A local landmark made famous by a 1930s version of “fake news,” the mill house at Grovers Mill has assumed various commercial identities since its original construction in the late 18th century.
Fenced off and under intensive reconstruction since last summer, the property is now in the hands of owner Carl Van Dyke, who can be found on site swinging a hammer as he labors to transform the mill into a five-unit, 5,500-square-foot apartment building.
Van Dyke’s first project was the big red Grovers Mill barn across the Cranbury Road. That site, completed in 2012, features office space and three one-bedroom apartments, but the current mill building has proven to be significantly more complex.
“The barn was basically a big rectangular box,” Van Dyke said. “The mill is a bigger jigsaw puzzle.”
Van Dyke, who is a retired train transportation consultant, is in the process of overhauling the exterior structure. He plans on replacing the pale blue clapboard as well as the roof, work he hopes to finish by the end of the year. Then the goal would be to finish the interior and have the building occupied in summer 2018.
The first floor will feature a three-bedroom apartment and an ADA accessible two-bedroom apartment. The second floor will have two three-bedroom units, and the third floor will have a single three-bedroom apartment. The apartments will range from 890 to 1,200 square feet. The one-story office space jutting out from the multi-story frame has been demolished and will be replaced by a car port and outdoor stairwell.
Recasting the entire building, Van Dyke and his construction workers have come across decades-old grain caught in the building’s nooks and crannies.
The mill was still grinding grain in 1938 when the small village of Grovers Mill was the chosen target of attacking Martians in Orson Welles’ famed radio broadcast, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel, The War of the Worlds.
The radio program featured a simulated live newscast of an alien invasion at Grovers Mill, then a sleepy rural enclave. The mass hysteria from listeners that ensued made headlines in real newspapers soon after, though recent scholarship has also questioned the media’s sensational coverage.
Nearly 80 years later the incident is one of West Windsor’s claims to fame, and the mill building is featured on the town’s seal.
The mill’s grain grinding operations withstood a Martian invasion, but soon ceased after World War II.
After that, mill was a retail shop owned by Bill Denison, and after that an art gallery and studio owned by Jay and Robert Schwartz. Most recently Mark Schulman operated his chiropractic office at the site.
In 2015, Van Dyke purchased the property from Schulman’s estate for $525,000. Later that year, in exchange for preserving the structure, he received more than six zoning board variances permitting the property’s conversion into a five-unit apartment building. (He is also a member of the zoning board and recused himself from the application.)
Van Dyke grew up in White Plains, New York. His father ran a meidcal devices company and his mother was a school teacher and, later on, an office manager.
He met his wife, school board member Louisa Ho, when they were both studying for their masters in transportation at MIT. After living and working in Richmond, Virginia, the two moved to North Brunswick. Van Dyke joined the transportation firm ALK Associates and Ho worked for New Jersey Transit.
In 1996, with their first child on the way, they moved to West Windsor. For 10 years Van Dyke had his own railway transportation consultancy. The company grew to 18 people and was based in Forrestal Village before being acquired by the Oliver Wyman firm in 2006.
Van Dyke shifted to a more part time role. His father at one point worked in design-build, and Van Dyke says he had always been interested in old buildings and perhaps fixing them up.
In 2010 he purchased the Grovers Mill barn, which he thought he could turn into an interesting space. The roof and foundation needed fixing, but the core building was in good shape.
“It had good bones as they say,” Van Dyke said. “What was neat about that building, the second floor was a huge vaulted open space.”
The approvals process proved more expensive and arduous than he had anticipated. After he voiced his complaints, a township staffer recommended he look into joining the zoning board, where he has served since 2012.
When the Grovers Mill apartments are ready for occupancy in the summer of 2018, Van Dyke estimates a rental rate below $2,000 per month.
The one-bedroom rentals in the barn across the street rent in the $1,400 range and Van Dyke says since completion he has had no vacancies. He views both properties as a source of income in retirement. Construction costs for the 5,000-plus square feet barn project were under $200 per square foot, and this time around Van Dyke is aiming to keep costs for the 6,000-square-foot mill property at around $1 million dollars, or $140 to $150 per square foot. He is helping himself keep costs down by personally jumping into the construction process.
“My wife tells me, at least break even,” Van Dyke says.
On both Grovers Mill projects he has teamed up with architect Kyle Van Dyke, a Plainsboro resident with offices in Princeton. The two are not related, and they first met when redesigning Carl’s West Windsor home. The barn was their first commercial project, and in addition to the mill the duo has also renovated and rented out four single-family homes, plus a two-family home, all in West Windsor.
What is unique about the three-story mill building is its “post-and-beam” construction. When first built, the structure was solely supported by vertical wooden posts and horizontal wooden beams secured by mortise and tenon joints.
The large mill structure is actually a series of additions pieced together over time. The portion of the mill closest to the corner of Cranbury and Clarksville roads is the oldest part of the building, which Carl Van Dyke says dates back to as early as 1750.
Below the first floor, oak beams more than a foot thick extend from the stone foundation up to the second story, joined by horizontal beams that extend more than twenty feet long. Axe and handsaw grooves etched more than 200 years ago by hand are still clearly visible.
“This wood is like iron,” Van Dyke said. “The beams that are in good shape are kept there, and we shore up the mortise and tenon joints.”
The newer portions of the building are apparent by more slender posts and beams in use. Still more than 100 years old and thicker than today’s wood, the beams are made of hemlock and have cleaner saw grooves.
In addition to augmenting the older post and beams, concrete footing has been added to the newer portion of the building.
The space below the first floor opens up to Bear Brook, which at that juncture runs parallel to Cranbury Road. The water wheel that powered the mill is long gone, though the mechanism that directed the water flow, known as the millrace, is still visible.
To mitigate stormwater flooding, Van Dyke will install vents and leave the entire space empty, though he jokes it would have made for a great bar complete with outside patio over the water.