A certain house said to be located in Atlantic Highlands is the subject of two stories in the Monmouth Timeline, both related to Prohibition and smuggling.
On October 16, 1929, Federal agents launched a major assault on illegal liquor in the Monmouth County area, conducting raids, searching homes, and making numerous arrests and seizures. One of the more prominent properties involved was the mansion once owned by the theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein Sr. Four years later, that house made front-page news again when gangster Al Lillien Jr. was murdered there, ending his bootlegging ring.
On both occasions when we published these stories, we received a very simple question: Is that house still standing?
We approached two experts on Atlantic Highlands history and were assured by one that the house was, indeed, still standing, and in good condition. The other assured us it had been torn down and replaced by a new house.
So much for a simple question!
We are fortunate to have within this region amazing resources for historical research. With some 80 non-profit organizations within Monmouth County dedicated to one or another aspect of historical preservation, history is clearly an important part of our culture and heritage.
So we turned to Mary Hussey, in the Archives Division of the Monmouth County Clerk’s Office. The County Archives are a rich trove of history and the County Clerk’s office has produced some amazing overviews of regional history, such as Monmouth County during the Civil War, or amazing inventions that came out of our region.
We also learned that the press reports were mistaken, that the Hammerstein house was not located within Atlantic Highlands, but rather, within the adjacent Navesink neighborhood of Middletown Township.
So we also sought help from Tom Valenti, president of the Middletown Township Historical Society – NJ, as they have vast archives of their own. As it turned out, Tom was helping Ralph Bitter with his own research into this question. Ralph’s research helped turn up the best image yet of the real Hammerstein/Lillien mansion (see picture…no, we don’t know who the individual is in the photo, so there is still an element of mystery).
Our history gumshoes dove into their documents and determined that the house in question was located at what today would be 16 Southside Avenue. The deed trail shows that the house bore an Atlantic Highlands postal address, but was situated within the municipality of Middletown Township, hence the confusion in the newspaper reports.
After Hammerstein died, the house was bought by Julius Lynch, who sold it on June 15, 1929, to a company called International Associates, Inc., which was a front for smuggler Al Lillien Jr.’s bootlegging operations. After Lillien’s murder, the house was sold at a sheriff’s auction in 1933 to Rolland and Mary Lupton. Eventually, the property became the site of the Bayview Nursing Home, which was closed in 1977 for safety violations, and destroyed in a fire a month later. Today, it is a residential neighborhood.
A stunning Queen Anne-style house dating to 1864 sits very near where the Hammerstein mansion stood. Owned over the years mostly by the Bussey and Tillotson families, that house is still standing and may be what some believe to be the Hammerstein home, but they are two different homes, each with their own distinct document trail.
And so, alas, there is no Hammerstein/Lillien mansion to be seen today. But thanks to all the diligent digging, we have a conclusive answer to our question, and a great photo of that historic house.
We at Monmouth Timeline are grateful in the extreme to Mary Hussey, Tom Valenti, and Ralph Bitter for their efforts and assistance.
A simple question may, in the end, have a simple answer, but getting there can be anything but simple.