The community was anchored by the Presbyterian Church from 1747, and the earliest settlers were typically Presbyterians of Anglo-American stock who migrated into the area from Long Island, Elizabethtown, and Newark, seeking land, commercial opportunities, and political autonomy. By the early 19th century, Bottle Hill had a Catholic Church as well, founded by French-speaking immigrants, and an Academy, or private school, to promote the education of the area’s young men. The school was called the “Madison Academy,” after James Madison, the 4th president of the United States and a man of considerable learning and erudition. Locals began to chafe at the intemperate and rustic-sounding name “Bottle Hill” and a movement to rename the community “Madison” for both the former president and the Academy was successful by 1834.
Almost as momentous as the change of name to something more genteel was the construction of the Morris and Essex Railroad, and the opening of a railroad station in Madison in 1837. Railroads were the new technology of the day, and the notion of a “commuter” – someone who lived in the country but made their living by daily work in the commercial centers of the city – was a brand new one. With the arrival of the railroad, Madison changed from being a village outside the county seat of Morristown to a vibrant commuter suburb of Newark and New York.
Commercial & Residential Development
Madison’s natural beauty, with low rolling hills combined with access to a railroad link to the metropolis, brought an evolution to a residentially-oriented, suburban-style development from the mid-19th century onward. Commercial development concentrated near the railroad station, defining a core downtown, and large-scale industry never took hold here as it did in many other New Jersey communities. The tight concentration of surviving buildings from the 19th century reflects the fact of the pedestrian-orientation of the town, with neighborhoods established within easy walking distance to the town center and the railroad station. Spread out from the core were the great estates that characterized the Madison-Morristown area at the turn of the 20th century. These were often one residence of many owned by titans of industry who were focused on business in New York City, and spent weekends or a season in a “country house” in Morris County.
The presence of Millionaire’s Row, as Madison Avenue between Madison and Morristown was called in the latter 19th century required not only wealthy owners but legions of staff to run the houses. Immigrants, particularly from Italy, were attracted to Madison for the opportunities to ply traditional skills in landscape gardening and masonry at the estates. They clustered in Madison, and in other nearby towns, adding a vibrant new cultural overlay to the town.
Gardening & Roses in Madison
Gardening was of course a way of life for many people who grew some of their own food, but the estates introduced the idea of greenhouses and hothouses as a way to extend the growing season, and of flowers as a culture and a cash crop. Madison became a center for greenhouse cultivation of flowers for the New York florist’s trade. Roses were particularly valued, and by the time of Madison’s incorporation as a Borough in 1889, the community was known informally as “The Rose City” for the millions of cut roses sent by train to New York throughout the year. The nickname remains in use, and can be seen in the town’s logo, and in street names like “Rose Avenue” and “Greenhouse Lane” but the last commercial greenhouses closed in the 1970s as air freight made flowers from warmer climates more economical than those grown locally.
The wealthy and prominent who lived in the big houses were not disinterested in the activities of the little town of Madison, and in many ways they promoted ideals of the Progressive Movement through direct political influence or philanthropic gifts. The downtown of Madison in particular reflects a strong tradition of local philanthropy, the donation of land in 1877 for expansion of Waverly Place to become the gracious, wide street it is today; through the architecturally beautiful Webb Chapel, which helped re-located the Presbyterian congregation to the center of the downtown in 1887; the gift of a free public library and park by D. Willis James in 1900; and the Hartley Dodge Memorial (Town Hall) by Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge in 1935.
Preserving & Developing Madison
Suburban development in the 20th century paralleled the increasing use of the automobile. Land that had been farmed or used for greenhouse production of roses was increasingly more valuable as the setting for middle and upper-middle-class single family houses. Many of the 19th century estates were subdivided into housing tracts. The presence of an estate wall or specimen trees or a street name being the only reminder of the former use of the property.
As a mature, built-out community within the dense development of northern New Jersey, Madison needs to balance preservation of the past with the necessary development for the future. Almost any new construction will involve demolishing existing structures and sites. Private homeowners have largely been respectful of the architectural traditions of the building stock in town, and there are many well-preserved structures reflecting 18th, 19th, and 20th century styles.
Concern for the preservation of the central business district, lined with late 19th and early 20th century masonry commercial buildings of 2 to 4 stories led to creation of the town’s Historic Preservation Commission in 1993. The HPC, along with the Downtown Development Commission, the Sign and Façade Committee, and other groups within town have worked together to help preserve the character, use, and appearance of the vibrant downtown that gives Madison a unique identity in the region.