Route 1 demolition may bring rest for Miss Florence Mae

The old Phillips homestead at Route 1 and Phillips Street is shown here this week in the early stages of demolition.  Schell Brothers headquarters in the back is nearing completion. BY DENNIS FORNEY
November 30, 2012

When Bob Martin walked into his family's ancestral home at Route 1 and Phillips Street recently, he stood in the stripped-out rooms and looked around for his grandmother. “I hollered for her but she never came out,” said Martin.

His grandmother, Florence Mae Phillips, died in 1976, but according to some, that didn't stop Miss Florence's spirit from roaming the 19th century Sussex County farmhouse. “Norman Sugrue Sr. and his son Eric bought the building in 2000,” said Bob. “It had been the Garden Gourmet restaurant for a number of years. Eric lived upstairs for a while, but he hated the place. He said there was a ghost in there. Others have said the same thing, and they all said it was Mrs. Phillips.”

When Eric and his brother Norman decided to open Big Fish Grill a few years later, they opted for the opposite side of Phillips Street rather than open in the former farmhouse. “That was where the stables were for the farm,” said Martin.

Schell Brothers is the current owner of the house and property. “There are a lot of people who believe Mrs. Phillips' ghost still lives in the house,” said Chris Schell. “Several people have had some very strange and unexplainable experiences in that house.  Eric Sugrue definitely had some paranormal experiences there.”

Soon, Miss Florence's spirit will have no choice but to move elsewhere. Schell said attempts to give the old structure away to members of the family for the price of moving it brought no takers.

In the meantime, he said, Schell Brothers has built a new headquarters just out the back door of the old Phillips house. Demolition began this week to open the entrance to the new building to the highway.

“We donated all of the windows and doors to Sussex County Habitat for Humanity,” said Schell. “Many of them were just a few years old.”

The new building that demolition of the old building will reveal includes offices for the Schell Brothers companies including Echelon Custom Homes, Renew, CEUSA, Echelon Interiors, Zero Energy Homes and Kincade Homes. Schell said the first floor will be a complete design center with offices on the second and third floors. The basement includes storage and a gym for company employees.

Martin said his mother, Janet Phillips Martin, was raised in the old farmhouse. His grandfather, Edward Phillips, farmed the surrounding land - including what is now Bay Vista and Seabreeze - until his death in 1952. His wife, Florence, arranged for others to farm the family holdings until her death in 1976. “They farmed everything from Bay Vista Road and Route 1 back to the original country club road,” said Martin. “That house is at least 150 years old. My grandfather's parents farmed the land before them.”

Cindy Martin, married to Bob's brother, Bill, said the house originally sat farther back in the field than it does now. She said it was moved to its present location sometime in the 20th century.

“When Miss Florence died in 1976,” said Cindy, “Hal Doster opened one of the area's first art galleries in the house. I don't think it lasted very long.”

The next owner was chef and restaurateur John McDonald, who purchased the house and some of the land for his Garden Gourmet Restaurant. He said he started reshaping the house for a restaurant in November 1980 and opened the next summer on June 10, 1981.

McDonald operated the Garden Gourmet as one of the area's most acclaimed restaurants until Dec. 31, 2000, following sale to the Sugrues. Cindy Martin also recalled that Dave Burris operated the Liberty Grill in the house for a period of time after the Garden Gourmet.

But now that's all history. Soon the old Phillips homestead will be no more, and maybe that's for the best. Miss Florence's house has already been in two locations and she's had a ton of company over the years - enough to tire out anyone, living or dead.

As my grandfather used to say to my grandmother when the hour was getting late, “Honey, why don't we go to bed so these people can go home.”

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