“The Watcher” hit Netflix on October 13, immediately taking audiences by storm! As Deadline details, the seven-episode suspense series, created by Hollywood powerhouses Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, racked up 125 million viewing hours within its first five days. Nearly two weeks later, it is still holding onto the streamer’s Number One spot. Inspired by an almost-too-bizarre-to-be-believed tale, the show is a fictionalized retelling of the experiences of the Broaddus family, who purchased what was to be their dream house, an attractive Dutch Colonial at 657 Boulevard in the affluent bedroom community of Westfield, N.J., in 2014. Instead, they endured an actual nightmare as menacing letters began appearing in their mailbox from an anonymous individual who purported to “have been put in charge of watching” their new home.
Chock full of dramatic twists and turns, the scintillating tale is thrilling enough to stand on its own. But buried within “The Watcher” storyline is yet another narrative based upon a different local case – the harrowing 1971 familicide carried out by disgruntled Westfield patriarch John List. Though “The Watcher” alleges that both nightmare scenarios took place at 657 Boulevard, in truth, List murdered his wife, mother and three children about two miles away at a different stately pad located at 431 Hillside Ave. (Please remember this is a private home. Do not trespass or bother the residents or the property in any way.)
Known as Breeze Knoll, the Lists’ former abode was initially built for J.S.A. Wittke, longtime president of the J.G. Shaw Blank Book Company of New York, and his wife, Phebe A. Cooper, on a 22.5-acre parcel the couple purchased in 1896. Completed sometime before 1906, the three-and-a-half-story Georgian-style residence stood atop what The Courier-News described in 1932 as “one of the highest points in Westfield, being more than 100 feet above the level of the railroad station,” where “on a clear day the bridges leading to Staten Island are easily discernible as well as some of the New York skyscrapers.”
During the Wittkes’ tenure, the dwelling was the site of numerous soirees and charity events, with guests awed by the structure’s 67-foot-long ballroom, 2,000-volume library and vast art gallery, which contained “one of the finest” art collections in all of N.J., according to The Courier-News. J.S.A. continued to live on the premises following Phebe’s passing in 1929 until he, too, passed away in 1936 at the age of 88.
List acquired the 19-room estate 29 years later for $50,000. At the time, it was still managing to awe visitors. Former neighbor Dave Devlin recently recounted to “Father Wants Us Dead,” an investigative podcast covering the case, “What a magnificent house it was! I remember a big giant stairway, you know, like Tara . . . and it went up into a balcony that led to all the big rooms. And it was truly magnificent.” But its glory days were numbered the second List took ownership.
Though John was comfortably employed as the vice president of First Federalist Savings and Loan of Westfield, Breeze Knoll was decidedly out of his price range. So his mother, Alma, pitched in funds for the down payment and the sprawling property’s third level was transformed into an apartment for the elderly woman, complete with a kitchen. Financially strapped, the Lists did not have funding for much else and most of the home was bizarrely left devoid of furnishings throughout their ownership, while needed repairs went largely untended.