On a rainy May morning, an LHS group visited Weeden Street in the southeast corner of Lambertville (view a street map here). We were hosted by resident Gordon Haas, the celebrated local artist (visit his gallery online or at 71 Bridge Street), and joined by Goat Hill historian Tom Ogren. Gordon welcomed us and pointed out the large sunken area with concrete rubble beside Weeden Street, before it forks into Coon Path and remnants of George Washington Road.
Gordon Haas: When we moved in, this pond was full and the dam was intact. It was built to control the release of water to the Lambertville Rubber Company down the hill across River Road. After several bad storms, the dam eventually collapsed.
The pond is part of Rubber Mill Creek (so named in the 1873 map below).
North of the rubber company was the mill built by James C. Weeden, who in 1851 emigrated from England to New Hope. In 1860 he built the Mountain Spring Mill, which manufactured parchment copying paper and tissue manillas. Weeden promptly thrived and became a prominent community leader; he died in 1866 at the age of 49 and is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery. Weeden and his wife Ann raised a nephew, William H. Gandy (aka Gandey), who managed the mill from 1866-1878, after which Ann assumed control. The Mountain Spring Mill operated through the turn of the century, became vacant during the Depression, and burned down in August 1937, as reported in The Beacon. The site is now the north parking lot of the Laceworks complex.
Gordon led us up toward his home at 50 Weeden Street (also known as Coon Path). The road and the area have long epitomized rugged, steep terrain, as evidenced in this 1908 advertisement in The Beacon:
Gordon Haas: Our property is actually two lots in two towns: the barn to the west is in Lambertville and the old house is in West Amwell. My wife Christine and I bought the house in 1999 from Marjorie Apple, who was the music teacher at East Amwell School and now lives in New Hope.
Marjorie Apple bought the secluded house “way up on the hill over the river” in 1974, she told the Bucks County Herald, “It was a very rundown place but I fell in love with it.” West Amwell Township Clerk Betty Jane Hunt visited Apple and discussed the residence for The Beacon in September 1995: “Her parents thought she was crazy, but it was the only thing she could afford… There is no garbage collection, recycling, UPS or mail deliveries… Her water was pumped from the creek until after that bad 1993-94 winter when she had a well dug. There would be dirt in the line when it rained and no water when there was a drought or the lines froze.” Uninvited guests included two copperheads: one bit Marjorie’s terrier, who was saved by the vet, and the second, which was lying “on the couch in the living room,” simply disappeared.
Gordon Haas: I believe Marjorie kept copperhead antivenom in her fridge! We haven’t had any snakes inside, but I see some occasionally on the grounds.
Hunt’s article references a prior resident’s research that described the hillside in the colonial era as “…inhabited by Indians, a few white people, copperheads, rattlesnakes, and wolves. Across from the brook was a small orchard and there was a cabin housing Indian guides for Coryell, who owned all the land in the area.” The local Lenape presence included a major 100-foot-wide trail, as noted by Stacy Bray in The Beacon in 1897: “The trail from Trenton northward took a slight turn to the right to near Ege’s gate below Lambertville, thence over and up the road by the residence of Henry Ohl and down the ‘coon-path’ to the Rubber Mill, thence up the river shore over the old road to where the depot now stands, thence still northward to the ‘Alexauken…’” At his front door, Gordon discussed the old building.
Gordon Haas: The house dates to the 1700s. The first resident was Stineback. Why would he have built up the hill, fairly far away from the creek? During winter, I’ve observed that the sun still travels above Goat Hill and warms the house, which faces south. I think that motivated the location—down by the creek it stays dark in winter. I believe during the Civil War era there were shanties on this hillside—we do find plenty of bottles and artifacts. We’ve done a lot of improvement work to the home, outside and inside. I removed stucco and repointed the west wall. The marvelous wooden lintels over the windows seem to be original. Previous owners, Lee Gatch and Elsie Driggs, added first a basement artist’s studio, which I now use as my framing shop, and later on the east side another studio, which we use as a pantry.
Elsie Driggs, who had sold the house to Marjorie Apple after renting it for several years, recounted purchasing it with her husband Lee Gatch in 1937, as reported by The Beacon’s Peggy Lewis: “They bought the house and four acres for $600 and paid $4.50 a year in taxes. ‘The house was laid up with tamped earth,’ she said. ‘Lee really rebuilt it out of a pile.’” The previous owner, Betty Jane Hunt wrote, was Ed Whitnack (“an impoverished farmer”), who was preceded by N. Cockran (“who shot at people who went by and gave the hill a dangerous reputation”). The Gatches installed a furnace and bathroom 20 years after moving in, noted a friend.
Elsie and Lee, each an acclaimed artist, lived at 50 Weeden Street with their daughter, Merriman (born in 1938), until 1968, when Lee died.
According to the Michener Art Museum: “During the 1920s, Elsie Driggs was associated with the Precisionists, who painted the modern landscape of factories, bridges, and skyscrapers with geometric precision and almost abstract spareness.” “I painted ‘Pittsburgh’… They were very excited about it. They called it the New Classicism, which I had never heard of,” Elsie told Peggy Lewis of The Beacon in 1977. It is still on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
After getting married and moving to Lambertville, Elsie “…devoted herself primarily to supporting her husband’s career, a choice many female artists of her generation made,” according to the Michener database. Though she painted less in the 1940s and 1950s—based at the kitchen table—her watercolors were subsequently considered “brilliantly experimental.” She addressed varying subject matter and worked in different styles and media her whole life. “About 1966 the Gatches put an addition on their house; and when Elsie finally received her own studio space, she began producing a series of large oil paintings, using such watercolor techniques as diluted pigments, stenciled patterns, and sprayed backgrounds,” according to the program of a 2008 retrospective at the Michener.
In later years, having moved to New York City, she intensified her activity and created “mixed media constructions and figurative paintings in pastels and oils.” She experimented and painted and participated in public events until her death at age 92. Her work is in the collections of many major museums. Enjoy a 1991 profile and interview by State of the Arts on video, in which her daughter Merriman observes, “Whatever my mother’s eye lights on becomes magic to her.”
Lee Gatch was primarily an abstract landscape painter who, from the basement studio he’d built in the isolated home beneath Goat Hill, attained the art world’s summit in the 1950’s, when he was “among the most respected painters in the land,” as described in the Washington Post. His work is in the collections of the Met, MoMA, Smithsonian, Guggenheim, Whitney, and other museums. According to Jim’s of Lambertville, “Gatch’s abstract works contain a uniquely personal symbolism. He often incorporated pieces of stone, twine, canvas, and sand into his compositions. Whether just paintings on canvas or incorporating found objects, Gatch worked slowly, usually only producing 10 to 12 works a year.”
Gordon Haas: When I got into the barn—which took more than a year because the yard was so overgrown—I found metal tubs with granular charcoal at the bottom and holes cut in the walls. I figured out that Lee Gatch used them to make moonshine! I’ve repurposed some of them to grow basil for my homemade pesto. Gatch would often hang out on his porch and drink heavily with the writer James Michener—so said Gene Lelie, who saw them when he was a child exploring these woods.
Gatch’s alcoholism is often referenced in biographies. Two of his drinking buddies were Michener and the artist William A. Smith, as corroborated in The Beacon by Bill Shurtz, who, “…occasionally made deliveries there to Lee from Welsh’s Liquor Store where he worked as a teenager. The first time he went, Lee didn’t seem overjoyed about having someone that he didn’t know intrude on his hill but on a subsequent visit, Lee showed Bill several of his paintings.”
“He was a tough guy,” Michener once said admiringly while discussing his collection of art and his eponymous museum in Doylestown in an interview, and he considered Gatch one of his favorites. The Gatz Gallery notes, “Michener recalled as a young man spending long hours in the home and studios of Gatch and Driggs. He described them as a ‘marvelous couple’ and Gatch as ‘a crusty buzzard who built his ‘canvases’ around huge slabs of unpolished limestone and made heroic works from the mix of canvas, stone and subdued paints.”
Gordon Haas: The history, the quiet, the stream—we love living here! Most days I walk to my gallery on Bridge Street. Our gardens include tomatoes and herbs I brought back from Italy, where I go to paint. The apple and cherry trees are doing well, and this year we’re going to have a bumper peach crop.
Uphill to the east the path leads alongside the creek and stone ruins of unidentifiable buildings. There is a home, barely visible through the dense spring foliage, that was the residence of another noted painter, Louis Stone, and his wife Carolyn. According to a March 1985 article in The Beacon, “It is the first house architect Antonin Raymond designed and built in this area [1939-1940] after he returned to this country from Japan.” Known by some as “the father of modern architecture,” Raymond worked for Frank Lloyd Wright and George Nakashima worked for him. Visit and learn more at the Raymond Farm Center for Living Arts and Design in New Hope.
A friend of Driggs and Gatch, Louis Stone was renowned for his abstract paintings and was active until his death in 1984. He was intimate with many New Hope artists, especially Charles Ramsey and Charles Evans, with whom he collaborated during the late 1930’s in “visual jam sessions” to create single artworks under the joint name, “Ramstonev” that are highly sought after to this day, according to Jim’s of Lambertville.
His work, “demonstrates a mastery of the modernist lessons he learned in Europe and an innovative use of flat color to suggest three dimensional space,” notes the New York City gallery where his work can still be acquired. The Beacon’s Peggy Lewis wrote of his paintings, “Many were humorous, and Stone transmitted that humor through a bright, light palette and distorted geometric shapes often sliced by calligraphic lines that wind, twirl and corkscrew over the canvas.”
Tom Ogren, who wrote “The Story of Goat Hill: From the Revolutionary War to the Fight to Save It” (buy the booklet here), walked us up the southern path, which eventually meets George Washington Road, leading to the entrance of Goat Hill Preserve state park.
Tom Ogren: In the 1700’s Emanuel Coryell, who operated the ferry across the river, owned over 1,000 acres in the area including Goat Hill. In 1760 his son Cornelius inherited the southern portion of Goat Hill and started a family there with his new bride. This path would have served as a direct route for supplies for the Coryell homestead from River Road and Old York Road. Goat Hill overlooks afforded excellent views of the Delaware—did Cornelius guide George Washington himself to an outcropping to confirm that boats to be used for the December 25th river crossing were hidden from Tory sympathizers and the British army? We can’t be sure, but the legend of “Washington’s Rock” took hold during the 1800’s. One hiker, Dr. Thomas Bradfield, a dentist, carved his name on a nearby rock with the year 1866. [That same year Bradfield advertised his dental practice on Lambertville’s York Street and guaranteed “perfect satisfaction.”] From 1888 to 1930, Goat Hill was owned by the Delaware River Quarry Company, which produced Belgian blocks used for street paving. Despite the operation of the quarry, by the turn of the century, Goat Hill’s history and surrounding natural beauty attracted visitors regularly.
Tom Ogren: In the mid 1900’s Colonel Kenneth McIntosh and his wife Jessie bought 213 acres on Goat Hill and lived in a house where the overlook clearing is presently situated. They subsequently deeded the property in increments to the Boy Scouts, who operated a reservation with a lodge till 1983, when they sold the land to a company that sought to re-establish a quarry. This plan was fought over many years by community members, who ultimately prevailed when the NJ DEP acquired the property in 2009. If area residents hadn’t been successful, Goat Hill would have been decimated and become a scar rather than the historically significant, beautiful public park we enjoy today. It’s important to remember that!
The rain picked up and we concluded our tour of this fascinating corner of Lambertville, once and still an “art colony,” as described by Betty Jane Hunt, amid “impassable wilderness.” If you enjoy a hike of the Weeden Street area and Goat Hill, you may see inspiring images as those in Gordon Haas paintings.