Waterloo Meets its Waterloo

The recent death of its charismatic founder, Percy Leach, marked the end of an era, but the fate of the historic village and arts center had already been sealed.

On a crisp Marchmorning, Allamuchy Mountain State Park lay wreathed in fog as a funeral procession weaved its way down a country road to the gates of Waterloo Village. The hearse bore the body of Percival Leach, the shrewd, charming visionary who 45 years earlier had co-founded Waterloo Village and who, more than any other person, had steered it through (and sometimes into) crisis and controversy, triumph and tragedy. Leach was 80 years old.

Funeral attendees included a number of New Jersey dignitaries, including Leonard S. Coleman Jr., a high-ranking official in the Kean administration and a former president of Major League Baseball’s National League; Colonel Clinton Pagano, retired superintendent of the State Police; and Victor Parsonnet, chairman of the board of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Along with more than 100 other mourners, they paid homage to the quixotic man who had managed to lure the likes of Princess Grace of Monaco and cellist Pablo Casals to perform at Waterloo or hobnob there with the state’s social elite.  

“He was the Walt Disney of the New Jersey cultural scene,” says Greg Gaertner, former executive director of the Waterloo Foundation for the Arts, which oversaw the village. Waterloo may have been his Magic Kingdom, but to sustain it Leach needed to channel P.T. Barnum. He had a genius for pulling strings and leveraging high-powered friendships to keep the 400-acre grounds viable despite decades of continuous debt.

Born in Boonton to a Jamaican mother and a British father, Leach had a cultured accent that enabled him to play impresario without peer. In the early 1960s, he and Louis Gualandi, his partner in an interior-design business, transformed the dilapidated buildings in a deserted village along the Musconetcong River into what former Governor Jim Florio once called “a New Jersey treasure and a national historic site.”  

At its peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the 400-acre Waterloo Village encompassed a working re-creation of a Native American settlement and restorations of an early American farm and a nineteenth-century town. In addition, concerts (pop, rock, and classical) and festivals (poetry, antiques, and more) brought huge crowds to the bucolic site. But financially the venture proved to be a bottomless pit that swallowed huge amounts of private and public money, often with little oversight.  

Finally, last December, the state terminated the lease of the Waterloo Foundation for the Arts, and on December 31 the gates shut for what could be the last time. This year’s state budget contains no money for Waterloo.

It was sadly symbolic that on February 27, the day Leach died, the Waterloo gates were padlocked. It took a last-minute arrangement with the state to have the lock removed in time for the funeral.  

“Percy died with a broken heart,” says Colonel Pagano, Leach’s lifelong friend. “He dedicated his life to making Waterloo, and to think that there was a padlock on the place at the time of his death is appalling.”

Waterloo Village spans Morris, Sussex, and Warren counties. The property was originally part of a land grant to William Penn. A forge, built along the Musconetcong in 1763, was seized by the state during the Revolutionary War and closed in 1780. Not until the Morris Canal opened in 1831 did Waterloo revive—the commercial waterway cut through en route from the Delaware River to Newark. But the advent of the railroad dealt Waterloo a severe blow, and the stock market crash of 1929 finished it off. A speculator bought the land and let the village languish.  

In the late 1950s, Leach and Gualandi convinced O.W. Caspersen, the chief executive of Beneficial Management Corporation, which had acquired the land, to sell part of it to them and the rest to the state so that it could be developed into a living history museum. A fledgling version of the restored village opened to the public in 1964, and in 1968 the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.  

“Percy and Lou cleared the land themselves with the help of friends, and began restoring the village,” says Gaertner, who is also the executor of Leach’s estate. “They built this place into a facility where until last year a blacksmith, a weaver, farmers, and other interpreters of early American life were demonstrating their skills for more than 100,000 visitors a year, including 40,000 schoolchildren.”  

Over the years such events as the Lollapalooza rock festival, film premieres, the world-renowned Dodge Poetry Festival, wine festivals, and ethnic fairs were held on the picturesque grounds. Artists such as pianist Van Cliburn and soprano Beverly Sills performed for socialites including Malcolm Forbes and Mrs. Henry Ford II.  

Despite all the programs and visitors, Waterloo was rarely solvent. But Leach always won the support of state officials and private power brokers. In 1977 the state leased 365 acres of the site to Leach’s Waterloo Foundation for the Arts at no charge. In 1981, a consortium of banks, including Carteret Savings and Loan and Midlantic, saved Waterloo from bankruptcy by infusing millions of dollars into its budget.  

“Percy was an artist,” says former governor Thomas H. Kean. “No artist should be a bookkeeper. That’s why it was important to surround Percy with people who were financial experts.”  

Leach’s reign as executive director of the foundation ended in 1995, when he was forced to resign after a state audit determined that Waterloo remained in significant debt. Another casualty of the audit was the Waterloo School of Music.  

“That was one of the darkest times,” says Clifford Goldman, state treasurer under Governor Brendan Byrne and chairman of the Waterloo Foundation in the 1990s.  

Despite Waterloo’s troubles, as Goldman puts it, “we managed to pull through.” Under the aegis of the state Department of Environmental Protection, the foundation received $250,000 a year for operating costs through the end of 2006.

“The $250,000…was vital to our well-being,” says Dawn Robinson, executive director of the foundation, which had an annual budget of $1.8 million.  

“Nobody wants to see Waterloo close for good, but financial oversight by the Waterloo Foundation has been sorely lacking for years,” Dodge Foundation president David Grant said during last fall’s poetry festival. “Almost all of the board resigned. Percy Leach created an extraordinary place, but it’s time for new faces to step up.”

“Those comments are unfortunate,” says Robinson in response to Grant’s remarks. “We worked very hard to stabilize Waterloo’s books and had a strategic plan for the future.” She admits that the prospects for 2007 are “bleak.” Indeed, two public hearings convened by the DEP at the village in January confirmed the premonition.

The problem was not just fiscal. Amy Cradic, DEP assistant commissioner of natural and historic resources, said in her opening remarks at the January hearing that Waterloo would remain closed this spring because of safety hazards, including fire code violations.  

Cradic announced that $250,000 from the DEP’s $9 million capital improvements budget was being allocated to fix the fire code violations, restore the Indian Village and repair extensive water damage to the old apothecary, grist mill, and canal house.  

“We regard Waterloo as one of the state’s great historic recreational and tourism assets,” Cradic told a skeptical audience. “But a lot of work needs to be done before it can be restored for public use.”

At the meetings, Sussex State Senator Bob Littell and State Assembly members Guy Gregg and Alison McHouse, all Republicans, voiced their commitment to working in Trenton to bring Waterloo back to life. Gregg had introduced a three-year funding measure, but the bill sits in the docket of the Assembly’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee awaiting action.

“The longer Waterloo stays closed, the more difficult it will be to reopen,” says Goldman, the former Waterloo Foundation head.  

At the January meetings, Cradic said the DEP had asked the Dodge Foundation to help find a new group to run the site. More than half a dozen non-profit organizations had contacted the DEP, she said. One of these was the Growing Stage Theatre, a troupe from nearby Netcong that entertains children.

Gaertner, the former Waterloo Foundation director, scoffs at the notion of bringing in an outside group to run the village. “That would be a disaster,” he says.  

By March, paper and online petitions (petitiononline.com/waterloo) had garnered more than 20,000 signatures in support of the foundation. Elaine Makatura, a DEP spokeswoman, would not discuss whether the foundation would be part of any discussions about the village’s future.

At Leach’s memorial service in Waterloo’s Methodist church, organist Kent Tritle of the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan sent the stirring sounds of Bach pealing through the mountain air.

After the service, the procession drove slowly around Waterloo in tribute to Leach. Then the cars headed down the country road to Stanhope Union Cemetery, where Leach was buried beside his old friend and fellow visionary, Gualandi. Back at Waterloo, two park police officers closed and padlocked the gate and drove away.

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