The historic Robert Morris Holmes House stands on land that was originally part of a 350-acre tract purchased in 1695 by Arthur Cresse (ca. 1650-1714), a carpenter who migrated from Long Island to Cape May County, New Jersey about 1692. The rear portion of the house was probably built about 1704, the year in which Cresse sold 150 acres of the 350-acre tract to his son, John (1671-1729). John, also a carpenter, probably built the rear portion and like other residents of the Jersey cape, farmed the land on which he lived, growing wheat, rye, and flax. John willed the house to his son, Robert (ca. 1690-1768) in 1729, and Robert then willed it to his son, Jonathan (ca. 1733-aft. 1795) in 1768.
In 1776, Jonathan Cresse sold the house and a tract of adjoining land—a total of 192 acres—to John Holmes (1746-1791), an Irishman who had immigrated with his brothers in the 1770s. John Holmes was many things: a merchant, a slave holder (he owned 4 at the time of this death), a land holder in two states and three New Jersey counties, and a salt works owner during the Revolutionary War. In 1791, he willed the farmstead to his oldest son, Robert Morris Holmes (1782-1840). Robert Holmes was not only a farmer, but a dedicated public servant who served in the State assembly and was at various times the county tax collector, treasurer, and loan commissioner. Suffering from rheumatism, he tore down the ca. 1780 house his father built on the opposite side of the road and erected the main block of the Holmes House about 1830, claiming that his father’s house had been built too low to the ground and its dampness was affecting his health. Research shows that the carpenters likely responsible for the fine craftsmanship of several mantels and the transom over the door were the Fosters (father and son) from Dias Creek.
Robert Morris Holmes died without a will in 1840 and his “homestead plantation” was divided among his three sons with his son, Richard Collins Holmes, receiving the house and 6+ acres. Richard Holmes bought his siblings’ shares and named his holdings Strabane Farm for the town in Ireland from which his grandfather, John, had emigrated 70+ years earlier.
Richard Holmes was the most significant 19th century resident of the house; not only was he an innovative farmer who used tidal mud for fertilizer, but he was a shipping insurance agent, a lay judge, a collector of customs, and a freeholder among other things.
. An invalid in his later years, he added a one-story addition to the south side of the main block and built a storage house behind the main house using a new construction material known as “gravel brick”.
After Holmes’ death in 1863, the house and its farmland were inherited jointly by his six children who never divided the land among them. Two of his children, Joseph Holmes, a farmer and Civil War veteran and his sister, Emma, both single, lived in the house their entire lives. An outhouse they used before indoor plumbing was added still stands on the property, but their chicken coops and the barn have long since vanished. After Emma Holmes’ death in 1934, the house was sold out of the family after more than 150 years of Holmes family ownership.
Judge Palmer Way (1886-1944) and his family owned the house from 1935 until 1957, using it primarily as a summer residence. Dr. Ulric Laquer, a general practice physician, and his wife, Christine, an artist, then raised their family in the house from 1957 until 1976. They moved an 18th century barn onto the property and converted it to an art studio and gallery; they also built a greenhouse next to the gravel brick storage building and added a garage at the south end of the main block.
Since 1976, the house has been owned by the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society which uses it as a house museum, open to the public, in which many items and furnishings with ties to Cape May County are displayed. Added by the Historical Society and housed in a separate structure is the Society’s research library, gift shop, and administrative offices.
As stewards of the Holmes House, the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society preserves the home and its outbuildings for present and future generations to enjoy. These buildings are a significant part of Cape May County’s history, not only for their associations with noteworthy county residents but also because they represent fine craftsmanship, they have unique architectural character, and they allow the public to see the ways in which people lived in an earlier age.