Morris Township Historic Preservation Commission Recognizes Tower Hill during May-National Historic Preservation Month
Tower Hill at Villa Walsh Academy is one of the earliest, and perhaps the most spectacularly preserved Gilded Age homes in Morris Township.
The current residents of Tower Hill are the 2022 winners of a local preservation award given each year by the Morris Township Historic Preservation Commission during May which is National Historic Preservation Month.
Former winners were the Little Red Schoolhouse, Acorn Hall, and Glynallyn.
Tower Hill was built by Louis Charles Gillespie (1835-1911) a successful importer of tung oil and purveyor of shellac. Gillespie was a quiet giant in the world of building materials, importing from China, India, New Zealand, and Africa via company-owned ships, boats, and railcars. As America boomed, so did the wealth of L.C. Gillespie.
In 1878 Gillespie purchased 115 acres of land on Picatinny Mountain in Morris Township for a summer estate. New York summers were stifling, and families of means like the Gillespies sought refuge from the heat along with the opportunity to socialize. Morris Township was just the place.
Not a family that sought the spotlight, the Gillespies decided on a property that would allow them privacy, land, plenty of fresh air, and a view of the Washington Valley.
Constructed in 1878 Tower Hill is situated on the town’s highest hill at the corner of Western Avenue and Picatinny Road.
The brick and marble Southern Colonial house with Ionic columns and a deep front porch is more reminiscent of Jefferson’s Monticello than of the more common Northeastern early Victorian or Italianate Gilded Age homes made of wood.
By 1890 the family and their 9 children decamped to Morris Township year-round. The move required expanding the already large home over the next 4 years. Heating with both furnace and fireplaces made it a year-round home.
In 1894, a steam-driven well pump imported from England was constructed in a 6-story, 70-foot-high stone tower (giving the house its name) pumping water from a 417-foot deep well.
A staff of housekeepers and gardeners was hired. A carriage house, 4 frame barns, 5 cottages, a tennis court, and extensive gardens were completed. A working farm of both livestock and vegetables supplemented the family’s needs and provided additional income.
The interior, with mahogany and oak carved wooden embellishments, had ample bedroom spaces, a spacious hall, rooms for receiving guests, a library, dining, and billiards. Typical of the local Gilded Age families who settled in the town, the Gillespies lived a very comfortable country life.
Louis Gillespie died in 1911. His widow, Josephine, lived in the home until her death in 1919.
Tower Hill remained empty until it was sold for $125,000 in 1929 to the Archdiocese of Newark. Recognized since 1990 by the State of New Jersey Historic Preservation Office (NJSHPO) as being of historic importance, the estate and its grounds have been carefully cared for by the Religious Teachers of Filippini who moved to the property in 1929 through the efforts of Bishop Walsh of Newark. The Sisters have continuously resided there since its acquisition.
The home stands today because of adaptive reuse, turning the mansion into a school—the Villa Walsh Academy for Girls.
Carol Barkin, of the Morris Township Historic Preservation Commission, remarked that “of the 100 Gilded Age mansions built locally in the early 20th century, only about 25 remain. Stanford White’s Hurstmont was recently demolished along Mt. Kemble Avenue when efforts to save it fizzled. We are heartened when distinctive and historic buildings like Tower Hill are adapted, cherished, and maintained. We applaud the staff and caretakers of Tower Hill for preserving this piece of Morris Township history for this and future generations."
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