The mysterious case of the hidden license plates

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Iwona Purwin holds the license plates recently discovered in the crawl space of her home.

GLEN RIDGE, NJ — A pair of identical license plates from 1922 were recently discovered in the crawl space of a Ridgewood Avenue house that is being renovated.

Iwona Purwin, the homeowner, purchased the property in June. A third-floor plaster wall was cracking, so she contracted to have it replaced with Sheetrock. When the old wall was removed, wrapped in cardboard on the floor, beneath insulation, were two 96-year-old license plates.
“Why would anyone put license plates behind a plaster wall?” Purwin asked at her home last week.

Out of curiosity, she contacted the N.J. Motor Vehicle Commission to find out if the owner of the plates could be identified. She was told no license-plate records went back to 1922.

Purwin acknowledged, with a laugh, that she had used the plate numbers in assorted combinations and played Powerball. And she had gone on eBay to discover that some license plates are worth a lot of money. So, with license plates in hand, and this reporter, she decided to go to Nye and Co., the Bloomfield auction house. There she met with owner John Nye, who told her the plates were not really worth anything and to just frame them.
“People put time capsules into walls when doing construction work,” he said.

Nye had done this himself. He said that, when renovating his home, he wrote a note and secreted it behind a wall along with some photographs.
“I would get a kick out of finding something from somebody else if I were redoing a house,” he said.
Purwin returned home and said she would frame the license plates.

“I haven’t tried to find out who owned the house at that time,” she said. “I haven’t started digging yet.”
She disappeared behind her front door and that was that.

But the investigation did not end there. Who did own the house in 1922? That answer was quite possibly just up Ridgewood Avenue, at the Glen Ridge Historical Society. The society has considerable holdings relating to property, including photographs of houses going back to the early 20th century, taken by Realtor Nathan Russell; real estate documentation; and Price and Lee Business Directories, which provide information on property ownership and telephone numbers.

According to Sally Meyer, a Historical Society member, the water hook-up at Purwin’s home occurred in 1910. This is a good indication of when the home was built, she said. There was also a photograph of the house taken by Russell, who died in 1917. From this early photograph, it can be seen that the front exterior of the house has not changed to this day. But back then, the property had no driveway or garage, as it does today.

Using real estate documents, Meyer determined that a horse dealer named Samuel Berry owned the house in 1916. But he also had an address in Lebanon, in Hunterdon County. The information on subsequent ownership was murky, because various names were listed as either owners or head of household.

In 1926, Charles Seitz, a chemist, was listed as the owner; in 1931, Edward Ruete was the head of household and there was a tenant, Carl Nelson. But Berry’s name resurfaced again in 1941, when the house was sold to Michael Hurley.

“Berry must be the original owner and lived in Lebanon,” Meyer concluded.
She provided a photocopy of Hurley’s obituary. In May 1961, Hurley, a retired machinist, died at the age of 73. He left behind a wife, four sons, a daughter, nine grandchildren and a sister. But who hid those 1922 license plates behind the wall, no one will ever know.