The Wood Lawn Mansion
Wood Lawn, the mansion which houses the Eagleton Institute of Politics, was built in 1830 by Colonel James Neilson (1784 - 1862), a member of the third generation of a prosperous family with historic ties to Rutgers and New Brunswick. The tradition of hospitality and lively conversation long associated with the Neilson family is maintained in the present-day Wood Lawn, where students, scholars and political practitioners come together to exchange ideas and explore mutual interests.
The Neilson Family: The family's heritage was rooted in New Brunswick by the first James Neilson, who emigrated to New Jersey from the north of Ireland. Active in the shipping and mercantile industries, he was one of the first trustees of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He was also one of the petitioners for the charter granted to New Brunswick in 1730. His nephew, John Neilson (1745 - 1833) established business interests in shipping by adding turnpikes and canals for the transport of freight and passengers to the family businesses. John Neilson was a Trustee of Rutgers and was named Colonel of the Middlesex County minutemen.
Colonel James Neilson, the son of John Neilson, built Wood Lawn on a portion of the land originally purchased by his mother's grandfather, Johannis Voorhees, in 1720. A member of the Rutgers Board of Trustees who had also served as a commander of a company in the war of 1812, Colonel James Neilson was a prominent New Brunswick businessman. He sought to establish Wood Lawn as a gentleman's farm.The Colonel was widowed three times; James Neilson, his only son by his fourth wife, was the last Neilson to occupy Wood Lawn. James Neilson and his wife, Mary Putnam Woodbury, were collectors of rare Americana. They shared Wood Lawn with Neilson's mother for several years before building the cottage next door, where they lived until 1905, when they returned to the large house which had been vacant since 1893 when Neilson's mother died.
James Neilson was also a Trustee of Rutgers and donated large tracts of land to the University, expanding the campuses of the current Douglass and Cook Colleges. In his later years he was a gracious host to students at New Jersey College for Women (now Douglass College).
The House: The original house is described by Moxon et. al. as nearly square (40 by 44 feet), with a hipped roof supported by tall columns which created a portico. The house had two stories and a basement with space for a kitchen, dairy cellar, root cellar and wine cellar. The first floor contained an entry, four rooms and a pantry, while the second floor contained rooms divided by partitions and closets. Each room was to have "a handsome well-finished mantlepiece." A circular staircase descended from the second floor hallway to the basement.
In 1850 a kitchen wing was added to the house, and the circular stair was removed to provide space for a rear entrance hall. In 1868 eight bay window extensions were added, one in each of the four large rooms on both the first and second floors. At the same time, a porch was created in place of the portico and the hipped roof was replaced by a mansard roof. Extensive alternations were made in 1905 by the firm of McKim, Mead and White. In order to extend the center hall, the Neilsons had the right half of the house moved and added the present staircase and the large Palladian window overlooking it, as well as additional classical elements.
The current appearance of the house combines several distinct architectural styles including Neo-Classical, Second Empire, and Colonial Revival. This marked appearance has gained Wood Lawn a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wood Lawn After the Neilson Family: Upon James Neilson's death, Wood Lawn was left to Rutgers University; it was occupied for many years by the Associate Alumnae of Douglass College. During that period, distinguished visitors to Wood Lawn included Eleanor Roosevelt, who met with students at the College; a photo displayed in Wood Lawn's dining room shows her in that room.
Today Wood Lawn is the home of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, an active and respected education, research and public service unit of the University, nationally recognized for its activities in the field of American politics. Eagleton conducts innovative and practical research, educates students, and informs policymakers and the public. The Institute was established in 1956 with a bequest from Florence Peshine Eagleton, a suffragist and founder of New Jersey's League of Women Voters. The Eagleton Institute of Politics and its Wood Lawn home are inextricable, well known across and beyond New Jersey as a place for celebrating politics and strengthening democracy.