|Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton|
Elric Endersby Brings the Past to Life Through Preservation
Echoes of past times have always fascinated Elric Endersby. As a boy, he noticed old buildings and recreated them on paper in a series of drawings. He also made models of houses, and collected miniatures.
"I always liked old things, old toys, old buildings, and I liked being outside. I liked learning from the landscape. I also loved to draw, and I always drew houses. Anyone who loves to draw will never be idle," says Mr. Endersby, who is now co-owner of the New Jersey Barn Company, which rescues threatened barns, dismantles and removes them, and then re-erects them in new locations.
His boyhood in Princeton, a community steeped in history, offered Mr. Endersby a rich foundation for his emerging interest in history and preservation and, indeed, for his later career.
Born in Princeton Hospital in 1946, Elric was the son of Elric and Lemma Endersby, both New Jersey natives.
"They married in 1941, and came to Princeton," recalls Mr. Endersby. "My father, who was in the fabric and wall paper business, commuted to New York and then, during the war, to Philadelphia. He was also president of the Princeton YMCA."
Growing up in the small town atmosphere of the 1940s and '50s of Princeton was a happy time. The family, including younger sister Debbie, lived on Province Line Road, which was then out in the country, says Mr. Endersby.
"We were country kids and depended on each other and our imagination for entertainment. We were blessed. Princeton was a wonderful town then, a small college town amidst a wonderful necklace of farms. All I can say is that growing up there in the fifties was a very nurturing experience."
Elric and Debbie attended "Story Hour" on Saturday mornings at Bainbridge House, which was then Princeton's public library.
"After that, we'd go to Castania's for lunch and have a hamburger and milkshake," remembers Mr. Endersby. "Debbie and I also had our own little newspaper when I was 10 and she was seven. We called it 'Vanity Fair, Jr.' We'd go around on our bikes and collect news from our neighbors. Had anyone gotten a new car? A dog, etc.? My mother typed it up and made carbons. We had 12 copies at two cents a copy every two weeks or so.
"I also remember in the fourth grade feeding the elephants at the circus which was located where the Community Park School is now. And the first wedding I ever attended was when my third grade teacher, Miss Wentzel, got married. She invited the class. I recently called her on the occasion of her 50th wedding anniversary."
Elric sang in the Trinity Church choir, and he remembers, "Mr. Rudy, the choir director, was especially influential in my life. Like my father, he had an amazing sense of humor, and he encouraged me. I was the lead choir boy, and that was a good thing at that point in my life."
Another very important person in Elric' s life and in the Endersby household was Lillian Worthy. "She had come up to New Jersey from Georgia after the war, and she helped my mother clean the house. She was our black 'mother'. Our affection for and sense of security with black people was fostered by our relationship with her."
Elric's interest both in drawing and observing houses attracted him to architecture at a very young age, he says. "At six years old, I knew I wanted to be an architect. Winston Churchill said, 'Great buildings make great men.' We were exposed to a rich architectural vocabulary all around Princeton, not only its 18th Century roots and Princeton University, but it was just all part of the landscape and what we absorbed.
"This was amplified in 1955, when my parents took us to England for several months. We absorbed another culture, and saw ancient cathedrals and monuments, and also a lot of green."
Back in Princeton, Elric attended Valley Road School and later, Princeton High School. He remembers many teachers who were important to him, and served as role models in his life.
"Gladys Kyle at Valley Road loved history, and she had great memories of local history, which she shared with us. In seventh and eighth grade, Eugene Doherty was my English teacher, and he made learning grammar fun, He was one of the first people who encouraged me to write," reports Mr. Endersby.
Theater was another interest, which originated for him at the McCarter Children's Theatre. "I had always gone to those performances, and we were lucky to have this when we were growing up.
"In eighth grade," he continues, "Miss Ballard, my science teacher, was instrumental in my later getting into some plays. She knew I had no aptitude or interest in science, but she had us give a 10 to 15-minute extemporaneous talk on a related topic. I did Stonehenge and Roman architecture. I was a shy boy, and that experience gave me confidence to try out for a play at Princeton High School during my sophomore year.
"I was not a very good student at Princeton High. I was always sort of a day-dreamer, but I got the part of Noah's son in 'Noah', with John Lithgow (a prominent actor today). I later got involved with McCarter Theatre and PJ &B productions.
"Today, I do a lot of public speaking, helping historical groups start oral histories, participating in workshops on barn rescue and preservation, and these early experiences were very influential."
After graduating from PHS in 1964, Elric attended Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where he majored in the history of architecture. His interest in history now began to overshadow architecture as a career.
"I loved Trinity," he says. "It was the right place for me. It was small, and I got to know my professors well, and made lasting friendships with the other students."
While there, he headed the Arts organization, and later, after graduation, he worked at Trinity, designing and editing college publications, including catalogs, alumni magazines, etc. He had also become interested in 19th Century architecture at Trinity, and after a summer in California to restore a home in Monterey, he returned to Hartford.
"The 1960s were a period when preservation become much more widespread," he explains. "I had a notion to start a landmark society, but I ran out of money, and returned to Princeton.
"That was a heady time in Princeton," he adds. "A lot was going on politically in the country, and it was reflected in Princeton. My hair was long, and my politics radical!"
Also, during this time, his interest in historical preservation grew even stronger. As he reports, "I happened to be walking along Nassau Street, and they were installing a replica of an 18th Century doorway in Bainbridge House, which had recently become headquarters for the Historical Society of Princeton. I had some conversations with people there, including Connie Grieff and Nancy Knox, and ended up with an assignment to collect oral histories."
This became part of the Princeton History Project, whose purpose was to collect, preserve, and present memories as a resource for future study, and a broad range of ethnic and socio-economic groups were involved.
Mr. Endersby began interviewing people for the project, and found that he had an affinity for eliciting their stories. "I interviewed people I had grown up with and a lot of teachers. I ended up with 80 interviews after a year, and then decided to head for graduate school at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, a part of the New York State University system."
During 1971 and '72, he studied historic preservation and American folklife.
Returning to Princeton, he rejoined the oral history program, and also wrote a series of columns for the Princeton Packet on a variety of topics relating to Princeton's past, and excerpted comments from the oral history interviews.
He was also involved with a program called "Townspeople" at the public library. A group of some 60 people met nine or 10 times a year for discussion.
"We'd have a topic anything really, relating to Princeton," says Mr. Endersby. "Peddlers, costumes, dolls, toys, the Canal, summer in Princeton, etc. It was great, and everyone showed up.
"I was also working with high school students, and we found a directory listing all the adults in Princeton in 1923. We compared it with the phone book in 1973, and there were 500 names in common."
All of these projects led to a new publication, he explains. "It became obvious that there was a lot of interest in Princeton history, more than we could cover in just the articles. So, my friend Jamie Sayen and I began 'The Princeton Recollector' in 1975. It was all about local Princeton and its history. People immediately started sending in stories, and we would also publish excerpts from the oral histories. It was a 'town alumni' magazine, and was sent to 48 states and several countries."
"The Recollector" was assembled in the Bainbridge House attic at night by its staff members, who also worked day jobs. It was eventually published almost monthly, and continued until 1986.
Gail Stern, current Director of the Historical Society of Princeton, is grateful to Mr. Endersby for his contribution in preserving living history. "Ric is an incredible innovator. He was doing oral history and chronicling the histories of women and ethnic communities before anyone else in this area. So often, the histories of ethnic groups go undocumented, but because of him and his colleagues at 'The Recollector', we have a legacy of rich information in these areas.
"'The Recollector' publication is one of the most frequently-used resources in the Historical Society's library. Ric was the pioneer in documenting the social and cultural history of Princeton as much on everyday life as about the famous and infamous."
Adds Mr. Endersby's sister, Debbie Gwazda of Pennington: "I worked briefly at the Historical Society, and it was interesting for me to get calls about 'The Recollector' from people who want to revisit history. Ric really captured history that is important. From his point of view, it wasn't so much about the famous, as about the history of ordinary people, the mini heroes, who live their lives day-to-day, doing their jobs, and creating their own history.
"In a way, what Ric has done, saving history, is just as vital as saving the environment. I respect him a lot."
Mr. Endersby's love of history was very much a factor in the next stage of his career, which combines history and his passion for old buildings.
"The next chapter began in 1976, when I met my business partner, Alex Greenwood." he explains. "Five of us were renting a farmhouse in Dutch Neck, when Alex, who was working as a carpenter, came to do some repairs. We found that we shared an interest in architectural detective work. A short time later, Alex and some friends bought 'Glencairn', an 18th Century house. It was in need of serious restoration, and that house was like a graduate program training in historical architecture. We wanted to restore it authentically, and we honed our skills in preservation.
"In addition," continues Mr. Endersby, "a garage facility was needed. The original barn had collapsed, and we had to provide an appropriate out building. We thought the most suitable thing was to find another barn and move it to the grounds. We already had the existing foundation. We wanted a timber-framed building, and looked locally. We found one in Dutch Neck, and in 1977, gathered a group of friends together to get the hay out of it. Then, we stripped the roof, but we really didn't know what we were doing. We made a lot of mistakes. We took off all the rafters. The barn was made up of a series of structural sections (bents), and then, during all this work, a major part of the barn collapsed!
They persevered, however, and eventually they were able to accomplish the move. At the culmination, they had an old-fashioned barn-raising, followed by a celebratory barn dance. "Everyone came all our friends and family," remembers Mr. Endersby. "The project could not have been done except in the large company of others sharing their labors."
He recalls that there was a letdown in the five or six months following the reassembling of the barn, but then, they began to think in terms of finding more barns at risk and preserving them in new locations.
"Alex said there must be someone out there interested in barns and saving them. So, we started looking."
Thus was born the fledgling New Jersey Barn Company, which was incorporated in 1980. Seeking barns to save, Mr. Endersby and Mr. Greenwood searched the New Jersey countryside, finding many, but not always able to buy them.
"We looked at some, but our offers were rejected," recalls Mr. Endersby. "Then, we found one in Flemington, and sold it in January of 1980, and in the spring of that year, re-erected it in Connecticut."
Most of the historic barns saved and sold by the New Jersey Barn Company have a new lease on life as private residences, offices, studios, and occasionally, stables and stores. Because of the vast changes in agriculture, these 18th and 19th structures are no longer suitable as barns.
The work involved is time-consuming, pain-staking, and at times dangerous. The barn is stripped down to the bare bones, eliminating any materials that have been added over the years. It is then disassembled, documented by photos, measured drawings, and a scale model. Each post and beam is labeled and tagged, and then placed in storage until the reassembly gets underway, at which time, the dismantled beams are taken to the new site. The frame is re-erected in its original form on top of a foundation.
Mr. Endersby, who participated in all the hands-on work in the company's beginning, now specializes in measured drawings, labeling, and tagging. As the business has grown, he and his partner are busier and have more requests than they can fill.
The barns are mostly found in New Jersey, but have been reassembled in many other places, including Massachusetts, Long Island, New York, Texas, and Montana.
As the company has gained momentum, Mr. Endersby and Mr. Greenwood have been approached by celebrities, such as Steven Spielberg, for whom they transformed a barn into a summer home in Long Island.
Locally, they have re-erected several barns in Princeton, including one for Alex and Carol Wojciechowicz, long-time friends of Mr. Endersby. The barn is multi-purpose, and Mrs. Wojciechowicz has been delighted with this addition to the property. "It came from Plainsboro, was erected in 1991, and is now a work-out room, party space, and can be a garage," she explains.
"Elric has been a very good friend since the early 1970s. He is really a walking history book. We call him 'Mr. History'! Anything you want to know about a dwelling, he can tell you. There are all kinds of things stored in that computer chip in his brain!"
Other barns in the area have been relocated to Montgomery Township, Harlingen Historical Center, Howell Living History Farm, and others are in storage, ready to be re-erected at Rockingham, Monroe Township, Cranbury Township, and Passaic County.
The company has also become more involved in the design aspects of the work, endeavoring to make certain that both the exterior and interior of the structures are true to the original character, whatever their current use may be.
"Neither Alex or I became the architects we at one time intended to be," points out Mr. Endersby, "but we work with qualified architects, and Alex and I are two/thirds of the design team. We have a large library and want to get all the details right.
"Also, in addition to reassembling barns, we have done a number of projects of redesign based on historical precedent in many different styles."
The award-winning company has received accolades from the American Timber Framers Guild, the American Builders Council, and the American Institute of Architects, as well as wide press coverage, including cover stories in Architectural Digest.
"Vast credit must go to my partner Alex," says Mr. Endersby. "Neither one of us could have developed the Barn Company without each other. Our abilities and specialties complement each other.
They are also co-authors of two handsome and informative books: "Barn, The Art of a Working Building" and "Barn, Preservation & Adaptation".
"We are trying very hard to get people to save these barns," says Mr. Endersby. "There is so much development. Sadly, we are offered many more barns than we can save. One of the things we have worked hard on is to alert people to the importance of these buildings. Since the structures are not used for their original purpose now, we have to find a vital new purpose for them. I have many speaking engagements trying to encourage people to preserve these buildings. One of the most pleasing things is that in the last 10 years, people are beginning to recognize the slender remaining evidence of our agrarian past."
As are so many others, Mr. Greenwood is struck by Mr. Endersby's extensive knowledge of history. As he says, "A passion for history and vernacular architecture has motivated Elric for as long as I have known him. For Elric, history is both a vocation and avocation. His enthusiasm for capturing and documenting the past has certainly enriched the community."
A bachelor, Mr. Endersby especially enjoys the companionship of his sister, her husband, and their three sons, as well as his many friends. "I am terribly fortunate," he says. "I have a wonderful family and a whole series of extraordinary people who have been in my life all along the way. I am also grateful for my parents. I enjoy the opportunity to reflect on the lessons they taught me, and I am very glad that they lived to see me buy an 18th Century house and raise my barn.
"Both my parents loved words. My mother loved a turn of phrase, and my father, who never went to college, made a point to learn 10 new words every week and use them in conversation. My father also had a great sense of humor and sense of fun. He helped us to see the lighter side."
In cooperation with friends, Mr. Endersby has recently purchased land in the Dominican Republic, a country he has visited many times in recent years. "I love it there. I love the people and the climate. I love the ocean and body surfing. And it's a great place for me to work. I do a lot of measured drawings there."
At home, which is now Ewing, he does indeed live in an 18th century house and has a restored barn on his property. Princeton remains an important part of his life, however. He serves on the board of the Historical Society, the Township Preservation Commission, and has been on the board of the Arts Council. In addition, he swims five days a week at the YMCA pool.
"I was one of the first people to use that pool," he reports. "I've probably swum a half million lengths in that pool!"
The Princeton of his boyhood that small country town is in many ways part of the past Mr. Endersby strives to keep alive. There are reminders of it, though, he says. "Despite its growth, Princeton is still enough of a small town to have character. Princeton is still my town. I always associate myself with it.
"Also, there was a series of maps in the lobby of the Valley Road School when it was the Municipal Building. One was taken in 1955, an aerial view of Princeton. I look at that, and I can find Rosedale and Province Line and see our property. It puts a lump in my throat. I look at it and wonder what we were all doing that day whether it was my father edging the driveway or my mother adding mulch to the garden. That world was so remarkable. It was such a nurturing family, and all those wonderful people and such an interesting town to live in, with all its resources."
It is no surprise to him that Princeton has become a centerpiece of the state. "Princeton has always been on the nation's spinal column," he explains. "Nassau Street was part of an Indian path, then became King's Highway, from New York to Philadelphia. There was a big carriage trade. It was a place to stop, with a number of taverns and inns. Then came the turnpikes Brunswick Pike, which became Route One, and the Princeton Pike, and the Canal, and railroad, and air routes.
"Then, of couse, there is the intellectual fermentation in town from Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study."
The past continues to be Mr. Endersby's future, he observes, and he looks forward to finding new uses for abandoned barns. "I love the work I do with the Barn Company, to have the chance to investigate these structures. I especially like the detective work, the discovery. The real thrill is when you find something written on a timber, or a paper jammed in to keep a floorboard from squeaking. We found a call to appear for jury duty in 1818 in Flemington, and also found what was left of a letter, with the words 'barn' and 'thatch.'"
As his sister Debbie Gwazda points out, "When the Barn Company came along, Ric was able to turn a love of history and architecture into a profession. Again, it was the ordinary buildings, not the grand estates that he focused on. My youngest son has worked for Ric for six years at the company. He is one of many young adults who work there, and Rick really enjoys sharing his reverence for old buildings, and helping the next generation follow the clues and share the architectural details that tell the story of the building. Ric peels away the layers, and I'm sure he enjoys speculating on the history of the people who lived there and the lives they lived."
Indeed, bringing history alive and sharing it with others is what matters to Mr. Endersby, and he traces a continuum from his early years in oral history to his work today.
"No satisfaction has been quite like the work with oral history and 'The Recollector' and spending my twenties and early thirties with people who were in their eighties. I talked with 50 to 60 people in Princeton who lived here when Woodrow Wilson was in town. The whole point for me was to gain perspective. I called it 'Periscopic Princeton.' Through their eyes, I could have been a spy in Princeton in 1900.
"I will be 60 in March," he reflects, "and now I work with college interns at the Barn Company. I love this time of year, when we have five or six college students working with us architects-to-be or future preservationists. With their enthusiasm and curiosity, it all comes alive again. And we can pass on the continuity of living history to another generation."