Welcome to the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society’s museum, which has stood at the intersection of Seventh and Elmer streets for 109 years. It is the oldest purpose-built museum in New Jersey and serves, appropriately enough, as home to the oldest local historical society in the state.
Unfortunately, a crisis is brewing behind the front doors of the museum, one that needs the attention of area residents. After generations of benign neglect, the repository of Vineland’s past needs serious attention.
The 3-story red brick building was designed by noted Philadelphia architect George E. Savage, who was best known for the churches he built throughout the Delaware Valley. It was constructed by James D. Pasquale, a Vineland contractor who built many local public buildings and private homes.
“Unfortunately, while previous trustees occasionally tried to maintain the museum, time is taking its toll,” said Sandra K. Hearing, president of the Society’s board of trustees. “The current board is making every effort to address the building’s issues but the problem, of course, is money.”
Since 2015, the Society’s board has completed a number of projects at the museum, thanks to an Urban Enterprise grant from the city of Vineland. In addition to adding a handicapped ramp, they brought in Aliano Brothers, local contractors who are experienced in working on historic buildings, to replace a leaking cornice and repair crumbling chimneys.
However, there is still a lot of work to be done.
“The list is endless,” Hearing noted. “In addition to repairing and painting the window and door frames, we have cracked walls in the basement that let in water, and some of our ceilings and walls have suffered water damage. Our basement windows need attention, as do the floors in the public exhibit area. These conditions all affect the collections.”
To assess the museum’s current condition, the Society brought in a structural engineer, who has presented his report to the board of trustees. His assessment has provided the non-profit with a way to organize the building’s preservation.
The museum itself is considered to be the most important artifact in the Society’s collections, since it houses the rest of the objects, photographs and records related to Vineland’s past. It is home to artwork, glassware, personal effects, furniture and other 19th century artifacts, including those related to Native American culture and the Civil War.
The museum archives contain thousands of historic photographs, books and records related to individuals such as Mary Davis Treat, the naturalist who is featured in Unsheltered, the latest novel by internationally-known author Barbara Kingsolver. Vineland was once a nationally-recognized utopian community, where a number of significant events occurred. In addition to serving as the site of the state’s first convention on women’s suffrage, it was the place where Dr. Thomas B. Welch invented his formula for grape juice.
Hearing is fearful about the museum’s future if local residents don’t get more involved. As a private non-profit, the Society is not affiliated with the municipal government or any other historical organization and, as a result, has no annual funding from those sources. In addition to repairs to the museum, funding is needing to conserve artifacts such as the elegant oil painting of Dr. Mary J. Dunlap, the first woman to serve as director of the State School for Women located on Main Road.
Competition for grants has grown fierce in recent years and the sponsoring agencies usually want the money spent on public programming, rather than preservation. Although the Society has maintained a small corps of dedicated members over the years, their contributions are simply not enough to support the work that is needed to properly maintain the museum and the collections.
The trustees themselves have generously donated both time and money to maintain the museum but public support is now seen as vital.
“We once sat down and figured that if every person living in Vineland gave just $2 a year, we’d be able to handle virtually all of our operating costs,” Hearing said. “That would allow us to proceed with the repairs and maintenance of the collections that are long overdue.”
Donations to the Society are tax-deductible since it is a 501(C)3 non-profit. For further information, contact the Society by calling 691-1111 or e-mailing vineland