The Summer White House – What Almost Was

The single most important factor in Lake Hopatcong’s growth as a resort was the opening of the Breslin Hotel in 1887.  Its construction gave the lake instant credibility. Designed by noted architect Frank Furness, the hotel was built on 18 acres in Mount Arlington overlooking Chestnut Point.  The lake’s first electrified structure, it had some 250 rooms and offered guests a host of facilities and activities. 

hobart_-_bella_vista_2The Breslin Hotel was part of a planned millionaires’ summer community known as Breslin Park.  While the complete original plans were never fully realized, 15 cottages were built as part of Breslin Park and an additional four in the adjacent Hoboken Hill section.  The most famous resident of the community was Lotta Crabtree, whose house was also designed by Frank Furness. Lotta was the most popular actress of the era, surpassing even the great Sarah Bernhardt.  Her home is still one of Lake Hopatcong’s grandest, having received wonderful care in recent years.hobart_-_breslin_2

The other summer residents of Breslin Park represented a broad spectrum of wealthy individuals from New York City and northern New Jersey such as investment banker Howard Frothingham, architect Francis Himpler, patent medicine producer George G. Green, furniture maker August Pottier, malt manufacturer Henry Altenbrand and silk mill owner Albert Tilt.  It was Tilt who nearly changed Lake Hopatcong’s history.

Albert Tilt had succeeded his father in the operation of the Phoenix Silk Manufacturing Company in Paterson.  The family had been in silk manufacturing since the 1830’s and was prominent in America’s silk industry.  Albert Tilt was a founding member of Breslin Park and built a cottage, known as Bella Vista, on Windermere Avenue in 1889.

Tilt was friendly with many of New Jersey’s Republican political figures, including John Griggs and Garret Hobart, both leaders of the state party in the latter 19th century.  In 1895, Griggs was elected the first Republican governor of New Jersey in 30 years.  At the same time, fellow Paterson resident Hobart was nominated as the Republican vice-presidential candidate.  These men would become a very large part of life at Lake Hopatcong in the summer of 1896.hobart_-_garret_hobart

Garret Augustus Hobart (known to friends as Gus) was born on June 3, 1844 in Long Branch. He graduated at the top of his Rutgers College class in 1863.  After teaching school briefly, Hobart moved to Paterson, where he studied law under the tutelage of Socrates Tuttle, a childhood friend of his father.  He became a lawyer in
hobart_-_view_of_breslin_park1866, and in 1869 married Tuttle’s daughter, Jennie.  The Hobarts had long been Democrats, but marriage into the Republican Tuttle household converted the young man to the GOP. After service as clerk of a grand jury, Hobart was elected a judge in Paterson in 1868.  In 1871, after his father-in-law became mayor, Hobart was appointed to the post of city counsel.  He served on the Paterson city council and then in the New Jersey General Assembly from 1872 to 1876, serving as speaker in 1874.  He was a member of the New Jersey Senate from 1876 to 1882, serving as its president in 1881. 

Although he left the state senate in 1882, Hobart remained an important figure in state politics, serving as chairman of the state Republican committee from 1880 to 1891.   Though not well known outside of New Jersey, he became a member of the Republican National Committee in 1884.  Despite dabbling in politics, Hobart considered law and business his main occupations.  He was president of the Passaic water company and a director of several banks.  In 1896, he found himself in the right place at the right time.

Since the Civil War, New Jersey had leaned toward Democratic presidential candidates.  President Grover Cleveland had carried the state in 1892, but during the economic recession which followed, the state had moved Republican as indicated by John Griggs’ election as governor.  The National Republican Party considered New Jersey a “swing state” as the presidential election of 1896 loomed.  This gave New Jersey Republicans the perfect opportunity to push one of their own as a vice-presidential candidate.  In discussing Garret Hobart, the New York Graphic  newspaper noted that there was no other Republican in New Jersey as strong as this “sturdy, bright faced, genial gentleman.”hobart_-_boat_house

In June 1896, the New Jersey delegation went to the Republican convention in St. Louis determined to nominate Hobart as vice-president.  When Ohio Governor William McKinley defeated House Speaker Thomas Reed and several other prominent candidates for the presidential nomination, newspapers identified some twenty potential candidates for the vice-presidency.  All were governors, cabinet members, senators, and representatives, except Hobart, yet he emerged as the convention’s pick.  The nomination came largely from Mark Hanna, the Cleveland industrialist and political power broker who masterminded McKinley’s nomination.  Hanna wanted a ticket to satisfy the business interests of America, and Hobart, a corporate la
hobart_-_silk_millwyer, fit that requirement perfectly.

Unlike the Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who barnstormed the country making fiery speeches, McKinley stayed at home in Canton, Ohio, famously running his campaign from his front porch.  Hobart similarly limited his electioneering. 

As a McKinley-Hobart banner stretched across Howard Boulevard from Borough Hall, the August 15, 1896 issue of The Angler (predecessor to the Lake Hopatcong Breeze) reported that “Mr. and Mrs. Hobart and son are staying at the Breslin.  The lake welcomes our Vice President to be.”  The August 26 Angler reported that “the reception rendered Governor Griggs was one of the social events of the season here, and was attended by between four and five hundred people.  Mr. Tilt gave a private reception to him and Mr. Hobart, who was a guest of Mr. Tilt for the occasion…. It is the wish of The Angler that the party will remember Lake Hopatcong as a pleasant oasis in a desert of hot summer weather, and that we may next year greet Mr. Hobart as the Vice President of his country.”  The September 5th, 1896 edition of The Angler proudly proclaimed:

hobart_-_repub_conventionLast Saturday night will long be remembered by the people of Mt. Arlington as one of the most noteworthy evenings in its existence, and will probably hold first place until Mr. Hobart again visits us here, as Vice President of the United States, in 1897.  It was the Republican rally, arranged by Mr. Tilt and the Breslin management, and was attended by the largest crowd of people seen in Breslin Park this year.  The cottages and Breslin grounds were brilliantly lighted for the occasion, Lotta’s cottage making the most brilliant and picturesque appearance of all, with lights streaming from every one of the many windows of the broad, spreading villa.  A torchlight procession was first in order and then the speakers took their places on the broad landing, half way up the entrance steps of the Breslin.

hobart_-_campaign_posterIndeed, the burgeoning resort of Lake Hopatcong was completely energized over the upcoming election and the vice-presidential candidate that they regarded as one of their own.  In November, McKinley won the election by a half million votes, or 51 percent to Bryan’s 46.  His Republican ticket carried 23 of the 45 states, including New Jersey, for an electoral vote victory of 271-176.

Although McKinley and Hobart were practically strangers when they united on the Republican ticket, they soon became close friends.  The wealthy Hobarts leased a house in Washington, which became known as the “Little Cream White House,” and used it to entertain lavishly, in part because the President’s wife suffered from epilepsy and was unable to shoulder the traditional social burdens of the White House.  McKinley frequently attended Hobarts dinners and afternoon smokers, where he could meet informally with party leaders from Capitol Hill.  No previous vice president had visited the White House as often as Hobart, due in part to the warm friendship that developed between Ida McKinley and Jennie Hobart.  President McKinley grew to depend on Mrs. Hobart, who visited Ida daily.  “The President constantly turned to me to help her wherever I could,” Mrs. Hobart wrote in her memoirs, “not because I was Second Lady, but because I was their good friend.”   Whenever McKinley had to be away from his wife in the evenings, he would entrust her to Jennie Hobart’s care.  He also invited Mrs. Hobart to White House social functions because her presence “gave him confidence.”

Arthur Wallace Dunn, a newspaper correspondent who covered presidents
from Benjamin Harrison to Warren Harding, marveled that “for the first time in my recollection, the Vice President was recognized as somebody, as a part of the Administration, and as a part of the body over which he presided.”  Dunn described Hobart as a “business politician,” whose knowledge of the “relations between business and politics” made his judgments extremely useful.  McKinley even turned to his vice president for advice on personal financial issues.

Lake Hopatcong’s connection with Garret Hobart was useful to the new resort.  In August 1896, the Philadelphia Press reported on Governor Griggs’ and Hobarts visit to the lake, and concluded that Lake Hopatcong was now New Jersey’s “summer capital.”   In 1897, the Hotel Breslin was converted into the Lake Hopatcong Club.  The prospectus for the club stated that “with each member individually responsible for the character of the guests booked on his cards, objectionable people will naturally be excluded, and the club will thereby become a most attractive resort for families who will give a distinctly high social character to the place.”  Some newspapers reported that Garret Hobart was the president of the new club.  While it made for good publicity and may have indeed been meant in a ceremonial capacity, it appears that Albert Tilt was always the president. New Jersey’s Governor, John Griggs, was the Vice-President of the club.  On February 7, 1897 (shortly before the March presidential inauguration) the New York Times reported that Hobart “has a summer cottage at Long Branch, and is a member of a new country club that is to enjoy life at Lake Hopatcong, and Mrs. Hobart is to preside over the colony of prominent New Jersey women who are to make the latter place exceedingly gay this summer.” hobart_-_promotional_booklet

Vice-President Hobart and his family spent time at the Lake Hopatcong Club during the summers of 1897 and 1898.  In 1898 it was widely reported by The Angler and other newspapers that President McKinley was expected to visit the Vice-President at the lake that summer.  Since McKinley had invited the Hobarts on vacation, the idea of the President coming to spend time with the Hobarts made sense.  However, the Spanish-American War intervened and McKinley stayed in Washington that summer.

hobart_-_bella_vista_1The story of what might have been came to an abrupt end. Early in 1899, Vice-President Hobart suffered from fainting spells triggered by serious heart problems.  As he suffered increasingly debilitating attacks and his strength declined, rumors spread that his illness would keep him from running again for vice-president.  It became clear that he would not be able to return to Washington to preside again over the Senate when it reconvened that December.  Hobart died on November 21, 1899.  Arriving at the Hobart home in Paterson for the funeral, President McKinley told the family, “No one outside of this home feels this loss more deeply than I do.”

Hobart’s death had an unforeseeable effect on the American landscape as it set in motion the events that opened the door for one of America’s most renowned political figures.  New York’s Governor, Theodore Roosevelt, replaced Hobart on the ticket in 1900.  Less than a year later, in September 1901, Roosevelt would become President of the United States following McKinley’s assassination.

For Lake Hopatcong, the events also had a profound impact.  Without the excitement of Vice-President Hobart’s presence during the summer of 1899, business at the Lake Hopatcong Club slacked off dramatically, making it unsustainable as a private club.  It was converted back to a public hotel for the 1900 season.  Meanwhile, the club’s president, Albert Tilt, died at age 59 in May 1900.  Tilt’s beloved Mount Arlington home, Bella Vista, stayed in the Tilt family into the 1910’s.  The house survives today, having been purchased in 1928 by the Felician Order to complete the St. Francis of Assisi.  As you look at St. Francis of Assisi from Windermere Avenue, it is the house on the left that once hosted America’s Vice-President.

Copyright the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum, 2011

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