By Sharon Hazard
The Roosevelt family, perhaps one of the most beloved families in American history, has roots in Monmouth County, including the Sea Bright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club and the Moses Taylor Memorial Church in Elberon.
Noel Geer Seifert, who along with her daughter, Julia, are the last surviving members of this branch of the Roosevelt family visited Sea Bright recently and was introduced to the fascinating world of her great-great grandmother, Kate Shippen Roosevelt, who had homes in New York City and New Jersey. Noel’s grandfather, Shippen Roosevelt Geer was the son of Dorothy Roosevelt Geer, the only child of Kate and Hilborne Roosevelt.
Born and raised in New York, Noel was aware of the Roosevelt’s rich American history, but she had no idea her family had such strong roots in the sandy soil of eastern Monmouth County, New Jersey. Noel’s mother, Susan Geer D’Angelo, her daughter, Julia and husband, Rob Seifert came along.
With the help of Jack McWilliams, chairman of the club’s Landmark Friend’s Committee, Noel took a step back in time and learned about her great-great-great- grandfather, William Shippen’s important role in the establishment of the Sea Bright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club.
“William Shippen was a wealthy man,” McWilliams said. “He was the president of the Hoboken Land Improvement Company, a trustee of Stevens’ Institute and the founder, along with railroad contractor, Miffin Paul, of the town of Sea Bright.”
McWilliams went on to explain that lawn tennis was introduced to America in 1875 with games being played on private courts throughout Rumson and Sea Bright until a permanent club was formed in 1886. At the time the game of cricket was also gaining popularity and so the club was named the Sea Bright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club. McWilliams proudly noted, “It is the oldest tennis club in the country.”
Although the club was founded mainly for athletic events, it was the center of social life in the community in the late 1800 and early 1900s. A stage was built under the direction of Mrs. Kate Shippen Roosevelt for amateur theatrical productions put on by the Round Robin Club. The stage is now obscured by a trophy case that guards the club’s silver loving cups and tournament prizes.
In addition to Kate Roosevelt, William Shippen had six other daughters, who all played tennis on the courts in Rumson and Sea Bright. The first club championship was played in August, 1879 with William Shippen winning first place and his daughter, Bessie winning the ladies’ singles match. A small, weathered racquet, the one that Anna Shippen received as a first prize in the mixed doubles competition she won along with Frank L. Henry in 1880, is mounted in a special case as a reminder of the family’s role in the club’s history.
Only two of the Shippen sisters married, but they both married well. Anna married the wealthy banker, Howland Davis and their daughter, Ruth wed Theodore Steinway of the piano family fame. Kate married the world-famous organ maker, Hilborne Roosevelt at the family home, The Anchorage in Sea Bright on Feb. 1, 1881. The shingle-style summer cottage was moved to North Ward Avenue in Rumson by barge after the storm of 1914. It was recently demolished, but Noel was able to see the spot where it once stood and picture the home described in The New York Times as the setting for “The wedding of the year.”
The wedding was one of the last celebrations the entire Roosevelt clan was gathered together for. Shortly after attending the wedding in Sea Bright, Theodore’s first wife Alice Lee died just after giving birth to “Baby Alice” and his brother, Elliott who was groomsman at the Roosevelt-Shippen wedding died a delusional drunk. His legacy was his daughter, Eleanor, who became first lady when cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933. Noel’s great-grandmother, Dorothy Roosevelt, made her debut in 1902 along with her famous cousins, Alice and Eleanor. Noel Seifert donated Dorothy’s debut portrait, by John White Alexander to the New-York Historical Society.
Hilborne Roosevelt, Noel’s great-great grandfather, did not go into politics or the family business like rest of the Roosevelts. He made his fortune and gained fame as the inventor of the first electric pipe organ, winning first prize at the World’s Exposition in Philadelphia in 1873.
The next stop on the tour took the group a few miles south to the Moses Taylor Memorial Church in Elberon for Noel and her family to see an original Hilborne Roosevelt organ, most likely one of the last he personally installed. He passed away on Dec. 31, 1886, just a few months after the church was dedicated. At one time, the Roosevelt Organ Company had factories in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Thomas Edison had one, a gift from his friend, Hilborne Roosevelt in his laboratory, played during the day to keep the inventors in Menlo Park entertained.
The Moses Taylor Church was built as a memorial to the financier by his wife, Catherine Taylor. His will specified that upon his death a church was to be built near his seaside summer cottage in Elberon. He endowed a legacy to maintain it which still exists today.
Since the eminent New York City architect had designed Taylor’s oceanfront home and was a family friend, it was fitting that he also design Taylor’s spiritual abode as well. The Gothic-style church, typical of the era, is a showcase of fine craftsmanship that includes a Louis Tiffany stained-glass Rose Window and another treasure, an original Hilborne Roosevelt Organ. The pipe organ was built directly into the church.
According to church organist, Tim Broege, “The church is unheated and only opened during the summer.” He credits this with the organ’s longevity. It is only tuned once a year and the only change made since its installation in 1885 was its electrification in 1920. It is one of the most perfectly preserved examples of 19th century American organ building.
Broege and church trustee, Sharon Lees gave Noel and her family the grand tour as well as a private concert showcasing the genius of Hilborne Roosevelt’s organ-making skills.
The day came full circle, beginning in Rumson and ending in Elberon with Noel Geer Seifert and her family retracing some of the steps a not-so well- known, but equally-important branch of the Roosevelt Family had taken in making Monmouth County history.
Writer Sharon Hazard lives in Long Branch. Her current project is editing a diary written by Kate Shippen Roosevelt during the years, 1912 through 1919. The weekly episodes of “Dowager’s Diary” are posted on www.womanaroundtown.com.
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