BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Free Acres section of Berkeley Heights off of Emerson Lane recently celebrated the completion of the historic Farmhouse renovations with a dedication and ribbon cutting ceremony. The opening of this wonderful building means so much to all past and present residents of Free Acres.

The Farmhouse was in disrepair and was uninhabitable since Hurricane Sandy damage necessitated a full remodel of the home, said Peter Dellomo of Caruso Dellomo Construction.  "Additional renovations were decided upon in regard for handicap accessibility, along with modern standards and building codes." The project was managed by Free Acres trustees Sal Passalacqua and Brian Drum, who ensured the historic integrity of the outside of the original farmhouse structure remained.

Dellomo explained that to preserve the outside, they had to build a building inside of this building, which is not very common, said Dellomo.  There was also an addition to the east side of the main structure they tied into the architecture of the original building.

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The upgrades to the facility included a new kitchen, bathroom, fireplace and the creation of the newly dedicated Laurel Hessing Center for Arts and Archives.

Kathy Malangna welcomed the crowd of about 150 Free Acres residents to the formal dedication and ribbon cutting of the Free Acres farmhouse. She read an excerpt from a book written by a Free Acres author about the history of the Farmhouse. -- What is evident, is the passion to carry on the continuity of the Free Acres' legacy. "Now we have a wonderful new place" to carry on the traditions that have been alive since 1910. 

We are delighted that you all are present to bear witness to the formal ribbon cutting and dedication of the "newest evolution" of our Farmhouse, the "heart and center of our experiment and participatory democracy," said trustee Joan Bierbaum. The second floor of the Farmhouse will host cultural events in the effort to broaden the horizon of our Free Acres fold, she said. The events will include art exhibits, photography exhibits, film viewings, poetry readings, book talks, guest lecturers, sharing of cultural backgrounds and experiences.

Bierbaum read a poem written by Laurel Hessing, the heart and soul of the Free Acres Historical Archives Committee, who passed away November 2017.

"To another time, another folk -- the pioneers who came before told us what they came here for. -- In documents written by hand, they wrote best upon the land. Leaving trees which tower with shade from an earlier decade. Honor trees to stand and teach all who walk within their reach. -- Bridging time, retouched their wood -- free acres stood. Like the folks who came before, we know what we have come here for. -- We hold the message in our hands for future holders of these lands -- we love to emulate, in future times, we will be the ones who came here before but knew what we came here for." -- Laurel Hessing

On her own, Hessing diligently collected and preserved newsletters, committee minutes, newspaper reports, photographs, books, and residents’ memories, which she had stored in her home. She worked closely with the Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers University, which is a repository of early Free Acres material, to facilitate scholars’ access and use of the information in Rutgers holdings of Free Acres papers.

She also created a history of each leasehold; which shows who had lived on each holding and when. "This is an ongoing project because as you know, history never stops in one place,” Hessing had said in a document prepared for the Free Acres Centennial celebration in 2010.

"Laurel would really be happy. Her archives were in her living room. -- It's all about the history. -- We need to catch up and finish what Laurel started," said Terry Conner. 

Hessing's neighbor and friend Sylvia Heeren expressed how she had witnessed first hand what an important part Free Acres, symbolized by the Farmhouse, played in Hessing's life. "[She spent] endless hours on the Free Acres archives and was delighted about every piece of news, every picture she was able to discover and collect about Free Acres and Free Acres families from the beginning of Free Acres to the present. Everything published and unpublished, every book, every play, every pamphlet, every article, every letter, every piece of artwork, her own poetry and plays. It's not surprising that this restoration of this farmhouse meant so much to her. It was again the home of all the treasures that she has preserved for us and was so important to her."

Hessing's youngest daughter Rachel Wintemberg thanked Free Acres for choosing to name the historical and archives center after her mother, and Harris Rubin for the gift of the life like portrait of Laurel that is on display in the newly renovated art gallery. "In memory of my mother, the Hessing family has donated the beautiful Laurel tree you see planted here to the community," said Wintemberg. "It is a gesture of our gratitude to all of you for the love and support you have shown us. Laurel trees have been used throughout human history as a symbol of victory over great obstacles. -- In the winter, when all the plants around them fade from glory the Laurel remains green and living, a symbol of hope and life. In the springtime they produce beautiful flowers. What more fitting symbol of my mother Laurel than the tree that bears her name? It is also symbolic of the Olympic achievement by many people you see before you, a permanent home for the archives she lovingly compiled over many years."

Cheryl Venter from the Free Acres Centennial Fund and Legacy Committee presented the trustees with a check for $50,426.29 which represents "all of the cash donations and material donations made since 2010," said Venter.

Children participated in the ribbon cutting and guests were invited inside to tour the new farmhouse renovations and Laurel Hessing Center for Arts and Archives that exhibits the work of Free Acres artists. There was a lot of memory sharing done, seeing multiple generations have raised their families in Free Acres.

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During the Farmhouse celebration, Joe Romano was among the speakers who came to the podium to provide the history of Free Acres, the Farmhouse and the heritage and traditions of living in the community. 

Bolton Hall founded Free Acres in 1910 to serve as a working experiment in local democracy. He donated 68 acres of the "neglected" old Murphy farm to the new Free Acres Association which included the "ramshackle 18th century farmhouse," according to a 1997 document by Linus Yamane.

He said, initially, it was a community of summer residences of New York "left wingers, an odd collection of Greenwich Village artists, actors, intellectuals and 'free thinkers' who cherished a rugged communing with nature." After the depression, the residents started winterizing their homes so they could live there year round.  By 1950 many homes were fully winterized with complete indoor plumbing, and two-thirds of the residents in Free Acres lived there all year round.

Photo credits: Bobbie Peer, TAPinto Berkeley Heights