When it became apparent that Nathan Kaplan’s calling in life wasn’t to be a chicken farmer in Lakewood, he turned to building small single-family homes. The year was 1952, and the very first Kaplan homes were 940-square-foot ranches, with no garages, selling for $6,900.
Seventy years and three generations later, family-owned Kaplan Cos. is still selling homes. But the construction business has evolved in virtually all areas of residential, mixed-use and commercial development throughout New Jersey and beyond.
It is hard to keep count, but as Kaplan Cos. marks its 70th year in business in 2022, the family estimates that 30,000 homes have been built, typically by assembling parcels of property and constructing large, planned communities with hundreds of units and other amenities.
The company also has several million square feet of commercial space, comprising warehouses, self-storage, retail and office buildings. Kaplan is based at the majestic Merriewold Castle in Highland Park, a 16-acre estate built in 1924 for J. Seward Johnson that Nathan Kaplan purchased in 1963.
“Our company is now known throughout New Jersey for building the type of homes that address the needs and desires of the next generation,” said Jason Kaplan, Nathan Kaplan’s grandson and the current company president. “Despite our enormous growth, in both urban and suburban communities, we’ve never lost focus of my grandfather’s business plan: to create a quality home that any of us would be honored to have as our own.”
The Kaplan story begins during the depths of the Holocaust, when Nathan and his wife, Fela, were sent from one death camp to the next, miraculously surviving along with their son, Michael, born in 1940. Reunited, the family eventually left Germany for Brooklyn, and then sought business opportunities in Lakewood, buying a 15-acre chicken farm at Route 70 and Whitesville Road to live and work.
As Nathan Kaplan recognized the economic potential of home construction over chicken farming, with the return of Korean War soldiers seeking affordable home ownership on the GI Bill, Michael Kaplan attended Rutgers University, earned a graduate degree in engineering and ultimately joined the growing family business.
Land was still cheap in Central Jersey, and the demand for housing created opportunities for entrepreneurs. The Kaplans expanded their portfolio, building entire neighborhoods, as well as retail, grocery stores and anything else that could help the bottom line as the company steadily expanded through the purchase of land.
Together, through Nathan Kaplan’s death in March 1975 at age 61, the father and son duo created a company that shaped the landscape in suburban New Jersey, as farms quickly turned into subdivisions to accommodate massive population growth.
Michael Kaplan, and his younger brother of 15 years, Morris Kaplan, took over the company and directed groundbreaking projects. For example, the family is credited with creating the first golfing lifestyle community, built in Ocean County, which has been replicated countless times by world-class developers.
Jason Kaplan noted some key accomplishments over the company’s seven decades in business:
Fighting for fair share housing. In 1966, Michael Kaplan filed a lawsuit against the Township of Madison (now Old Bridge), which had blocked his efforts to build affordable housing.
“They preferred to keep their town open only to the elite that could afford to build big homes,” Michael said. “They placed multiple development restrictions on our land, thereby making it impossible for every-day hard-working people to realize their American Dream of home ownership.”
Following a lawsuit that dragged for 13 years, with three appearances before the New Jersey Supreme Court, the court eventually sided with Kaplan Cos. The legal case became known as Oakwood v. Madison, a precedent for the state’s Mount Laurel Doctrine, a landmark case cited nationally in efforts to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing.
Creating planned communities. While planned communities, with a mix of residential, retail and office, are commonplace today, such was not the case in 1970. The family acquired 450 acres of farmland between Routes 1 and 27 in North Brunswick to create Hidden Lake, an ambitious combination of single-family homes, apartments, townhouses and retail.
“It was my favorite project,” Michael Kaplan said. “The importance of that job was that it was very innovative and unique. It was one-of-a-kind, even today, and it won many awards. It had so much genius built into it.”
To make it happen, Kaplan embarked on a nationwide search for architects and landscape designers who were providing fresh, new looks to home construction. Preservation of the environment played a key role as well, with not one tree removed from the entire parcel to build Hidden Lake. Even a farmhouse on the site was preserved and relocated.
Hidden Lake became the prototype for many other Kaplan developments and has been replicated by competing developers who saw the future was no longer brick, 1960s-era, garden-style apartment buildings that look like military barracks.
Preparing for the future; preserving the past. Kaplan projects dot the Central Jersey landscape – there’s likely a development within a 10-mile radius of any location from Middlesex to Ocean counties. The family has a talent for finding real estate gems off the beaten path and then strategically building out the land over a number of years.
Take the old snuff mill in Helmetta, closed in 1993 after 100 years in business. Kaplan Cos. invested $50 million and many years to convert the outdated building into an ultra-chic 200-unit rental community.
There’s also La Mer in Sayreville, a vast townhouse community that Kaplan began constructing in the 1980s on a bluff overlooking the Garden State Parkway. Another example of smart business tactics, the family sold sand on the property to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority for its expansion in Newark, thus paying for a large portion of acquisition costs. Hundreds of housing units have since been constructed and the company is now working with borough officials on the final phase of the build-out.
And there is Gateway at Carteret. Long before other developers recognized that Carteret was about to embark on a major renaissance, adding a Manhattan ferry, a performing arts center, a waterfront park and downtown redevelopment, Kaplan Cos. saw opportunity. It broke ground in 2006 on a large, phased townhouse community in the borough’s Chrome section, sparking a number of other major developments that spurred the economic renewal of the entire neighborhood.
The next step is the Amaranth product, now open on Route 130 in North Brunswick and soon coming to East Windsor. It is a next-generation, age-restricted luxury rental community for residents 55 and older. Amaranth has the feel of a deluxe hotel and spa, with a high-tech yoga studio, a heated pool, outdoor social spaces with TVs, a community garden and a shared chef’s kitchen in an expansion clubhouse.
“Amaranth breaks the mold of the traditional active-adult community that has become cookie-cutter construction in central New Jersey,” Jason Kaplan explained. “It is specifically designed with a ‘wow’ factor, shattering all preconceived notions of active adult living. Once again, we’ve proudly escalated the market to a whole new level.”
Michael Kaplan, now 81, has the unique perspective of working hand-in-hand with both his father and his son over his many years in home construction.
“My father and Jason come from two different worlds,” he said. “But they are similar in one very important way: They both have taken enormous pride in the Kaplan name and recognizing that every home we create has our name on it.
“From the days of my father building small ranches in Ocean County to today, with Jason constructing complex, multi-use developments, the company has remained on the same firm footing: To build with pride, creativity and a uniqueness that is distinctively our own.”
Jonathan Jaffe is president and CEO of Jaffe Communications, which provides public relations services for Kaplan Cos.