Big News for a Little Building

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Historic carpenter Jim Bergmann makes a quick, much-needed repair of the front doorsill at the Nail House.  Photo Courtesy of Flavia Alaya

by Andie Babusik

BRIDGETON, N.J. - The partnership aimed at restoring the Nail House, a 200-year-old city-owned structure at the entrance to Bridgeton’s City Park, is underway. The plan is to transform the structure into a welcome center for City Park and Bridgeton’s historic district, the largest in New Jersey.

The Center for Historic American Building Arts (CHABA), a Bridgeton-based non-profit, reports that a contract for engineering services was awarded via competitive bidding to J&M Engineering of Swarthmore, Pa. J&M will analyze and supervise restoration plans to transform the Nail House to active, public use. The “Nail House” has been closed to the public for the past five years.

“This is a strategic collaboration,” says Dr. Flavia Alaya of CHABA, “made possible only by joining the forces and funds of the city, county, state and the private 1772 Foundation with discretionary and donated services of both the City and CHABA.”

Alaya points out that the diminutive size of the building belies its deep historic significance. The clapboard-sided, T-shaped, one-story structure is unceremoniously tucked under towering old sycamores where downtown meets the entrance to the City Park. The building, formerly used for the Cumberland Nail & Iron Works business, dating back to 1815. The nail and iron industry was a key component of Bridgeton’s development.

Local historian and historic craftsman Jim Bergmann is assisting with the analysis and repair. He says it’s a big story for a little building to tell: “The Works dominated industrial development here through the 19th century and helped make Bridgeton ‘the most prosperous city in the state’ for a time,” says Bergmann.

Nineteenth-century maps and photographs show the tiny building overshadowed by mass industrial structures that are now gone, and the river, which carried the ships that brought in raw iron and carried out manufactured goods. The City Park was the waterpower source for the wheels that ran the earliest mill. The park is persevered intact and considered one of Bridgeton's most treasured resources.

"We like to say, 'This little building is huge,' and so is the task,” says Alaya. "But with everyone pulling in the same direction, we’re excited and confident about making this vision a reality."

CHABA has made the phrase “this little building is huge” the title of a children's book that tells the “Nail House's” big story in lively text and pictures.

CHABA is seeking additional grants for the repairs and interpretive strategies to make the most of the building's small footprint. The project’s preservation literature emphasizes futuristic goals: bringing sustainability and history together to educate visitors about the past use and abuse of the environment and to make a commitment to the care of the region and planet in the future.

CHABA would like to complete the “Nail House” repairs as soon as possible, but the process depends on grants. Alaya estimates it will be one and a half years until the building is open for business and an additional year until it is fully interpreted. 

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