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1796 Archives Rediscovered - Press

Office of the Secretary of State

Department of State
125 West State Street
Trenton, NJ 08625

April 4, 2006

Excavation Reveals 1796 Secretary of State Building on State House Grounds


Trenton, NJ – Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells will join Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, and Supreme Court Clerk Stephen W. Townsend for the public unveiling of archaeological remains of a structure built in 1796 to house New Jersey’s colonial and early state archives. Excavations in front of the State House have exposed the ancient stone foundations of a fireproof building designed for the preservation of the State’s most valuable public records.



Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells, Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz and Supreme Court Clerk Stephen Townsend to unveil the excavated site of the State’s 1796 archives building to the public for the first time. The original foundation will be on view.

Thursday, April 6, 2006
3:00 – 4:00 p.m.

New Jersey State House (front steps and grounds)
125 West State Street
Trenton, NJ 08625


The remains of the historic 1796 structure began to emerge inches below the existing grade, just east of the State House’s front entrance as workers from Hunter Research Inc. ripped out the sidewalk as part of the state’s ongoing security enhancement project.

Please note that the media and all guests are advised to wear flat shoes or boots on the excavation site.

Press Articles

Dig at Statehouse site finds pieces of history - 7 April 2006 [© The Star Ledger,]

1796 building's foundation unearthed near Statehouse - 7 April 2006 [© Asbury Park Press,]

A State House Privy Seal? - 7 April 2006 [© The Trenton Times,]

Privy to piece of history - 7 April 2006 [© The Trentonian,]

Historic Outhouse Unearthed - 7 April 2006, [6ABC, © Associated Press, WPVI,]

Dig at Statehouse site finds pieces of history

Friday, April 07, 2006
Star-Ledger Staff

Construction workers preparing the Statehouse for the future have uncovered part of its past.

The stone foundation and a part of the basement of New Jersey's first archives building -- built in 1796 and buried when the Statehouse was expanded a half-century later -- were recently unearthed by workers during a project to en hance security.

Archaeologists also uncovered the foundation of an adjacent brick privy with a 5-foot-deep well-like pit just to the left of the Statehouse's main entrance. In 1796, the "tastefully designed" outhouse would have stood on the front lawn of what was a much smaller Statehouse.

"This is a once-in-a-200-year opportunity," state Archivist Karl J. Niederer said yesterday as state officials and history enthusiasts gathered outside the Statehouse to view the finds. "The building held unique and priceless documentary records."

Constructed just four years after the Statehouse was built, the building was used to preserve New Jersey's most valuable Revolutionary- and Colonial-era documents. No artifacts have been found.

The records kept there included the 1787 copy of New Jersey's ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the state manuscript copy of the 1789 U.S. Bill of Rights, the 1776 state constitution and the original 1776 great seal of the state of New Jersey, according to Niederer. "It held 112 years of land, military and court records," he said.

The rear of the building stretched 28 feet along what is now the front of the east wing of the Statehouse. It was a 12-foot-high one-story brick and stone structure that included two offices with fireplaces and separate walk-in vaults, possibly sealed with iron doors, for both the secretary of state and court clerk. Each office had separate entrances.

The two people who currently hold those posts -- state Supreme Court Clerk Stephen W. Townsend and Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells -- were at the site yesterday.

"This was the 18th-century equivalent of a state-of-the-art facility for record keeping," Townsend said.

"Who needs to go around the world when we have an archaeological dig right here in New Jersey, and right outside my window," Wells said.

It is believed the building was demolished and the basement filled in sometime in the 1840s to make way for the expansion of the Statehouse. Today, the records it protected are held in the State Archives a block away.

Niederer said he was home on the night of March 24 when he received a call from Richard Hunter, an archaeologist with Trenton- based Hunter Research Inc., who told him they found parts of a building both had long suspected was near the Statehouse.

"Both the archaeologist and I had reason to believe the approximate location of the building would be there," Niederer said.

No rendering of the building is known to exist, but archivists found a map of Trenton, circa 1800, that depicts it as a small square in the northeast corner of the Statehouse grounds. They also found 1795 legislation that describes how the building should look.

The foundations are mainly out of sight to pedestrians and motorists passing on congested West State Street. Officials conceded that because the area is an active construction site, the public will not have the opportunity to see it.

The site will be covered by a plaza expected to be constructed by June as part of the project to improve security at the Statehouse. Niederer said it is expected the outline of the building will be marked with special stones placed in the plaza. He said a video record of the site would be made.

Also buried beneath the Statehouse grounds are the remains of a Colonial-era iron forge and steel furnace.

"The Colonial history of Trenton is preserved beneath the ground and not far below the ground," said Ian Burrow, a Hunter Research archaeologist. "An astonishing thing is the layers of soil from the past. If we kept digging, we would find more remains of this building and artifacts of the Lenni Lenape Indians, who also thought this was a nice place to be."

Additional photos of the foundation are available at

© 2006, The Star Ledger

1796 building's foundation unearthed near Statehouse

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 04/7/06
By Gregory J. Volpe
Gannett State Bureau

A construction project redesigning the Statehouse entrance for modern security concerns has unearthed the remains of New Jersey's original archives building — the second structure built by the state's government.

Erected in 1796 at a cost of 600 pounds, perhaps about $300,000 to $350,000 in today's dollars, the stone fireproof structure housed the state's early and colonial documents. Only the Statehouse — the country's second-oldest in continuous operation — predates it in New Jersey government.

Historians were surprised that its foundation was still buried a few feet from the current Statehouse.

"We knew it had been here, but that's different than having any remains in the ground," said Ian C. Burrow, an archaeologist with Hunter Research, the firm that oversaw the dig.

Officials closed the construction site for a brief tour of the findings Thursday afternoon. Pictures of the dig and historical documents pertaining to the building were posted on the state Division of Archives and Records Management Web site. The site itself — beneath street level — will be covered by fill and paved over.

"This is an active construction site," said Karl J. Niederer, director of the state's archives and record management. "They had to shut down just for this."

The remains were unearthed outside the office of current Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells.

"Who needs to go around the world to spot an archaeological dig when we have one right here in the state of New Jersey — right outside of my window?" Wells said.

Archaeologists found no artifacts besides the building foundation, Burrow said, likely because the building was shut down and covered with clean fill sometime in the 1840s.

The one-story structure, 46 feet by 28 feet, had four segments — two vaults in the middle designed to be fireproof, surrounded by offices on either side. Portions of the foundation — a white stone mica schist — and the old doorway were visible. Excavators also unearthed a portion of the privy, a brick well that in its day was state-of-the-art sanitation.

"This was going really first-class," said Supreme Court Clerk Stephen W. Townsend, who pictured his predecessor 210 years ago when the building opened "trying his very best to look solemn and dignified, but in the presence of his new official home he finds it next to impossible to keep a grin from creasing his face."

The construction, which expands the walkway in front of the capital building, is expected to be finished this summer.

Gregory J. Volpe:

© 2006, The Asbury Park Press

A State House privy seal?
Dig unearths old archives base -- and outhouse pit

Friday, April 07, 2006
By Joseph Dee
Staff Writer

TRENTON -- Archaeologists and state officials announced two findings yesterday, one sure to appeal to history buffs, another that will amuse the political cynics.

On display outside the West State Street entrance to the State House, where workers are excavating the sidewalk and street to make security improvements, is the stone foundation of a 1796 building that served as an archive for Colonial- and early statehood-era documents.

Wow. Cool. Old.

But for some, the unearthed treasure lies a few feet away, where archaeologists have shoveled down to the brick remains of -- an outhouse.

The bricklayers had formed a cylindrical chamber for the outhouse with the top course sitting all these years within inches of the left edge of the State House steps. There's got to be a joke there, but archaeologist Ian Burrow stuck to the facts.

"The privy was probably in use for 40 years, well into the 1840s," he said.

Burrow, of Hunter Research Inc., pointed to where workers had removed half of the privy's bricks, leaving perhaps a 6-foot-deep semi-circle. It had been filled long ago "with clean material," he said.

The archival building, used by the secretary of state and the clerk to the Supreme Court, was built four years after the original State House on ground that would have been the State House's back yard, Burrow said.

It probably was demolished during the first expansion of the State House in 1845, he said.

"This is the foundation of the original archives building and the office of my predecessor, John Beatty," said Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells.

The documents that once were housed in the the old building now form the core collection of the modern state archives, said Karl J. Niederer, director of the state archives. Long-gone brick vaults served as "state-of-the-art storage facilities," he said.

The Treasury Department has been contacted about marking the outlines of the old building with colored stones or in some other fashion when the site is covered and landscaped, Niederer said. Treasury is in charge of the security project.

Interpretive signs will help visitors recognize the significance of the site, Niederer said.

Part of the archive building's stone foundation "was literally six inches under the sidewalk on (West) State Street where we all walk every day," he said.

Contact Joseph Dee at or (609) 989-5704.

© 2006, The Trenton Times

Privy to piece of history
7 April 2006

By JACK KNARR, Staff Writer

TRENTON -- There were always rumors at the State House that a mysterious building had once stood out front in the late 1700s.

So when new construction plans were drawn up recently to rip up the sidewalks of West State Street and tighten security-- a project costing about $870,000 -- state historians figured this might be a good time to dig deeper. And solve the mystery.

First, they looked up old legislative bills and maps of the State House to learn some basics.

And they found that in 1795, five years after Trenton was named state capital, the Legislature had acted to relocate the state’s vital records to Trenton, and approved spending 600 pounds to build offices for the Secretary of State and the Supreme Court clerk, and "for the preservation of the public records of the state ..."

Using an early 19th century map of Trenton, and the site description in the legislative bill, archaeologists from Hunter Research, Inc., began digging. (The Trenton firm was low bidder on the project.) They figured they might find remnants of the mysterious 1796 archives building.

"We’re using the archives in the archives to help us find the physical archives in the ground that once held the archives that are now in the archives," said the twisted-tongued Ian C. Burrow, vice president and principal archaeologist of Hunter.

Yesterday, the findings were revealed. The digs outside the State House brought ancient underground stone walls into sunlight for the first time in about 160 years.

For a moment, Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells, looked back into history.

"This is the foundation of the original archives building and the office of my predecessor, John Beatty," said Wells. "How amazing is that?"

Her office overlooks the West State Street site next to the foundation of the current State House.

"As I look out, I see a very significant place in the history of my office and of this state," she said. "For 10 years, my distinguished predecessor preserved and protected New Jersey’s precious colonial and early state archives right over there."

The state’s most rare, most precious documents were housed there in the "secure, fireproof" building.

They included the state’s 1787 Ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the state’s manuscript copy of the 1789 U.S. Bill of Rights, the 1776 State Constitution, the original state Great Seal, and 112 years of colonial land records, enrolled laws, military and court records.

But there were no "treasure" findings -- no coins or silver spoons, for example. No gold bricks that might have been, uh,accidentally left behind when the building was abandoned and demolished some 50 years later.

There was one significant find, however: Diggers unearthed a giant circular brick privy that had been used by legislators of the day, aside the front steps.

Ian Burrow called the dig an "astonishing find."

"This is a real testimony to the importance that New Jersey places on its history," he said. "... Here, just in front of you, is an immediate example that you can see and you can touch.

"I’m glad to say that although we have actually found a privy, we can’t actually smell the history as well."

Burrow said when the building was demolished many years later, workers had apparently filled in the deep hole with clean ground.

Sen. Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon) greeted reporters with high humor.

"People think perhaps this excavation was done because of the safety concerns at the State House," he deadpanned.

"That’s inaccurate. I was digging for gold -- to balance the state budget. It was unsuccessful in that regard."

Ian Burrow spoke of Trenton’s colonial history being preserved underground.

"This is nothing short of astonishing," he said. "Here we have essentially a 19-century city -- Trenton Makes, The World Takes."

And despite all the industrial development and change, he said, "beneath the ground, and not very far down, either, in many many places we have found significant archaeological remains of Colonial times."

No further digging will be done. The giant hole will be sealed carefully.

And in the later construction at ground level, the "footprint" of this old structure will be marked for future generations to see.

©2006, The Trentonian

Historic Outhouse Unearthed
Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - April 7, 2006 - It's unlikely George Washington did anything there.
But workers excavating near New Jersey's Statehouse have unearthed the foundations of an outhouse and the state's first archives building that were built in 1796.

The outhouse, or privy, has a five-foot-deep well-like pit and would have stood on the front lawn of what was then the Statehouse. Today, it's to the left of the current capitol building's entrance.

The archives building once housed the 1787 copy of New Jersey's ratification of the U-S Constitution, a 1789 copy of the Bill of Rights and the original 1776 state seal.

The archives building and outhouse were buried when the Statehouse was expanded in the 1800s.

The excavations will be covered by a plaza that's being constructed to improve security at the capitol. Special stones will mark the outline of the old building.

© 2006, The Associated Press