About: History

Retirement to the Countryside 1760-1790

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. In 1773, Livingston and his wife, the former Susannah French of New Brunswick, moved to Liberty Hall on a full-time basis with their children. 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 Jersey’s 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 to his 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.

The Kean’s Arrive 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. John Kean served as a member of the Second Continental Congress. After the War, President George Washington made Kean 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.

The Colonel and his wife, Lucy 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 Kean. 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 1973, 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.