Hollybush has had a long and varied history, first as the home of a prominent Glassboro family and later as a part of Rowan University.
Thomas Heston Whitney (born in 1813) and his brother Samuel A. Whitney (born in 1819) were the children of Captain Eben Whitney and Bathsheba Heston, who married in 1807. Eben Whitney (born in Boston in 1780) was one of 17 children of Samuel Whitney, who was born in eastern Massachusetts in 1734. Stories handed down over the years claim Eben Whitney was shipwrecked off of Cape May in 1806 and, while stopping in Glassboro on his way to Philadelphia, met his future wife.
Glass became important to Thomas and Samuel early in life. Thomas went to work for Harmony Glassworks at the age of 14; by 1838 he owned it. Samuel joined him in the business, which they renamed the Whitney Brothers Glassworks in 1842.
South Jersey has a strong history of glassmaking, and Thomas and Samuel were an important part of that history. Under their ownership, Whitney Brothers Glassworks became the largest and the most successful of the South Jersey glass houses, which used a free-blown technique to craft glass ranging in color from pale aquamarines to olive greens and ambers. Whitney Brothers Glassworks produced many well-known historic flasks, including the celebrated Indian Queen and Booz cabin design bottles, many varieties of containers for bitters, footed bowls, pitchers, mugs, window glass, snuff jars and the then-popular “lily-pad.”
Connected with Whitney Brothers Glassworks were flour and feed mills, a steam sawmill, a planing mill, a blacksmith shop and a number of farms (1,000 acres) to provide the necessities of life for the 400 Whitney Brothers Glassworks’ employees.
Today, many fine examples of early South Jersey glass can be found in collections at leading American art museums, and connoisseurs of early American glass eagerly seek products of that time from South Jersey.
Having established his fortune with the successful glassworks, Thomas left the business operation to Samuel and turned to politics (serving two terms in the State Assembly) and community services (paying for the construction of St. Thomas' Church in Glassboro). In 1847, Thomas Whitney made the “grand tour” of Europe. On his return, he proceeded to build his mansion in Glassboro on a 100-acre property, inscribing his name and the year 1849 on a stone set on the fourth stage of the mansion’s tower. Thomas, who also developed his grounds as a landscaped park, moved into his new house with his mother and brother in 1850. The same year, he ran unsuccessfully for a United States Senate seat on the Whig ticket. In 1853, at the age of 42, he married his cousin Josephine Allen Whitney of New Orleans, who was then 17. The couple had seven children, six boys and one girl, who grew up in Hollybush. Samuel remained a bachelor and continued to live in the house until his death in 1890.
Thomas died intestate in May 1882 at the age of 70. He left his widow and children (John P., Thomas H., Eben, Fannie, Samuel A., Cutler and George Dudley) and an estate worth approximately $125,000. In 1897, the administrator of Thomas' estate passed the insurance policy for Hollybush to Josephine.
Josephine died in April 1908, leaving Hollybush to her eldest son, John, who had become the president of the Whitney Brothers Glassworks. He apparently went on to turn the business over to his youngest brother, George, who took over the insurance policy and mortgaged the house. George became the president of the glassworks after John’s death in 1913. He remained president until his death in 1915. His heirs were his surviving brothers—Thomas, Samuel and Cutler—and his sister Fanny O. Haton and a niece, Josephine L.W. Nixon. These heirs executed a power of attorney in January 1916 to counselor-at-law Joseph J. Summerill, who sold the mortgaged property later the same year to John A. Ackley of Vineland. Thus, after the death of George, both the company and the Hollybush property passed out of the Whitney family's hands.
What was an ending for the Whitney family became the beginning of higher education in the area.
Ackley, a developer, kept part of the Whitney land to subdivide. A group of 107 Glassboro residents committed to bringing higher education to the town raised more than $7,000 to purchase 25 acres of the property, including the Whitney home. They offered the land to the State for free if it selected Glassboro—already a favorite because of its excellent rail system, harmonious blend of industry and agriculture, natural beauty and location in the heart of South Jersey—as the site for the normal school the State had committed to opening in South Jersey. In 1923, the Glassboro Normal School, dedicated to training teachers for South Jersey classrooms, opened to 236 young female students. In the eight decades since then, the institution has gone through many changes (and names) and extended its mission until today it is a comprehensive university with six academic colleges, a graduate school and the College of Professional and Continuing Education, serving students from throughout New Jersey and beyond.
When part of the Whitney estate became home to the college in 1923, the institution renovated the Whitney mansion, as it was then called, for use as a girl's dormitory, with President Jerohn J. Savitz occupying the two east rooms on the first floor. From 1937 to 1952, President Edgar F. Bunce utilized the entire first floor for his family, as did President and Mrs. Thomas E. Robinson from 1952 to 1968. The last president to use Hollybush as a residence was Dr. Herman James, who with his family occupied Hollybush until 1998.
Hollybush was much more than a residence or dormitory, however, and in 1967 it served as the backdrop for some easing of Cold War tensions. At the time, a possible confrontation loomed between the United States and the Soviet Union because the two superpowers favored opposing sides in the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. There was a public demand for a summit meeting to address the crisis, but a neutral venue was necessary. In June, with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in New York to address the United Nations, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked New Jersey Gov. Richard J. Hughes to suggest a site for such a meeting. Hughes offered Glassboro State College, located approximately halfway between New York and Washington. The offer was accepted, and with only 16 hours notice, the official residence of Glassboro State President Thomas Robinson and his wife, Margaret, had to be converted from a quiet campus home into a secure and sophisticated diplomatic locale.
On June 23 and 25, Johnson and Kosygin spent more than 7 1/2 hours in the building's library discussing ways and means to head off nuclear war. Meeting at the same time in the Hollybush living room were other world-famous Soviet and American statesmen: Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko, Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and W. Averell Harriman. The talks were successful, and Johnson dubbed the relaxation of conflicts between the two countries and the promise of good future relations "the Spirit of Hollybush."