By Alice Lazzarini
“How’d ya’ like to visit a lady who lives in a chicken coop?” my dad asked me one day. Since he once introduced me to a lady who carried on conversations with her husband whose ashes were perched in an urn on her mantle, my thirteen-year-old brain didn’t think it terribly strange that he would also know a lady who lived with chickens. I pictured a musty smelling shack, straw-strewn, with wide slat boards and a little old lady crawling through a rusted fence to shoo chickens off their roost and gather her morning eggs.
So, off we went one Sunday afternoon in our new, green 1952 Chevrolet: my mom and dad, my little sister and I. We drove from Morristown, out Rt. 24 into the heart of Mendham; then we turned left on Hilltop Road and left again on Talmage Road. Sure enough, there perched sideways was an unusually long, trailer-shaped building.
The “chicken-coop” lady turned out to be none other than the artist, Lucille Hobbie, a teacher and administrator for the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts with whom my dad taught evenings. (The lady with the talking urn also taught art at the Newark School!) Lucille greeted us at the door with a huge smile and served us milk and cookies as she showed off the unique renovations made to the tiny, fifteen-foot-wide home that she and her husband occupied. When we said our goodbyes she planted a loving kiss on my cheek.
Moving to Mendham years later, I just had to know whether the chicken-coop story had been embellished for my benefit. A Google search yielded my first clue: an article from the Dec 31, 2009 Daily Record entitled, “Mendham home that began as a chicken coop boasts Gilded Age touches of elegance.” I set out to re-explore the neighborhood curiosity.
“There are six chicken-coop houses,” said Ferebe Conchar, current resident of the property’s farm house. A builder had bought them in the forties, relocated them to their present location, and used reclaimed mantles, architectural moldings, and the like from mansions that were being demolished, turning them into charming cottages like the Blackberry cottage attached to an original silo.
Lucille Hobbie eventually moved from Mendham into Heath Village in Hackettstown, but she lived – and worked – into her nineties. Lucille was self-taught and produced many award-winning drawings, prints, and paintings of historic sites (see “Historic Sites of Morris County, New Jersey”). The couple who bought Lucille’s chicken coop told me that they had found some of her art work after she left, which the husband delivered to her. Lucille would continue to send them cards made from her art.
Among Lucille’s well-known works are the Wick House, Acorn Hall, the General Cooper Grist Mill in Chester, and our own Phoenix House. Two of my favorites have to be her unique perspective from the gravestones behind Hilltop Church and her rendering of the Victoriana of Trinity Park from my previous home, Mount Tabor.