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Bridgeton straddles both sides of the Cohansey River in the heart of South Jersey. Its nearness to Philadelphia has made it an urbane cultural and industrial hub for centuries, but its rural, agricultural and river setting, so near Delaware Bay, also offers a vibrant blend of natural as well as historic charm. It is a rich 'melting pot' of diverse cultures...and now a beacon of exciting 'grunge-to-green' revitalization of its large historic district, seen on the left.

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Now a city of roughly 30,000, Bridgeton is named for the bridge first constructed over the Cohansey River in 1716, and has been Cumberland County's seat in New Jersey since before the American Revolution. It has evolved over time into a blend of precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial histories in a beautiful natural setting of rolling fields and wetlands, its persimmon sunsets capturing photographers since the camera was first invented.

 

Yet was here in 1814-15 that the Cumberland Nail & Iron Works first played its role in jumpstarting American industrialization at the southern end of the state. Five generations of Bridgetonians made the city a bustling center for processing agricultural products from tomatoes to caviar to grape juice, to the glass for bottling it.

 

Like other American industrial cities, however, Bridgeton felt the impact of a changing manufacturing landscape in the late 20th century. That's when the city embarked on an ambitious project to preserve not only its grand structures but also the intricate vernacular "gingerbread" architecture woven into the fabric of its people's history. Now the largest Historic District in New Jersey includes over 2,000 colonial, Victorian, Arts & Crafts and even modernist structures.

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MORE about the Historic District:

Bridgeton's architectural diversity is nothing short of encyclopedic, from modest cabins to grand castles, in high Victorian, classical revival, and modernist styles, with humble cottages within a stone's throw of architectural treasures designed by renowned architects. Its dedication to this heritage is a remarkable testament to the town's resilience and spirit.

A quilt of meticulously crafted residential structures in the many American vernacular housing styles available to the city's upper, middle and working-class families during its industrial boom, the district's central axis runs from East Lake to the river along East Commerce, and from there uphill along West Commerce to West Avenue. On the East Side you'll find well-preserved late Colonial and Federal-era homes, along with striking churches, the contrasting facades of City Hall and City Hall Annex, and the serried frontages of the classic Victorian Business District.

 

Across the bridge, the Courthouse, West Commerce and Lake Street districts showcase slightly later--and fancier--high Victorian, East Lake, and Queen Anne-style homes, adorned with gables and inviting porches. The East and West Side historic neighborhoods are seamlessly connected by that central commercial district, creating the perfect setting for the city's annual House Tour in early December.

 

There is more than style to the humblest of these structures. They have proven--like Brooklyn brownstones--adaptable over generations, and capable

of telling an ongoing story. Like the "Facebook" pages of their time, each is adorned with special craftsmanly features--like brackets, corbels, pillars, railings, window eyebrows, 'gingerbread' or scalloped shingles, framework details or decorative glass. These were the art forms available to those who couldn't afford marble or stone, and each detail whispered with understated confidence: We are Americans! --even if being 'American' was sometimes more of a hope than a present reality. And that very gingerbread, of course, became a defining American style virtually unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the smaller house fronts ALSO hold community stories. Their short setbacks and narrow passages between driveways reveal the modest lifestyles of their owners. Its many "double" homes(that is, two homes sharing a single roof) tell of Bridgeton's mingling of different social groups and sometimes of its racial histories. 'Southgate,' for instance, was both traditionally Italian, then African American, and relatively income-diverse during its growth period in the late 19th century.

 

Yet houses of varying sizes and displays often stood on the same block, with both related and unrelated owners, sometimes intermingled with numerous and beautiful churches that testify to how side-by-side were church and people.

 

The cultural diversity embedded in this cityscape endures today, as new immigrants, making strides...and sometimes sharing living quarters, continue to invest in affordable doubles or other historic houses, and contribute to the immensely rich tapestry of this community.

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