History of the Stephen Crane House

“The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane and Mark Twain,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. “That’s not the order they’re good in. There is no order for good writers.” While Stephen Crane was born in Newark, NJ, as the fourteenth and youngest child of Methodist clergyman Jonathan Townley Crane and his “Methodist royalty” wife Mary Helen Peck Crane, not a trace remains of the brick parsonage building that once stood on Mulberry Place. Instead, the great American author’s years in the Garden State are represented by the modest wood-frame seaside cottage at 508 Fourth Avenue in Asbury Park, to which the eleven year old Crane moved with his widowed mother and older sister Agnes Crane in the summer of 1883.

Stephen Crane entered into this world in 1871, the same year in which the New York City-based industrialist James A. Bradley, inspired by the nearby Methodist settlement of Ocean Grove, founded Asbury Park as a community that was designed to be a quiet, pious place of spiritual well-being and religious reflection. Seven years later, a Philadelphia couple contracted to have a summer home constructed on the lot (#977) that they had purchased from Bradley — and when the widow Crane purchased the house plus an adjacent lot in 1883, she became the home’s fourth owner in just five years, as well as the first year-round resident of the place that she would come to christen “Arbutus Cottage,” named for the flowering groundcover also known as mayflower.

Attracted to the young community of Asbury Park due to its proximity to Ocean Grove — as well as to her Shore-based journalist-editor son Jonathan Townley Crane Jr. — “Helen” wasted no time in becoming active with the local Methodist church, as well as the Asbury Park-Ocean Grove chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the social activist organization in which she would quickly rise to the office of chapter president. With Agnes (who found employment as a schoolteacher in Asbury Park before passing away at age 28, little more than a year after moving to Asbury Park) serving as day-to-day mother figure/ literary mentor to her school-age brother, Helen would travel extensively as an in-demand speaker on the evils of alcohol; helping to establish WCTU chapters in other communities, writing highly regarded reports and guides, and hosting the nationally renowned Temperance Union co-founder Frances Willard at her Asbury Park home.

In addition to playing a pivotal role in earning women the right to vote in local school board elections, the energetic Mrs. Crane also exhibited a pronounced artistic streak; creating sculptures and sketches, establishing (with daughter “Nellie” Crane) the city’s first school of art at Arbutus Cottage, and writing humorous short stories under the pen name “Jerusha Ann Stubbs.” After graduating from the old Asbury Park Public School, young Stephen would be sent by his mother to a succession of boarding schools and colleges, including Pennington Seminary near Trenton, the military-style academy Claverack Hudson River Institute, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and finally Syracuse University, where his maternal uncle Bishop Jesse T. Peck was one of the founders.

Interested more in girls, smoking, billiards and baseball (he captained the Syracuse team as a freshman, and was scouted by a professional ball club), Stephen Crane would have an erratic and unspectacular academic career, even as his mother opened her Asbury Park home to various older Crane brothers (including railroad worker Luther, who recovered there following an overdose of laudanum, and later died tragically on the job), as well as a succession of boarders that included a young unwed mother who was ostracized by her family. In those summers between stints at various schools, Stephen would obtain his first professional writing experience as a cub reporter (and eventually “secretary”) for Crane’s New Jersey Coast News Bureau, the service founded by brother “Townley.” Covering his waterfront beat by bicycle or on his pony “Pudgy,” young Crane would cut his journalistic teeth primarily on uncredited reports detailing the comings and goings of hotel guests — but as time went on, the correspondent would find his writer’s voice, in addition to making valuable connections with vacationing big-city newspapermen, and such visiting literary luminaries as then-well known novelist and lecturer Hamlin Garland.

Following his mother’s death in December 1891, Stephen Crane would spend one more tumultuous summer in Asbury Park — a season in which he scandalized the community through his romantic affair with a married woman named Lily Brandon Munroe. Added to that was his controversial coverage of the city’s Junior Order of United American Mechanics American Day Parade — a report that juxtaposed the “bronzed, slope-shouldered, uncouth” marching men “begrimed with dust,” and the spectators dressed in “summer gowns, lace parasols, tennis trousers, straw hats and indifferent smiles.”

With the furor over the article having cost him his position with the news service (and somehow making national headlines), Crane decamped for the life of a struggling bohemian writer in New York City’s Lower East Side, where he would complete his first novel “Maggie, A Girl of the Streets,” as well as his most enduring masterpiece, the Civil War tale “The Red Badge of Courage.” Crane’s time in NYC would also find him embroiled in scandal and controversy, when his testimony on behalf of an accused streetwalker would run him afoul of his onetime friend, city police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt.

Upon Helen’s death, Stephen’s brother William H. Crane would assume full ownership of the Fourth Avenue properties; the prominent attorney from Port Jervis, NY buying out the shares of the other surviving siblings (Stephen being first to sell, in order to finance the self-publication of “Maggie” under the pseudonym Johnston Smith). After selling off the adjacent lot, William would continue to rent out Arbutus Cottage to various tenants, eventually signing over the house to another Crane brother, George, who sold it in October 1899 — eight months before his famous younger brother passed away from tuberculosis at a sanatorium in Badenweiler, Germany, at the age of 28.

Although Stephen Crane would set several of his subsequent writings (such as the short story “The Pace of Youth,” and the essays “The Wreck of the New Era” and “Ghosts on the New Jersey Shore”) in and around Asbury Park, the road beyond the boardwalk would take him to such far-flung places as the American West, the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the Florida “house of assignation” operated by his companion Cora Taylor, the battlefields of the Greco-Turkish War, the Spanish-American conflict at Cuba’s San Juan Hill, a harrowing shipwreck experience off the Florida coast — and, with common-law wife Cora, a final chapter as an expatriate “country gentleman,” entertaining the leading authors of his day (including Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and young H.G. Wells) at their centuries-old Brede Place manor in Sussex, England. The author of seven novels, two volumes of poetry, scores of short stories, and hundreds of newspaper articles would produce memorable work from all of these experiences — and throughout his travels, the man who is buried in Hillside, NJ’s Evergreen Cemetery proclaimed himself a “true Jerseyman,” with a home in Asbury Park.

After the Cranes

The end of the Crane family’s association with 508 Fourth Avenue would usher in a chaotic period of ownership transfers, with the old cottage changing hands some 15 times in the first half of the twentieth century. The house’s numerous owners — one of whom held the property for little more than three weeks — included a well-known Newark attorney, a retired pastor, a grocer, a garage owner, a woman who operated several local boarding houses, a fertilizer salesman, and a neighborhood “bookie.” The former Arbutus Cottage would house the families of soldiers from a nearby military base, serve as the professional office of an accountant, survive a fire that devastated a nearby property, offer summer-season lodging to numerous vacationers — and, in the aftermath of the Second World War, get sold at a court auction following the bankruptcy of its then-owner.

The purchaser of record was Florence McCorkendale of Newark, who, with her home-builder husband Archie, would rebrand the cottage as the Hotel Florence, one of many small summer inns located on the side streets of Asbury Park’s east side. Continuing the expansion of the original cottage (a makeover that included an enclosed front foyer and tower addition, constructed after the Crane family’s tenure), the McCorkendales saw the old house through its most stable period of ownership since the days of Mrs. Crane. But as Asbury Park’s fortunes fell in the latter decades of the last century, so too did those of the Florence, with the inn going from boarding house to subdivided apartment house, and finally to a dilapidated property in which the McCorkendale’s adult daughter was the sole occupant by the 1990s.

With Archie and Florence having passed on, and with their daughter transferred to a nursing home, the house and its former-carriage-house back building were placed on the market in 1993 as a “two for the price of one, handyman special” at a listing price of $50,000. The bank found no takers for 508 Fourth, which had by that point been gutted, boarded up, and left to the ravages of water, weather, and a city that had become a sad shell of its once-proud self.

Rescue and Rejuvenation

As an Asbury Park homeowner, Thomas Hayes believed in the city that so many had turned their backs on — and as a member of the community Garden Club, the New Jersey Natural Gas executive learned about the old cottage’s association with Stephen Crane from a nearby neighbor. Together with his wife Regina, Hayes purchased the two derelict structures at 508 Fourth for the rock-bottom price of $7,500 in October of 1995 — and, with the assistance of city historian Werner Baumgartner, Hayes family members, and a corps of community volunteers, the new owner set about the arduous (and still ongoing) task of rescuing the historically significant landmark from decay and disuse.

Following months of intense effort, the Hayes family would rechristen the former Arbutus Cottage as The Stephen Crane House in 1996, opening their doors as a small museum dedicated to the famed author’s legacy, and welcoming the public to grass-roots cultural events that included candlelit story sessions in the old parlor, and an interactive “Crane Chronicles” theatrical presentation. During this time, community activist Kerry Butch became the first new residential tenant of the house’s second floor, taking an active role in the renovation of the upstairs spaces — and when the growing Hayes family decamped from Asbury Park in 2001, they didn’t need look far to find a buyer who pledged to continue their good work: their next door neighbor, retired educator Frank D’Alessandro.

Under D’Alessandro’s stewardship, the Crane House would expand its profile to encompass the conversion of several second-floor rooms to public exhibits, the hosting of tour groups and civic- organization meetings, and the creation of the “black box” Lecture Room theatre. Aided by benefactors that included Bruce Springsteen (who dedicated $25,000 from a December 2001 series of Asbury Park benefit concerts, as well as a subsequent $10,000 gift), the house would come to play a quiet but pivotal part in the city’s “renaissance” at the turn of the new century, with D’Alessandro (who would eventually renovate the old carriage house into a modern residence) opening the doors to regularly scheduled writer’s groups moderated by Tony nominee Lou Liberatore, mini-concerts, book clubs, classic film screenings with a literary bent, special cinema events hosted by stage/screen actor Bill Timoney (one of which attracted the attendance of actor Bryan Cranston), and even a 2010 episode of the TV series “Ghost Hunters.”

The Society Takes Up The Torch

As a board member of the Asbury Park Historical Society, Frank D’Alessandro would welcome his fellow trustees to the Crane House for their monthly meetings and other special gatherings — and in 2015, the private owner of the property generously offered to donate Mrs. Crane’s onetime residence to the nonprofit organization, for the token sum of one dollar.

Before closing on the house and arranging a “condo-ization” of the shared public and residential space, members of the APHS teamed with the house’s upstairs tenant to revive an ambitious project inaugurated years earlier by Hayes and D’Alessandro — the nomination of the former Arbutus Cottage to the state and national Registers of Historic Places. Researching a comprehensive history of the house, and collecting data on the property’s many modifications and specifications, a committee chaired by trustee David Sobotka presented its documentation to the state’s Historic Preservation Office at the end of 2014 — and on February 16, 2015, the home of young Stephen Crane was officially entered into the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. A naming to the National Register — “the nation’s official list of cultural resources significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering or culture” — would follow on August 18 of that year, and in early September, the Historical Society officially assumed ownership of its first permanent base of operations.

“For the first time in the society’s 14-year history, we now have our own home and a headquarters from which to operate,” said APHS president Don Stine in a press statement. Acknowledging the generosity of Frank D’Alessandro, Stine thanked the trustees, members, and several generous benefactors for their contributions toward securing the historic designation, a status that allows the organization access to public, state, federal, or private funding sources for the restoration of the house. Special thanks were also accorded to APHS vice president Jim Henry and attorney Mark Williams for their “lengthy and tireless efforts.”

As Asbury Park continues its extraordinary story of rebirth and resurgence in the 21st century, the Asbury Park Historical Society remains an organization dedicated both to preserving the city’s rich architectural and cultural heritage — and to connecting that legacy to policies of smart growth and community engagement. It’s a commitment that’s reflected in our motto, “Where the past meets the future” — and a pledge that remains well represented by The Stephen Crane House, a “living landmark” and unique community resource that honors the poet’s passion, journalist’s eye, and enduring spirit of a true literary innovator.

Learn more about Stephen Crane at stephencranesociety.wordpress.com