it will be gone with the wind.
The old garage that houses Prestige Auto Body and the adjacent abandoned and boarded up homes are reminiscent of many of the structures that lined lower Main Street and are representative of Fort Lee as riverfront community, and soon they will be razed.
I felt like an explorer uncovering a lost civilization as I climbed the rocks and walked through the brambles to view this part of Fort Lee’s past that I feel so very connected to in more ways than I can express in words. I knew the families that lived in these wonderful but forgotten houses.
As a resident whose family has lived in Fort Lee since the 19th century, I have witnessed many changes, some good and some bad. I have grown to realize that we have to fight to protect whatever we can from the past, knowing full well that every effort won’t succeed. In fact, most will not, but the occasional victory is worth all the losses.
If we can successfully petition for an ordinance change to help preserve the artifacts from 1776 that are buried in this specific neighborhood, then the ghosts of Washington’s troops will rest well knowing that the memory of their time in Fort Lee will not be forgotten. We owe that to them, we owe that to ourselves and, most improtantly, we owe that to the children and future generations of Fort Lee.