Crane House and Historic YWCA
Twenty-one year old Israel Crane built a home for his wife Fanny Pierson Crane in 1794 on Glenridge Avenue. By standards of the day, it was a mansion located on 86 acres of farmland. The story goes that many people thought Crane was a bit crazy, How could such a young man afford such a fancy house? Israel Crane, however, was an astute businessman and soon grew into the house. Built back 1796, the house has had three lives -- as the Crane family home, as a YWCA for African American women and girls, and as a historic house museum.
The Crane Years
Born in 1774, Israel Crane became a successful merchant who owned a general store, constructed a turnpike that opened New Jersey’s heartland to early trade, owned several textile mills, and a rock quarry in Newark.
Israel and Fanny lived here with their seven children, house servants, and at least three enslaved workers named Dine, Bill, and Joe. Fanny oversaw the management of the house, cared for the children, and tended the garden. She was known for her knowledge of herbal remedies, perhaps because her father was a physician. She passed away in 1828.
James, one of Israel and Fanny’s sons, was given the house in 1840 and remodeled it with Greek-Revival details, particularly on the first floor. He added a bay window on the second floor, a converted the gable roof into the flat roof with iron grilles on the windows that we know today. His most striking change is the curved staircase in the center hall. James and his wife Phebe Harrison Crane raised six children in the home. Phebe lived in the home until about 1902 when she passed away. The 1900 census shows her living there with three unmarried daughters, all in their 40s and 50s.
The YWCA Years
After serving briefly as a rental property, the Crane House was bought by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Montclair-North Essex to be used as their headquarters in 1920. The YWCA had been started in 1912 by Alice Hooe Foster, the first African American woman to graduate from Montclair High School.
In the first half of the 20th century, YWCAs were segregated. A "white" YWCA would deem it appropriate to establish a "colored" YWCA as an offshoot if the population would support it. There were about 50 YWCAs for African American women and girls in the United States. Montclair YWCA was remarkable because it was the only one in America not affiliated with a white YWCA.
The YWCA used the house for offices, dormitories, and as a social center for African American women until 1965. It became a safe, respectable place for domestic servants to stay when then arrived in Montclair looking for work and a civic and social hub for African American women. Says Carrie Allen McCray in her book Freedom’s Child, “When we were young, the colored YWCA was located in a wonderful old house known as the Crane house. We knew every nook and cranny of that old house, which wrapped itself around us like a comforting blanket.”
The Israel Crane House was home to the YWCA for 45 years. Today, the women's stories are told in the Crane House and Historic YWCA, as well as in a documentary produced by the Montclair Historical Society in 2014 titled "A Place to Become: Montclair through the Eyes of the Glenridge Avenue YWCA Women (1920-1965).
The Museum Years
In 1965, the YWCA decided it needed more space. They made the difficult decision to build their new building on the land they already owned. The challenge, however, was that it would mean demolishing the 1796 structure.
When the YWCA announced they needed different space and planned to raze the former Crane House, a group of concerned citizens asked if the YWCA would donate it so they could moved it to a new location on Orange Road. These early preservationists were working in an era before the National Historic Preservation Act had been passed. They were truly trailblazers.
On August 25, 1965, after moving a distance of about one mile from 159 Glen Ridge Avenue to 110 Orange Road, the house was placed down on land donated by Mrs. Roy Tomlinson. The early preservationists formed the Montclair Historical Society and began to restore the house to reflect its life as the Crane family home. They also recreated a working hearth kitchen based on architectural drawings and photos from a 1937 Historic American Building Survey,
Interestingly, in generations past, the land where Israel Crane’s house came to rest had been owned by Jasper Crane (1605-1681) one of the first settlers of the Newark-Montclair area. In 1694, Jasper’s son Azariah built one of the first homes in the area on what is today 55 Myrtle Avenue, right near the intersection of Orange Road.
Today, the Crane House and Historic YWCA tells the stories of all the people who lived, worked, and played in the house... the Crane family members, the enslaved workers and servants, the women and girls of the YWCA, and the founders of the Montclair Historical Society.