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Home > About Us > History

Liberty Hall, where history comes to life.

In 1760, when lawyer William Livingston, a member of the prominent Livingston clan, was planning to build a country home, he bought 120 acres in what was then sleepy, bucolic Elizabethtown, New Jersey, just across the river from his New York home. For the next 12 years, Livingston developed the extensive grounds, gardens and orchards and oversaw the building of a beautiful 14-room Georgian-style home. Finally, in 1773, Livingston and his wife, the former Susannah French of New Brunswick, and their children moved to Liberty Hall on a full-time basis, but the peace and quiet Livingston sought was short-lived.

From 1774 to 1776, Livingston put his retirement on hold and served as a member of the First and Second Continental Congress and as brigadier general of the New Jersey militia. He was also a signer of the United States Constitution. On August 31, 1776, Livingston became New Jerseyís first elected governor. The ensuing war years were difficult ones for the governor, who spent them on the run from British troops. Finally, after the war in 1783, he was able to return home, which was heavily damaged by both British and American troops. While juggling the demands of governing, Livingston also managed to pursue his great love of gardening and agriculture, still evident at Liberty Hall today.

Governor Livingston served as governor for 14 years until his death on July 25, 1790. He is credited with making the New Jersey governorship one of the strongest political positions in the country.

Life after the Livingstons

After the Governor and Mrs. Livingston died, their son Henry Brockholst Livingston, who later became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, inherited Liberty Hall. The home remained in the family until 1798 when the house was sold to Lord Bolingbroke, also known as George Belasise, and his wife, Isabella.

The new owner also loved to garden and established the lovely English boxwood maze still seen at Liberty Hall today. Lord Bolingbroke made extensive additions to the principal outbuildings, established or improved a large hot house (precursor of a greenhouse) and developed the gardens. He is said to have laid out the grounds to the west of the mansion and to have brought many rare shrubs and trees to the estate.

The Keans arrive

In 1811, Peter Kean purchased Liberty Hall in trust for his mother Susan Livingston Kean Niemcewicz, a niece of William, because at that time women could not own property in their own right. Susanís first husband had been John Kean of South Carolina, who was the first cashier of the Bank of the United States. During the Revolutionary War, John had been a prisoner, kept on a prison ship. As a result, he developed a respiratory disease that killed him at the age of 39.

Susanís second husband was Count Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish nobleman. The count fled his homeland after unsuccessfully fighting for his countryís freedom against Russia. The couple lived together until 1809 when he returned to Poland in the wake of Napoleonís successful campaigns. Susanís health did not permit her to accompany him and the two never saw each other again. The count never returned to America, but he and Susan wrote each other faithfully for more than 20 years. In honor of her husband, Susan changed the name of Liberty Hall to Ursino, which was Niemcewiczs Polish estate.

Peter Kean was the only son of Susan and John Kean. He married Sarah Sabina Morris, a granddaughter of Lewis Morris, the first royal governor of New Jersey. Peter was active in military affairs in the state and was the colonel of the Fourth Regiment of New Jersey at the time of his death. In 1824, Peter, who was fluent in French, was appointed to escort Lafayette on his tour of New Jersey.

Peter died before his mother, so his son, John Kean II, inherited Liberty Hall upon the death of his grandmother.

John, who later was known as Colonel, lived at Liberty Hall for 60 years and made the most significant changes to the house and property, expanding the house to the 50-room Victorian Italianate structure it is today.

After graduating from Princeton in 1834, John studied law with Governor Pennington. He later served on the Governorís staff with the rank of colonel, a title he kept to the end of his life. He was a man of energy and vision who was interested in banking, railroads and public utilities. He was an original stockholder of the Camden and Amboy Railroad, first president of the Elizabeth and Somerville Railroad and a vice president of the Central Railroad of New Jersey. He also served as president of the National Bank of New Jersey and as president of the Elizabethtown Gaslight Company, later known as Elizabethtown Gas Company, and Elizabethtown Water Company. He also owned three water-powered mills on the Elizabeth River.

Colonel John married Lucinetta Halsted Kean in 1847 and had 11 children with nine surviving to adulthood. Lucy was well educated and intelligent, always at the top of her class in school. She could write and speak French fluently and could read Italian. She was also very athletic and loved to play games with her many children.

The Colonel transformed Liberty Hall into a 50-room Victorian Italianate-style villa, to accommodate his growing family, adding such modern amenities as running water, gravity hot-air heating, and gas lighting. The house eventually passed to the Colonel and Lucyís oldest son, John.

John attended Yale and received a law degree from Columbia. After graduating, John devoted himself to business interests and politics. He served two terms as a representative in Congress (1883-1885 and 1887-1889) and two terms as senator (1899-1911). When he wasnít in Washington, he lived at Liberty Hall and was famous for his annual New Yearís reception for his political supporters at Liberty Hall.

When Senator John Kean, a bachelor, died, the house was passed to his nephew, Captain John Kean, who was the son of Hamilton Fish Kean and Katharine Winthrop Kean. He was a graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School. He was an accomplished horseman and saw his first military service in 1914 with the cavalry patrol of the New Jersey National Guard at the Mexican border. He was later wounded in France as a member of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I.

After the war, John got involved in the family businesses, eventually becoming president of the National State Bank, the Elizabethtown Water Company and the Elizabethtown Consolidated Gas Company.

The Captain married Mary Alice Barney in 1925 and brought her home to Liberty Hall in 1932. She was a New York debutante and the daughter of J. Stewart Barney and Mary Alice Van Nest. Mary Alice fell in love with the house and spent countless hours researching its and her familyís history. She was the motivating force behind not only Liberty Hallís restoration but also of many of the historic homes in the surrounding area. Liberty Hall Museum was Mary Aliceís dream and her children, May, John, and Stewart, are proud to have made it a reality.

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Revolution & Romance 1772-1798

Liberty Hall was built in 1772 for William Livingston, a lawyer and member of the prominent Livingston family of New York. Livingston moved his family from New York City to his new country estate and farm as debate raged over English policy towards the Colonies. In 1774 Livingston's daughter Sarah married John Jay, later Chief Justice of the United States, in the Great Hall.

Livingston's quiet country life was soon interrupted by the Revolution. He served as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774, 1775, and 1776. In 1776 he was elected the first Governor of the State of New Jersey, a post he held until his death in 10790.

The Matriarch 1811-1833

In 1811, the estate was purchased by Peter Kean, in trust for his mother Susan Livingston Kean Niemcewicz (Governor Livingston's niece). They were the first members of the Kean family to live at Liberty Hall.

Susan's first husband was John Kean, a prominent merchant from Charleston, South Carolina. Kean served as a member of the Second Continental Congress and after the War, President Washington made him the first Cashier of the Bank of the United States. John Kean died in 1795.

In 1800 Susan married Count Julian Ursin Niemcewicz, a Polish nobleman living in exile in the United States. Niemcewicz returned to Europe in 1809, when Napoleon invaded Poland. They wrote regularly and warmly, but Niemcewicz never returned to the United States. Susan renamed the estate Ursino in honor of her husband. After her son Peter's death in 1828, Susan became head of household, remaining there with Peter's widow and her three grandchildren.

Enterprise & Expansion 1833-1895

In 1833, the estate was inherited by Susan's grandson, John Kean. John graduated from Princeton in 1834. While on the staff of New Jersey's Governor Pennington he acquired the rank of Colonel, a title he used the rest of his life.

Over the next sixty years, Colonel Kean transformed Ursino from a 14-room country house to the 50-room mansion that stands today. A man of vision, he invested in banks, railroads, and public utilities including the Elizabethtown Gas Light Company and the Elizabethtown Water Company (both still in existence).

The Colonel and his wife, Lucinetta Halsted had eleven children; nine survived to adulthood. Two sons entered national politics; John served in the House of Representatives and both he and his brother Hamilton served in the Senate. After the Colonel's death the house passed to Senator John. He never married, so upon his death the house passed to Hamilton's son, Captain John Kean.

Rediscovered Roots 1925-1995

In 1925, Captain John Kean married Mary Alice Barney. The daughter of prominent New York architect John Stewart Barney, Mrs. Kean had a love of art and American history. When Captain Kean inherited Liberty Hall in 1932, the couple researched the history of the house and brought together family antiques to enhance its historic character. After the Captain's early death in 1949, Mrs. Kean began to transform the house into a museum.

In 1974, Mrs. Kean restored the name of the house to Liberty Hall, in honor of its being declared a National Historic Landmark. It was her dream that Liberty Hall be preserved for the benefit of future generations, and she inspired her children and grandchildren to make that dream a reality. The house stands today as a testament to her energy, vision and passion for history.