|History of the Somerville Circle
By Bruce Doorly
|A simple mention of the Somerville Circle can bring on gasps and various negative descriptions.
Riding on it can be a heart-pounding experience.
One must ask how did this dreaded traffic circle come into being.
|Somerville Circle around 1936|
|It was the 1930s. Travel by automobile had in the previous decade become commonplace.
Most of the roads had existed decades before as unpaved dirt paths used by horse-drawn carriages.
As cars replaced horses the roads were paved. But the increase in car traffic forced the redrawing of many roads. Cars on long trips needed to bypass the slow-moving downtowns. And cars needed easy access to the highways of the era.
So, the New Jersey Highway Authority planned out traffic circles on the outskirts of towns where several major roads would intersect. In the 1930s many traffic circles were created in New Jersey. In the beginning they were considered a miracle of modern highway design. But as decades went by, the increase in car traffic would turn them into hazards.
|Somerville Circle today|
|In 1931, articles started appearing in the local newspapers stating that a traffic circle just west of Downtown Somerville
and northeast of Raritan was in the planning stages. It would connect Route 28, Route 29 (202 today), and Route 31 (206 today).
Debate raged on for three years about where exactly the circle would be. The first proposed site was a quarter mile east of the current circle which would be on Cornell Boulevard. Eventually, today’s location was considered. The initial problem with this location was that the land was privately owned by former U.S. Senator Joseph Frelinghuysen. The advantage of this location was that it was the intersection of Route 29 and Route 28, two of the three roads that would make up the circle.
|About the property owned by Joseph Frelinghuysen
Today we see stone pillars near the entrance of Burger King that are said to have been the entrance of the Frelinghuysen estate. A plaque commemorating the signing of the treaty to end “World War I” is between the pillars.
PC Richard is the landmark that we are told where the home, called the Old Mansion, once stood. But his property was much more than just the PC Richards parking lot as his land extended eastward. He was paid the enormous sum (back then) of $20,000 for the land that would make up the circle.
Ironically, in 1934 the Frelinghuysen home was vacant, but the Frelinghuysens still owned it, as the family had moved out to Far Hills in 1927 because they felt the area had become too congested.
|Construction of the circle
Another big issue with the merging of the three roads into a circle was that route 31 (206 today) was a half mile from the selected site. Route 31 at that time came up through Mountain Avenue in order to reach the highway that we know today as Route 22. But to be re-routed to the new circle it would have to cut across residential neighbors.
Thus, the nice quiet neighborhood consisting of the grid that is made up of parallel streets Frelinghuysen Ave., Bell Ave., and Sherman Ave., bounded by Cornell Boulevard on the east and Thompson Street on the west, would have to be disturbed by the new section of Route 31 (206 today) that cut through it.
Today a glance at Google Maps clearly shows this anomaly.
Construction of the traffic circle started in July of 1934 and was complete by the end of the year.
|Route 206 cut through quiet streets|
|For the history of businesses on the Somerville Circle, I divide it into 5 sections. I identify the section by the businesses that we see there today.
1. “Quick Chek” section
The first business on the circle was already there when the circle was constructed. The Raritan Valley Farms Inn was opened in 1932. This inn was both a popular restaurant and banquet facility for years. A fire destroyed the landmark building in 1961.
After a few years in 1965, the Gateway Motel & Lounge was opened in that spot. The motel was operating as it should until business forced it into converting into a welfare motel in the early 1990s. The lounge bar, once a hot-spot, closed around 1999.
Quick Chek has been there since 2018.
|The Raritan Valley Farms Inn|
|2. Somerset Shopping Center (Barnes and Noble)
In 1957, the Somerset Shopping Center opened at the North West corner of the circle. It was the first shopping center in New Jersey.
Previous businesses had been standalone stores.
The original tenants in 1957 were Acme, Grand Union, Woolworth’s, W. T. Grants, R&S Auto, Father & Son Shoes, Somerset Trust, and Steck’s Delicatessen, which is still there.
TGI Fridays opened in 1992.
|1957 ad from the Grand Opening|
|3. “Time to Eat Diner” section
The Checker Diner opened in 1936. It was just south of where the “Time To Eat Diner” is today. In 1949, it was destroyed by fire and not rebuilt.
The diner we know today as the Time to Eat Diner opened in 1957 under the name Bridgewater Diner.
|The Checker Diner|
|4. Somerville Circle Shopping Center (Staples and Guitar Center)
An early restaurant on the circle was open only about two years, 1935-1936. The Frelinghuysen home was converted into a restaurant called The Old Mansion Restaurant. After it failed as a restaurant, the old Mansion sat unoccupied for twenty one years until 1957 when it was destroyed by a suspicious fire as it was being demolished.
Eighteen years later, in 1975, in the spot where the Frelinghuysen Mansion once stood, a General Cinema movie theater opened. The theater closed in 1995. The building was knocked down, and the PC Richard we see today opened in 1996.
|1936 ad from the Courier News|
|In 1959, a bowling alley called the Bowlerama opened. It was located where the parking lot for the Burlington Coat Factory is today.
Former Raritan Mayor Rocky Miele was the manager of the 40-lane alley. It was a busy and beloved establishment. The town was shocked when in 1988, developers wanting to build a Toys-R-Us made the owners an offer they could not refuse on the property that was now prime real estate. So today the Bowlerama is but a memory. The Toys-R-Us lasted almost 30 years. In 2018, they declared bankruptcy and shut down.
In 2020 the Burlington Coat Factory filled that location.
|In 1965 where the Guitar Center is today the Country Gentleman Restaurant opened.
In 1973 it became the Golden Triangle Restaurant. That same building in 1978 was converted into a bar / nightclub called the Raritan Manor.
Again, in 1988 the prime real estate status of the circle sparked the interest of big business and the Wiz wanted the land. The bar closed, the building was knocked down, and The Wiz opened in 1990. By 2003 the Wiz had been beaten, (their slogan was “Nobody beats the Wiz”), and an Electronics Expo opened in that building. That would last till 2010. In 2012 the Guitar Center that we know today filled the spot.
|The Country Gentleman Diner|
|In 1970 the main strip of The Somerville Circle Shopping Center where Staples is today opened with Channel Lumber as its anchor store.
A Rickel replaced Channel in 1995, and in 1998 Staples took that spot.
Burger King opened in a new standalone building in 1981.
|5. Tim Horton section
Mr. Bees, a popular fast-food restaurant, was in that location from 1968-2013. Everyone remembers the Bee-Burgers and the bees that were embedded in the table.
Tim Horton’s is there today.
An overpass for some traffic was completed in 1994. This greatly improved traffic congestion, especially the queue time for cars headed south into the circle from 202/206.
The overpass forced the closure of Denny’s (1980-1995) and Popeye’s (1984-1994) as most traffic now bypassed them. Those two buildings would sit vacant for more than 20 years until they were knocked down for the building of the daycare facility the Learning Experience.
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