The Castle

ECLIPSED early in its development by other colonial ports, Perth Amboy never became the New World metropolis of its founders’ dreams. Antiquarians in William Whitehead’s day could be excused for their disregard of a place with “no crumbling castles, no time-worn battlemented walls, nor monuments of fallen greatness” to meet the eye.1 The town seemed to provide scarce nourishment for legend or romance.

Elevation drawings of Perth Amboy’s Parker Castle, ca. 1935. Library of Congress.

Still, aspects of the place lent themselves to picturesque associations, and such a sight stood just feet from where Whitehead and his family first came ashore. Parker Castle was an architectural oddity, its two parts distinct in age, materials and situation. The older section rested against the side of the bluff; a newer block of comparable dimensions sat perched on the hilltop, abutting its ancestor almost on the perpendicular, like the crossbar of a T. The more primitive structure, built in the early 1700s, was oriented to the wharves and the sea while the upper portion, a half century newer, faced inland and virtually obscured the older part from the view of the town. While the older wing’s coursed rubble walls and low-pitched roof radiated an ancient and indestructible solidity, wood shingles gave the upper part a lightness that looked even flimsy compared with the underlying mass of stone.2 Indeed, by the twentieth century the newer structure would be far the worse for wear.

Both parts of Parker Castle were remembered for their gardens: zinnias and marigolds bordered the path in the sloping lower yard; the upper house looked across Water Street to an expanse of luxuriant flowering plants and fruit trees “known far and near for its perfection,” and kept in bloom for three seasons of four.3 Through much of the year this bounty brightened the Castle’s tables and rooms (there were twenty-six of them), the hospitality shown on its inside being even more celebrated than the splendor of its grounds.

The Castle as drawn by William A. Whitehead in 1832.

From here issued generations of one of New Jersey’s leading dynasties, no member more distinguished than the merchant, banker and landholder James Parker. Even though the fortunes and sympathies of his family, as of many in Perth Amboy, had been with the King, he held many offices of trust in the republic, including collector of customs, mayor, Assemblyman, Congressman and trustee of both Princeton and Rutgers. Once he moved to a house on Smith Street a few steps away, the Castle became the domain of his three unmarried sisters who sheltered the poor and the sick, as well as family and friends visiting or seeking refuge from the epidemics that periodically ravaged the more congested cities.

Whitehead, in the key to his map of Perth Amboy as it appeared in 1823, marked the Castle (number 25) as the residence of “Miss Parker.” But which of the three was meant? The eldest, Elizabeth (known as Betsy), who famously presided over social gatherings in the old mansion, had already died; Susan, credited with the charitable functions of the household, was an invalid; and only Gertrude, who tended the garden, was still living when the map was finally published (she died in 1856, the year of its printing). Perhaps the cognomen was a courtesy meant for all three honored ladies of the manor.

While Whitehead doubtless enjoyed the pleasures of life at the Castle, he left no detailed verbal description, for it was unthinkable that so important a structure would ever vanish. “Who does not cherish veneration for such ancient halls,” he asked (to his mind rhetorically), “where true hospitality and charity ever abounded, where cheerfulness at all times lent its charms to attract both young and old, and where religion ever sanctified the active duties of the world?”4 His sketchbook showed the mansion surrounded by a dense growth of trees, accentuating its romantic isolation; this picture would later adorn a page of his book on the city’s early history. But time ultimately was less kind to the Castle, and progress did not spare it.

MID Perth Amboy Parker Castle https://www.loc.gov/resource/hhh.nj0592.photos/?sp=2
Parker Castle as it appeared shortly before its demolition. Library of Congress.

Whitehead’s intimacy with the Parkers began, if not in childhood, then in his teens, when he worked as messenger of the bank whose cashier was his father and whose head was James Parker himself. During those years romance flowered of a different sort, and at age 24 Whitehead returned to Perth Amboy to take for his wife Parker’s daughter, the niece of the three maiden aunts who ruled the old Castle.

Copyright © 2017 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the Early History of Perth Amboy and Adjoining Country (New York 1856) 1.

[2] Robert V. Hoffman, The Revolutionary Scene in New Jersey (New York 1942) 216.

[3] Hoffman, Revolutionary Scene 216; Katharine M. Beekman, “A Colonial Capital: Perth Amboy, and its Church Warden, James Parker.” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, n.s. 3:1 (January 1918) (1-25) 3-4.

[4] Whitehead, Contributions 138; cf. W. Jay Mills, Historic Houses of New Jersey (Philadelphia and London 1902), 163.

Images: Historic American Buildings Survey (elevation drawings and photograph); Whitehead, Contributions page 137 (the Castle as drawn by Whitehead).
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