22 Aug 2014
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Before There Was A Mall

A recent addition to the collection of the Millburn-Short Hills Historical Society supplements a very small bit of information about life in the 1900s B.M (Before the Mall at Short Hills).

Before There Was A Mall Before There Was A Mall Before There Was A Mall

While going through a 1939 scrapbook that belonged to a young NJ woman (not from Millburn), who chronicled her activities while in college, a page of rare Short Hills memoriabilia was uncovered. The items of interest that were pasted into the scrapbook were from the Short Hills nightclub known as The Brook and they add to the very small store of information about the restaurant, which was completely destroyed by fire in 1947.

William C. Wallace built the original mansion (seen here), allegedly in the early 1900s, although a definitive date is not available. It was built on family-owned land that is now the site of the Mall at Short Hills, the Office Center at Short Hills, Canoe Brook Country Club, and the poets' section of Short Hills. By the 1930s, the building served as an upscale restaurant/night club, known as The Brook. Note, too, that the young scrapbooker's memorabilia (also seen here) indicates that the Brook was in Summit.

The rare Brook ephemera from the scrapbook comprises the drink menu, a card announcing the minimum charge, and what looks like a matchbook is actually a pack of lipstick tissues. A 1937 ad for Kleenex lipstick tissues noted that: "Smart women everywhere welcome these new Kleenex Lipstick Tissues! Actually, they are indispensable for shaping and blotting lipstick. Just imagine!...no more stains on hankies and gloves. You'll also want them to blend your rouge and eyeshadow; to wipe away mascara; to remove nail polish and excess makeup. Each dainty folder adds a note of good taste to your handbag, dressing table and guest bathroom."

On Nov. 20, 1947 the Item newspaper reported on the two-alarm blaze that destroyed the Brook. The fire started in the laundry chute, likely from a lit cigarette wrapped in the table linens, they noted, and destroyed the well-known Short Hills night club. The article added: "The fire apparently mushroomed from the basement, through the stairwell, and spread to the bar room and kitchen, which occupies the first floor with the main dining room. In a short time the second and third floor interiors were ablaze and flames and smoke billowed from the eaves. Firemen climbed on to the roof of the one story wings, at each end of the structure, and on to the two story front porch roof, from where hoses were directed on the uppser floors." and "some four feet of water occupied the cellar," because of the estimated 500,000 gallons of water poured onto the building. Despite that effort, the Item noted that "...several Millburn firemen narrowly excaped plunging into the cellar as they stepped on the thick carpet which covered the weakened floor" and "despite the tons of water played on the structure, the flames completely gutted the interior, leaving only ruins from cellar to roof."

The article ended with a bit of history of the building: "The property is owned by The Brook Investment Co. at the present time and during its long history has had several owners and was at one time the William C. Wallace homestead. When Ft. Lee was a movie center in the early days of that industry, the mansion with its spacious lawns and outdoor statuary served as a background for several films, including 'The Birth of a Nation.'"

In 1956, B. Altman's was constructed almost on the site of that Wallace mansion and shortly afterwards, the stores that eventually comprised the Mall at Short Hills mushroomed around the site of that former mansion.

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