“The House the Blind-Man Built”

In the late 1920s, when Francis Burdett was 63 years old, living in Wayne NJ, he decided to build a house. He didn’t arrange to have burly carpenters do it; he built it himself. He got the lumber, sawed it, fit it, and nailed it, until he had built a handsome Dutch Colonial home “3 stories high, seven rooms, bath and large attic.”

That would be quite a task for any 63-year-old. What made it unique was that Francis Burdett was quite blind. He had lost his sight at age 50 in a moving vehicle accident. And he wasn’t a carpenter, but had spent his life as a watchmaker.

The house built by Francis Burdett. It still stands today.

So why build a house? According to one newspaper account, he had had a concrete foundation laid on a lot he owned. A smallish bungalow was supposed to have been delivered to the site from several miles away, but the deal fell through. So what’s a blind fellow to do, except build a house?

Burdett didn’t have any formal experience as a carpenter, but — as many men did in that era — he had picked up the skills by doing odd jobs over the years.

No power tools here — everything was done with traditional hand tools.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Burdett and his house — two and a half years in the making — often found themselves the object of curiosity. Many newspaper articles were written about him, and he was even featured (briefly) in a 1930 episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. (It starts at 1:16, and don’t blink or you’ll miss it.)

His neighbors kept an eye on his progress as well:

About this time all the nervous people that lived hereabout were in a constant unsettled state of mind. Nothing seemed to allay the fears of the people. Even the BLIND BUILDER’S continuous exhibition of skill and his daily performances before their eyes, did not tend in the least to abate their fear, and each day brought a fresh new anxiety. People talking together on the street would look up unconsciously to see if the BLIND BUILDER was still up there or on the ground ready for the hospital or morgue.

It must however, be said that everybody enjoyed the Blind man’s progress and looked on as if a war was in progress, and each day a battle won.

— From “The House the Blind-Man Built: The House Built in the Dark”

Was he really blind? From all accounts, yes. Did he do the work himself? Again, written articles and a book agree that he did. He planned the house in his head, and was meticulously aware of his surroundings. From a newspaper article:

It is uncanny to watch this blind man, sixty-odd years of age, climb ladders, perch on narrow scaffolds and use the tools of the carpenter, from adz to plane. He knows where each tool is to be found. Every piece of material, from a ball of twine to the 24-foot timbers used in the construction is catalogued in his mind.

There’s more to the tale of Francis Burdette’s house, but if you want to know the whole story, by all means read the book “The House the Blind-Man Built: The House Built in the Dark.” Written by William Vahrenkamp, a cousin, the book lovingly explains, in superb detail, how Burdett did it. The book is lavishly illustrated with many drawings and photos.

Frank Burdett in 1930

The Swiss Tavern, Wayne NJ

Long-time area residents remember the exquisite dining experience known as the Swiss Tavern. The place had been some sort of eatery for years before it opened its doors, in the early 1930s, as a full-fledged restaurant under the management of Ernest Alpsteg, the owner-chef from Switzerland.

His son Hans and his wife, Agatha, by all accounts turned it into an first-rate dinner destination during the 1960s and 1970s; Swiss Tavern was rated ‘four stars’ by the New York Times.

The Alpsteg family kept it going until 1979, when the place was sold and transformed in L’Auberge de France. But we’re getting ahead of the story…

Swiss Tavern Restaurant, circa 1950s
Swiss Tavern Restaurant, circa 1950s

According to a NY Times food review in early 1979,

…the Swiss Tavern in Wayne began life as a speakeasy during Prohibition. The family of the present owner‐chef, Hans Alpsteg, turned the century‐old frame house into a full‐fledged restaurant in 1934, but managed to retain the Victorian coziness of the small parlors and the Victorian splendor of the large bar and grill.

(I don’t know anything about “the bar and grill” that it was before now, but I’m sure the building had an interesting history prior to its Swiss Tavern incarnation.)

The building itself was described as “A large 1850 house of many small rooms, glassed-in porch, a roomy oak-paneled bar, period wallpaper and furniture, paintings and drawings, ferns and aspidistras. Candles and fresh flowers, good napery, friendly service.”

The NY Times reviewer was enthusiastic about the fare, describing it as “excellent” and “delectable”.

A stylized aerial view of the restaurant. The owners gave it an address in Pompton Lakes, but it was actually located in Wayne. Note the fountain pond out front where live trout were kept.

The recommended dishes included “baked oysters or baked clams ‘Swiss Tavern,’ homemade headcheese, butterfly shrimp Genevoise, laeberle (Swiss‐style liver), oxtail in a red wine sauce, sauerbraten with spaetzle, rack of lamb persillade for two, soufflé potatoes for two, apple fritters, caramel custard, and Swiss apple cake.”

There was even a fountain pond out front, stocked with live trout, where patrons could check out the fish, have the chef catch it in a net, and have it cooked to order.

Besides being a lunch and dinner haven, the Swiss Tavern was something of a social center as well. Rotary meetings and political get-togethers were held there; local mayors held meet-and-greet functions; the Pompton Lakes chamber of commerce held its annual dinner-dance there. Large dinner parties were not uncommon. Many a wedding party held its reception there, as well as later anniversaries.

The place stayed in the family until 1979 when the Alpsteg family sold it, whereupon it became a French restaurant, L’Auberge de France.

Alas, the successor was met with far less enthusiasm in an August 1979 review by the NY Times:

For four months, the establishment continued to be known as The Swiss Tavern. But two months ago, it became L’Auberge DeFrance, translated literally, “The French Inn.” Unfortunately, something was lost in the translation, or the transformation, if you will.

The food was just fair to middling, according to the reviewer, but with “big league” prices, and noted that “it is a rarity to find a dish that totally satisfies at this new restaurant.” The review concluded by lamenting “It is a pity when a restaurant as good as The Swiss Tavern leaves us, but more’s the pity when its successor leaves so much to be desired.” The reviewer pronounced it merely “fair” — no stars.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t succeed. I don’t know when the restaurant closed for good (I understand it became other eateries including the French Quarter and the Red Fox Inn), but the long-abandoned building is slowly crumbling. A website called “Abandoned but Not Forgotten” visited the place at some point; see the photos here.

The Swiss Tavern building (Google Street View, Aug 2018). The fountain pond, foreground, once held trout served by the chef.

An enterprising fellow named Luke also managed to get inside and take some photos. He’s posted them on his Flickr account.

Update: The building was razed on April 9, 2019; it seems a WaWa will be built on the site. I arrived a day or two late, and this is what greeted me.

Nothing left of the proud old house except rubble. (The site across the street was formerly Atkins Chevrolet.)

The Route 23/46 Interchange, Wayne NJ (1964)

Today, the area where Route 23, Route 46, and Interstate 80 meet is a veritable ‘spaghetti bowl’ of highways, ramps, and overpasses. Decades ago, though, there was just Newark-Pompton Turnpike (Route 23) and Route 6 (today’s Route 46, but it’s been renumbered a lot).

In the 1960s, before I-80 came through, this was what the interchange looked like. This photo shows us looking east. Route 23 is at left and at right. Some remember there being traffic lights on the traffic circle.

Aerial view, Route 23 & 46 (1964)

(Click on the image to view it full size.)

If you look at the buildings near bottom right — just to the left of the ad “winter supplies” — you’ll see where Orange Trailer was. This trailer-rental company was owned & operated by the Heslin family of Pequannock. (If you have similar memories, let me know in the comments.)