WEST MILFORD — (August 22, 2019) Idylease Inn, a turn-of-the-century health resort that counted inventor Thomas Edison among its famous guests, may soon make its bid for the National Register of Historic Places.
The inn, the first property named on the town’s list of historic sites, is a five-floor Dutch Colonial hotel and the last of more than a dozen similar facilities that stood in town during the tourism heyday of the early-20th century. Its guestbook contains the names of many famous visitors, including New Jersey’s first female congresswoman, Mary Norton.
“It has a tremendous history,” said Richard Zampella, the property owner. “There used to be dozens of these resort hotels around northern New Jersey, nearly all of them were lost to fire or neglect.”
Opened in 1903, Idylease thrived in the Ragtime Era. The inn was a short trip from the Newfoundland Train station on the way to tourist-filled Greenwood Lake. Promoted as a health retreat, it sat amid pastoral country on the hilly border of New Jersey’s iron belt.
Its location is what drew Edison.
Then based in West Orange, Edison opened a self-named mine near Sussex County’s Franklin-Ogdensburg mining district in 1889. His plan was to harvest a previously overlooked pocket of lower quality ore on Sparta Mountain, break the rock up on conveyor belts and suck out the iron with electromagnets.
Plagued by problems with the machinery and undercut by the discovery of the massive Mesabi Iron Range in Minnesota, the mine closed a decade later. Perhaps as it was for the phonograph, which Edison thought would be better used for stenography than playing music, he may have misjudged the best use for his mining innovations.
Edison later applied his rock-crushing technology to aid in the creation of the durable cement used in the original Yankee Stadium and help the New Jersey Zinc Company process minerals at Sterling Mine in Ogdensburg.
When making the trip across North Jersey, Edison spent nights at Idylease, the inn's guest logs show. The Newfoundland area was a favorite of Edison’s, Zampella noted. Scenes from 1903’s "The Great Train Robbery" were filmed nearby, including at Echo Lake.
The main entry at Idylease Inn on Union Valley Road in West Milford features a dual staircase made of local oak. The inn's former owner, Arthur Zampella, wanted to relocate the staircase when he considered demolishing the inn in the late 1980s.
Idylease, named for Alfred Tennyson’s epic poem of King Arthur of Camelot, “Idylls of the King,” was built in 1902 by local carpenters lured by newspaper ads offering $2.50 for a nine-hour shift. Designed by John Boylston of John B. Snook & Sons, the inn gained prestige early on for its design and amenities. It was billed in June 1903 by The Montclair Times as “a hostelry of which New Jersey may well be proud.”
More than a place to stay, Idylease was a place to renew.
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Among the early visitors was H. Montague Vickers, a prominent member of the New York Stock Exchange. A guest in 1906, Vickers later sat on the board of directors for Rahway Valley Railroad and purchased his own farm in the Newfoundland section.
Idylease was known for its expansive open-air veranda, marble hydrotherapy pools and ability to entrench guests in purportedly therapeutic wilderness. The self-sustaining sanitarium had its own ice house, blacksmith shop and farm complex.
The township’s Historic Preservation Commission named Idylease, the Newark watershed’s New City and the Town Hall Annex the first three properties on its list of local historic landmarks in 1988. Only 10 more historic sites have since been named to the local list, records show. Only one, Long Pond Ironworks, is on the national register.
Zampella said he believes the inn is deserving of the designation, due to its architecture, guests and contribution to American history, and plans to soon file an application with the federal government.
The 53-year-old film and multimedia producer who also works in the hospitality industry has been blogging about the site’s history since April 2016. He has collected old records and photos, including the guest books that he said have been eye-opening.
Guests included sports writer William B. Hanna, Civil War correspondent David Banks Sickels, and Grace Abbott, the head of the United States Children's Bureau from 1921 to 1934.
Towards the end of the age of the area’s railroad-driven tourism in the late 1920s, Idylease welcomed Victor Harrison-Berlitz, who managed 410 of the Berlitz Corporation’s language centers, Joseph French Johnson, the founding dean of the Alexander Hamilton Institute, and Congresswoman Norton, the sixth woman in the United States Congress but the first to hail from the East and win as a Democrat.
Richard Zampella’s knowledge of the site goes beyond his recent findings, having grown up on the grounds. His father, Dr. Arthur Zampella, owned the property for nearly 40 years starting in 1954. Since Zampella acquired the property in 2016, he said he has been attempting to complete the site's history.
“Researching the history of Idylease has been a lifelong endeavor,” he said.
When Zampella was young, and the tourism boom that established North Jersey’s lake communities was long over, his father operated the inn as a nursing home until 1972. His father's vision was to create a community clinic with a nearby research center and senior village.
Proposed in 1962, the medical complex concept became known as Lakecrest General Hospital. There were multiple attempts by various groups to raise funds and obtain state certification. In 1976, voters approved a township-led project via non-binding referendum. Lakecrest
Zampella's father continued to chase his dream and by 1986 had joined with developers to pitch a $110 million long-term care center with residential cottages and on-site services.
By 1987, Idylease was slated for demolition. In response, elected officials established the township's Historic Preservation Commission later that year. Its members moved in 1988 to have the home designated as historic and preserved from unapproved alterations. Issues that year at the local planning and zoning board later doomed the overarching effort.
The site today still operates as a boarding house for long-term occupants. Period furnishings adorn the rooms and guests have use of the large country kitchen and other common spaces in a congregate living setup.
Mostly preserved as it was designed, Zampella said it makes sense to use the inn to provide people a place to stay. Monthly rentals start at $800, including utilities, for rooms with basic furnishings and a half-bath.
“It really is a magical place,” he said. “The Newfoundland area and West Milford have such a rich history and Idylease stands as a daily reminder.”
This article originally appeared in north jersey.com at: https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/passaic/west-milford/2019/08/22/west-milfords-1903-inn-where-thomas-edison-was-a-guest-seeks-historic-listing/2064469001/