In the heart of Newark, also known as “brick city,” is a limestone haven unmarred by contemporary society. Inside, women still chat in parlors, children mind their manners, and dinner is a formal event. The outdated scene, however, is within reach. For $5, Newark residents can travel back in time and envelope themselves in Victorian serenity—right in their own backyards.
Located at 49 Washington Street, the Ballantine house—a sprawling Victorian mansion touting three floors of sheer opulence—is a welcome escape from reality. The elegant house was built in 1885 for the Ballantines, a Scottish family that started out as poor immigrants and rose to become wealthy beer tycoons. Since then, the urban mansion, part of The Newark Museum complex, has been restored. Daily tours of the premises are offered to the public.
Designated a national landmark in 1985, the house exemplifies the grandeur of the Victorian period. A testament to the Ballantines’ luxurious way of life, the house boasts immense 60-foot hallways and eight period rooms, including a parlor, billiards room and maid’s quarters. Stained-glass windows provide a dramatic entrance for sunlight. Every nook of space is adorned, plastered, ensconced or otherwise beautified. The dining room, for instance, features mahogany furniture, plaster pillars and gold-trimmed, velvet-covered chairs that look too intimidating to sit on. It’s a scene of luxury designed to impress.
The tour of the premises mesmerized each member of my group—no small feat considering that our ages ran from adolescent to elderly. The tour guide, who with every step exposed fascinating tidbits of Ballantine history, held our attention throughout the 45-minute stroll. The only moment of unease came when this elderly, loose-lipped tour guide began recounting her days of swigging Ballantine beer.
While you cannot go completely into the rooms, you can see perfectly when you enter partially. The viewing space, however, is not the most generous. Groups of more than five people pose a problem. Elbow-to-elbow with other visitors who were relentlessly cramming themselves into tiny quarters, I spent my time at the mansion feeling more as if I were on a crowded subway.
The significance of the three-story mansion transcends pure aesthetics. According to our tour guide, the house typifies the aspirations of the Victorian upper class in the 1880s. “The house,” she said, “represented the American Dream.”
During the Victorian years, an outward display of wealth showed to those who were still climbing the ladder that the wealthy had reached the top. And if home life reflected arrival in social terms, the Ballantines had surely arrived. As an immigrant and an entrepreneur who accumulated riches through hard work, John Ballantine seemed the archetypal American success story. The heir was living proof of the grandiose returns investment in hard work could bring—even to foreigners.
But for Ballantine, dreams became reality. Who would’ve thought that beer could bring about such intoxicating wealth?
Jennifer Gonzalez is a journalism and media studies major at Rutgers-Newark.