Metuchen Memorial Day Parade 1948. Photo via Metuchen-Edison Historical Society.
Until 1870 Metuchen was part of Woodbridge Township. Because the settlers in the western part of the township were so far removed from the village of Woodbridge, they early developed a separate identity. The name “Metuchen” first appeared in 1688/89, and in 1701 an overseer of roads was appointed for “Metuchen district”. In 1705 Main Street was laid out at the same time as the road from Metuchen to Woodbridge, which one source calls a “reworking of the original road”.
The early development of Metuchen is reflected in the history of its Presbyterian Church. Sometime between 1717 and 1730 a meeting house was constructed for weekday meetings conducted by the pastor of the Woodbridge Presbyterian Church. In 1756 Metuchen Presbyterians succeeded in forming their own congregation, attesting to their growing numbers. In 1770 the congregations merged, with Metuchen getting 2/5th of the pastor’s services and Woodbridge 3/5ths; by 1772 Metuchen had grown sufficiently to warrant 50% of his time. In 1793 the two churches again separated.
From the late 18th to the early 19th century Metuchen grew little. A map of 1799 shows ten buildings in the center of town along Main Street. By 1834 a Presbyterian church, a store, two taverns and about a dozen dwellings could be found. The opening of the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike (now Middlesex Avenue) in 1806, and the Perth Amboy and Bound Brook Turnpike in 1808 seem not to have spurred growth to any appreciable extent. Not until the beginning of the railroad era did commercial and residential development surge.
In 1836 the New Jersey Railroad was completed to New Brunswick. The construction of a station at Main Street made it inevitable that this would develop as the principal street. A business section soon began to appear between Middlesex Avenue and the railroad tracks, and commercial and service establishments gradually began to assume a more modern aspect (the typical 18th century tavern, for example, was replaced by the equally typical 19th century hotel).
The second half of the 19th century was a period of social, cultural and religious diversification in Metuchen. Between 1859 and 1866 the Reformed Church was organized, the first Catholic mass was celebrated and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was founded. In 1870 both the Building and Loan Association and the library opened, the same year that Raritan Township was incorporated. As the largest village in the new township, Metuchen naturally became its commercial and cultural center and acquired substantial political control. In 1879, the literary and debating society was formed, and in 1883 the Village Improvement Society. By 1882 Metuchen School #15 had an enrollment of 256 pupils, and by 1885 the New Jersey Gazette listed thirty-seven businesses.
The decade of the 1890s was a period of expansion for public utilities:
- 1894 – telegraph service was begun
- 1897 – telephone service begun by the N.Y. and N.J. Telephone Co.
In the same year the Midland Water Company commenced operation and supplied hydrants for “newly-formed” volunteer fire companies.
- 1899 – new street lighting system installed. At about the same time the Metuchen Wheelmen, a bicycling organization was formed, which lobbied for improved roads.
- 1900 – trolley service began.
In addition, by the end of the decade, commerce had grown to such an extent that the New Brunswick Directory listed 91 businesses in 1899.
The new century began with what residents saw as the biggest improvement of all, incorporation, in 1900. According to the Federal Writer’s Project history of Metuchen, “At the first meeting of the new government…committees were appointed on various phases of borough government: finance, ordinances, streets, water, street lights, the poor, and miscellaneous matters.” Formation of the Borough Improvement League in 1902 continued the trend for progressive legislation and government reform.
Commuting had become a way of life for Metuchen residents by the turn-of-the-century. Daily commuters numbered 400 out of a population of 1786 by the year 1900. Accessibility to New York City and New Brunswick enhanced the borough’s reputation as a prestigious place to live, and the modern suburban ideal of small-town life where tired businessmen could escape the pace of the city grew in popularity. Soon the borough was discovered by New York bankers, brokers and literati whose presence increased sufficiently by the early part of the century to win for Metuchen the sobriquet “the Brainy Borough”. Henry Mills Alden, editor of Harper’s Magazine, and novelist Mary Wilkins Freeman were the borough’s two brightest stars.
The biggest change to affect Metuchen between the World Wars was the rise of the automobile. In the 1920’s service stations were built, and the construction of Route 1 in 1930 diverted traffic away from Middlesex Avenue, and undoubtedly helped the borough retain its residential character. To quote once again from the 1939 Federal Writers Project history “Metuchen today is simply a larger version of the Metuchen of 1900 or even 1870. No industrial development of any consequence has occurred nor is likely to occur…With its economic interests divided between New York and Middlesex County, Metuchen itself has been able to concentrate upon developing a community in which living generally takes precedence over working.” That may be as good a definition as any of suburban community. Despite some moderate amount of industrial development brought about by World War II, Metuchen today still fits the same description.
The three centers of post-Civil War suburban architecture in Middlesex County-Dunellen, Highland Park and Metuchen-share Italianate architecture as their common denominator. Metuchen unquestionably has the greatest stock of such houses, as well as good representation of earlier vernacular dwellings, and some fine examples of residential architecture from later in the 19th century. Two outstanding examples of the nearly cubical Italianate house with cupola, falling midway between vernacular and high style architecture, are found at 36 and 76 Clive Street. The transition from the standard 5-bay Georgian-Federal type to the bracketed Italianate vernacular can be seen in a number of houses on Amboy Aveneue and Main Street. Although Metuchen lacks a great variety of high quality commercial architecture from the last quarter of the 19th century, the building at 406 Main Street is a good example of the turn of the century commercial and civic expansiveness. Another nearby building at 394 Main Street now appears to have been built as vernacular commercial structure, but in fact began as a firehouse; the decorative terra cotta plaque on the second floor is noteworthy. Two of the buildings in Metuchen recorded by the Historic American Buildings Survey are among the most interesting in the borough. The building known as the Borough Improvement League is a rare example of the vernacular Greek Revival used for a public building, and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church is an unusually fine example of a Carpenter’s Gothic church.