Batsto Village in Hammonton
ATSTODAY-BATSTO----The Mansion as it was in May of 2005 . It is now in the middle of a major renovation in the Historic Batsto Village. Tuesday June 3, 2008 ( Press of Atlantic City / Danny Drake)

The Wharton Mansion appears as if conjured from a Bavarian fairy tale.

Situated up on a hill, its tower rises above centuries-old sycamores and overlooks the austere workers' cabins of Batsto Village, a former iron-making enclave in the middle of the Pinelands.

But, contrary to first impression, the mansion's namesake, 19th century Philadelphia industrialist Joseph Wharton, didn't look down from his imposing edifice on the workers below.

"It wasn't the idea of a mansion on the hill with all the serfs down there," said state historian John Morris. "In fact, the ironworks were no longer operational and beginning to rubble."

The furnace was extinguished nearly two decades before Wharton, whose wealth established the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, renovated an existing house into the stately Italianate manor visitors tour today.

A few villagers remained in 1878, but Batsto's industrial era had long passed it by. Its resident millionaire was a "gentleman farmer" experimenting with new agricultural and logging techniques, not a hawk-eyed taskmaster.

Wharton's mansion had much humbler roots in the lucrative iron industry that grew around the mineral-rich waters and plentiful forests of New Jersey's Pinelands. Colonial industrialists mined the area's naturally occurring bog iron deposits and erected immense wood-fired furnaces used to extract iron from the bog ore through a process called smelting.

Morris said it's possible a house could have been located on the site as early as the mid-1700s, when a part of present-day Batsto was known as Whitcomb Manor under Philadelphia businessman Israel Pemberton.

"Different owners had different uses, but the original home might not actually be there," he said. "The foundation lines of an earlier home are in place, but it's easier to rebuild on this lot than to repair and add on."

Charles Read, a state Supreme Court justice and assemblyman, erected the Batsto Furnace in 1766 - along with furnaces in Atsion and Taunton - after a legislative act allowed for the damming of the Atsion River. Historical records show he sold the furnace in 1773 to satisfy his creditors. After-ward, it went through a succession of owners before being purchased by William Richards in 1784.

According to local lore, the British were so concerned about the furnaces supplying colonial forces with munitions that they threatened a raid on Batsto in 1778. The British were stopped near the mouth of the Mullica River after the Battle of Chestnut Neck.

Richards became known as a "shrewd and energetic businessman," adding a casting foundry to the operation, according to a 1964 Press of Atlantic City article. The Richards family held onto the furnace for several generations and was responsible for building a larger house, in 1826, that became part of Wharton's mansion.

The iron industry declined quickly in the 1840s after the discovery of anthracite coal - which proved a more effective smelting fuel - in Pennsylvania. The iron furnace closed in 1848. Although the Richards turned to glassmaking to keep Batsto alive, that persisted for just another two decades. In 1874, more than half the village was destroyed by one of the periodic wildfires that swept through the Pinelands.

By the time Wharton bought much of the village in 1876 - reportedly for $14,000 - Batsto was a shade of its former self.

But the industrialist - who made his fortune in factories, mining and railroads - saw a lot of promise in the Pinelands. He originally sought to pipe water from its aquifers back to Philadelphia, which had endured a series of epidemics of typhus and other diseases due to contaminated drinking water.

That plan never materialized, but Wharton continued to purchase land and use the remote locale as a summer respite from the city and a sandbox for other pursuits, including breeding livestock, cultivating cranberries and forestry. In that respect, Wharton was far ahead of his time, Morris said.

"Without him, the Pine Barrens wouldn't exist," he said. "He started a conservation nursery program before the state began its own."

Morris said it's hard to tell which part of the present-day mansion is the oldest, since the building was renovated so many times since it was built in the 1700s.

"If the original section is here, it's just the original walls that demark the footprint," he said. "What may have been one large common room was split up into two or three smaller rooms."

The house that Wharton found in 1876 was a relatively plain, two-story house that was built up by the Richards family.

According to the village's 1970 National Register of Historic Places nomination form, the earliest section of the mansion was the center part, built in 1790. The eastern section was built in the first quarter of the 19th century, the western section in 1830 and the rest-including the tower, dining room and third and fourth stories of the eastern section - were added by Wharton. He also constructed the grand staircase, added bathrooms with running water and performed an extensive interior remodeling.

Wharton's mansion featured a number of amenities that were unique in their time. A second-floor bathroom is lit by a skylight, since it's located in the interior of the home. The mansion was outfitted with a system of bells and pulleys for the servants. In addition to plumbing, the home featured central heating and gas lines, complete with outlets for gas lights in the halls.

"He had the walls torn apart anyway - might as well install gas piping," Morris said. "They never came out to Batsto and we don't have any proof that he used (gas) here, but he was forward thinking. If gas pipelines ever came out here, he'd be ready."

The 1870s renovation was completed in the Italianate style - with nods to traditional German architecture, such as the smooth stucco exterior walls - that was popular at the time. The mansion's dominant design feature was a central tower with a mansard roof and decorative trim along the porch and roof line.

But for as quintessentially Victorian as the building seems today, Morris said it wasn't as ostentatious as it could have been. The mansion, for all its technological innovation, doesn't feature the gold gilding and marble associated with the era's wealthy retreats.

One explanation, Morris said, is that Wharton was a Quaker. Quaker architecture is typically simplistic and utilitarian.

But, as a successful businessman, he still felt the need to "keep up with the Joneses" in his other residences. The Batsto mansion pales in comparison to Marbella, the massive shingle-style estate Wharton built in Rhode Island in 1882.

"You don't build a house like that for yourself," Morris said. "You build it for others. That's the whole idea behind conspicuous consumption - you wanted to be so rich and successful, you didn't have to say a word."

Unlike Marbella, however, Wharton's Batsto residence was used almost exclusively for family and close friends. It was too far away from Philadelphia to attract the attention of the social elites.

Because it wasn't used for entertaining business and social acquaintances, Morris said, there was no need for the opulence of Wharton's Rhode Island estate.

"It's not like this is a house where a potential business associate or a suitor for one of his daughters may be walking down to street to the door," he said. "You didn't have to compete with the Joneses because the Joneses aren't anywhere to be found."

And, in typical Quaker fashion, the mansion's key design features also served a practical purpose. During wildfire season, Wharton stationed lookouts at the top of the tower.

For decades after Wharton's death at age 82 in 1909, the state Forest Fire Service continued to use the mansion's tower as part of their monitoring program. "The state started in the late '10s, early '20s and stopped sometime in the 1950s when another tower was built," Morris said.

One of the reasons the mansion is so well preserved today is that it was never really abandoned. Morris said the family didn't travel to the mansion as much after Wharton died, but they still kept up with the maintenance.

Wharton's heirs offered the estate, with its 100,000 acres of forest land, including the 15 acres encompassing Batsto Village, to the state for $1 million; but voters rejected the purchase in a 1915 referendum. Decades later, in 1954, the state finally purchased the property for about $2 million and began the restoration process.

Morris said the state began the restoration in 1954 and has performed regular maintenance since. Inside, the furnishings and even the paint selections are as close to what would have been there during Wharton's time as possible.

The Wharton Mansion and Batsto Village are unique in the state in that they present an entire community frozen in time.

"It's not Tuckerton, it's not Cold Spring, it's not even Smithville," Morris said. "It is what it was and it's rare to find that."

Contact Wallace McKelvey:

609-272-7256

Follow Wallace McKelvey on Twitter @wjmckelvey

If you go

What: Wharton Mansion tours

When: 12:30 and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Where: 31 Batsto Road, Hammonton

More info: 609-561-0024

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