Likeall walking tours, this one began with a muddle – people were late getting tothe meeting point, there was trouble providing the listening devices, and itstarted late. But when the New York Art Deco Society’s first walking tour ofdowntown Newark since 2005, held on Saturday, October 26, ended, it was atriumph, with tour members asking developers how they could move into some ofthe city’s most prestigious apartments in newly-renovated classic Art-Decobuildings.
Fortymembers of the New York Art Deco Society spent six hours on Saturday, October26, walking around downtown Newark behind tour guide Glen Leiner, learningabout Newark’s historic architecture, active present, and exciting future, in atour that was a partnership with the Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Ithoroughly enjoyed the tour,” said Sheila Blackman, a retired nurse living inMaryland. “I’m sorry I’ve not come here as a tourist earlier to visit.” Butafter the tour of the National Newark and Essex Bank Building and the WalkerHouse/New Jersey Bell Buildings, both converted into luxury rentals, Ms.Blackman was now interested in Newark as somewhere to live.
“I’mlooking to downsize to a walking city,” and Newark is a good choice…it’s clean,it’s got great things to do, it’s affordable, and I loved these art-decobuildings,” she said.
Led by Mr.Leiner, the society’s expert guide, the sold-out tour convened energetically ifnot promptly at 10:30 a.m., in the main waiting room of Penn Station. There Mr.Leiner issued each member a radio earpiece, so they could hear his narrativethrough his microphone, eliminating the need for him to shout or use bullhornsand megaphones to explain Newark’s architecture to the tour members. Theweather cooperated, too – sunny skies, a warm fall day, and little wind.
Andthere was a lot to explain, in a trip that involved five hours of walking, apenthouse balcony lunch, a mini-tour of The Newark Museum of Art, and athree-stop ride on the Newark Light Rail, which returned to Penn Station at4:30.
Thatcould start – at least for those unfamiliar with the topic – of what Art-Decoarchitecture is. According to the Architects Institute of America, Art-Deco wasinspired by the Paris Exhibition of 1925, with its florid ornamented buildings.One of the greatest examples of the style is the immense Rockefeller CenterComplex in Manhattan, with its limestone and aluminum towers.
WhenNew York’s Eighth Avenue Subway cut its way up Central Park West to WashingtonHeights and into The Bronx along the Grand Concourse from 1928 to 1933, openingup previously inaccessible real estate, developers followed with apartmentbuildings that offered tenants decorative terra-cotta, mosaics, ironwork doors,etched glass, striped brick patterns, cantilevered corners, corner windows, andhighly-stylized letter forms that are all the signatures of the Art-Decomovement.
Mr.Leiner began his tour at Penn Station with the big picture and the small. Hestarted by describing how, in 1935, despite the economic rigors of the GreatDepression, Newark was a booming city, New Jersey’s center for industry,banking, and insurance, with the busiest intersection in America – Broad andMarket Streets.
Withthat done, he described such smaller touches as the Pennsylvania Railroad logoson the side of the wooden benches in the waiting room and the blue acousticaltiles on the ceiling above with gilded bands in a central wavy motif thatsuggested both speed and movement – and the waters of the narrow Morris Canalthat ran from the Watchung Mountains to downtown Newark for nearly a century,fueling the city’s economic growth by bringing raw materials like coal toNewark factories.
Thetour members, well-equipped with cameras ranging from cell phones to immenseprofessional equipment, snapped away at everything Mr. Leiner described…whiteglass globes with the Zodiac’s signs…12 large plaster medallions displayingolder forms of transport...aluminum grillwork, honoring the most moderntechnology of the day.
Fromthere, the whole crew went through more modern architecture, the GatewayCenter’s bridge, for a good view of the exterior of Penn Station, which hadbeen designed by the legendary firm of McKim, Mead, & White, whosecontributions to the American urban landscape included Manhattan’s PennsylvaniaStation, the Brooklyn Museum, Washington Arch, and the East and West Wings ofthe White House.
Thetour wended its way into the National Newark and Essex Bank Building’smezzanine, which was the handiwork of the father-and-son architect team ofWilson and John Ely, the center of New Jersey’s banking industry, complete withteller’s cages, 10 immense murals by J. Monroe Hewlett about the 350-yearhistory of Newark banking, and vast banking floors once used by clerks,tellers, and loan officials, now used for banquets and movie productions like“The Plot Against America” and “The Joker.”
Fromthere, the tour crossed the street to 1180 Raymond Boulevard, originally theLefcourt National Building, the tour group squeezing along downtown’s narrowsidewalks and into an even narrower but glittering lobby.
TheLefcourt Building was the dream of Abraham Elias Lefkowitz, a Jewish immigrantwho grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, changed his name to A.E. Lefcourtto cope with the era’s anti-Semitism, became one of New York’s majordevelopers, and built his Newark building to cash in on the city’s growth.These plans fell apart with the October 1929 stock market crash, which led to boththe building being scaled back in exterior design and his death in 1932. Butthe lobby, with its frozen fountain designs – straight from the 1925 ParisExhibition – still display the excellence of architect Frank Grad, a JewishAustrian immigrant who grew up and worked in Newark.
Afterdecades of being vacant and shrouded in black netting, 1180 Broad Street wasrestored as the city’s first market-rate downtown apartment house in 40 years,offering its tenants a basement gym and bowling alley. The Lefcourt Buildingwas also at the center of a construction race with the National Bank Building –which one would become Newark’s tallest. The Lefcourt finished off at 449 feettall with 35 stories in 1930, but the National won the race a year later,becoming the state’s tallest skyscraper at the time, with its 466-footstructure…a mere 17-foot margin.
Thetour group trickled across the intersection of Raymond Boulevard and BroadStreet to Military Park, learning that the roadway that honors Mayor ArthurRaymond was originally the Morris Canal, and was covered over when the waterwaywas replaced by the Newark City Subway, how Gutzon Borglum built his massive“Wars of America” statue in the park, and some of the buildings on BroadStreet’s like the retro-fitted Kresge’s and the Hahne’s Building.
By now,everyone was becoming hungry and thirsty from the walk, and it was just pastnoon, so it seemed like a good time to eat – on the penthouse balcony of theWalker House at 540 Broad Street, which had served for decades as the NewJersey Bell Building. In fact, it still serves Verizon – the company holds theentire fourth floor for important technology.
Thetour entered a large lobby with marble walls, 1940s music playing fromspeakers, plaques honoring Bell and Verizon workers who had died in the War toEnd All Wars and the three wars that came after that. On the far wall was amassive terrazzo wall panel that depicted the Bell System’s mascot, the “GoldenBoy,” grasping a telephone with cable lines encircling the globe.
Mr.Leiner explained the building’s history to the group. This one was the work ofarchitect Ralph Walker, who had done many buildings for Bell Telephone,including One Wall Street in Manhattan, the Western Union Building in TriBeca, andthe Salvation Army’s headquarters on West 14th Street in GreenwichVillage. Now the office building had been converted into market-rate andaffordable housing.
Thewhole group boarded elevators to the penthouse to enjoy a lunch of chicken,macaroni, and cheese, provided by Smitty & Mo’s, a Newark caterer. The tourmembers heard from L&M Development representative Sam Chapin, who describedhow L&M had purchased the building and turned it into first-rateapartments.
Thetour members had some questions for him…for one moment in the tour, they didn’twant to know about Art-Deco design – they wanted to know about availableapartments (20), rents, ($2,100 per month for a one-bedroom apartment, which islower than New York), and nearby parking (permits for the garage under MilitaryPark). The members were dazzled.
Mr.Chapin was impressed by the tour and the questions. “It’s great to share whatwe’ve done here with people who are so interested in this building and ourArt-Deco architecture,” he said.
With lunchdigested and everyone energized again, the group headed across Broad Street andtook a good look at the formidable sculptures on the front of the Walker House,done by Edward Francis McCartan, which depict the story of telephone service inidealized human form: a lineman, two residential customers, an operator, abusiness customer, and a repairman, all linked by the handsets and wires of the1920s.
Fromthere, the tour went from buildings to the art of Art-Deco as everyone troopedinto The Newark Museum of Art and into its modern art section, which offeredpaintings, decorative arts in the form of chairs and dressers, and abstractpaintings like Joseph Stella’s “Factories at Night,” which depicted the state’sindustry by night, and one of the museum’s best-known works, his “Voice of theCity of New York, Interpreted,” a massive five-panel work that combinesBroadway, the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and even the New York Subway inone enormous and active work.
DanielLeventhal, a retired international corporate finance lawyer who lived inBerkeley, California, and now in Brooklyn, took time to admire the Stella work.He had been to the museum a few times, but not taken a guided tour of its extensivecollection. “This is a revelation to me,” he said. “Newark is making so muchprogress. It’s a quite a turnaround. People should give Newark a chance.”
Thetour group headed out into Verizon Plaza, where Susan Seigle, a Manhattaniteand retired nonprofit and retail manager, gave her take on the day, as well. “Ilove it. It’s amazing history. This is the first time I’ve been able toactually look at Newark Penn Station instead of rushing through it. Newark isgoing through a renaissance,” she said.
Hérmessales specialist Alex Disbrow also was enjoying his first guided tour ofNewark, although he grew up in the region. “I’m amazed at how beautiful it is,and the high quality of life,” he said. “I could live here easily. I’m veryimpressed.”
Now itwas time for a three-block stroll past Rutgers University-Newark’s mainbuildings along Washington Street, back to Raymond Boulevard, where all handsdescended into one of Newark’s best-used forms of public transportation andbest-kept artistic secrets: the city’s Light Rail system.
Fromits digging in the 1830s and for nearly 100 years, the twisting Morris Canaland its mule-drawn barges brought coal, timber, and even fresh vegetables todowntown Newark, fueling the city’s economy. But by the 1920s, the canal hadfallen into disuse and disrepair, and the route was filled with malodorousgarbage that was threatening Newark’s health and lowering downtown propertyvalues at a time when the city needed an economic boost.
EnterMayor Arthur H. Raymond, who saw an opportunity to replace the canal route inits entirety with a trolley line that would run underground until reaching whatis now New Jersey Institute of Technology, then pop out from underground, andcontinue in a rebuilt canal bed alongside Branch Brook Park to a final stop atFranklin Avenue, near the Cherry Blossom Festival site. It would have rampsleading to Central Avenue and Bloomfield Avenue, to enable trolleys to clatterout onto lines that would serve Roseville and other North Ward neighborhoods.The canal would be covered over between Penn Station and NJIT by a fairly widedowntown artery that would also relieve traffic pressure.
To fundthis project, Raymond turned to newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt,who financed it through the Works Projects Administration, known as the WPA,which put unemployed Americans on the federal payroll to undertake all kinds ofprojects, including recording oral histories from former slaves, bringing livetheater to small communities, and doing archaeological investigations ofpre-Columbian artifacts.
Themost visible WPA program was a vast array of major public works projects acrossthe nation, including Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, 1,101 ice-skatingrinks, 1,000 new libraries, 2,261 horseshoe pits, 3,185 playgrounds, 325firehouses, Dealey Plaza in Dallas (where President Kennedy would meet hisfate), Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway, and La Guardia Airport in New York, allat a cost of $1 billion – $17 billion today.
One ofthese was the Newark City Subway, which was run by Public Service Corporationuntil 1980, when NJ Transit took over the line and its historic but outdatedrolling stock of Presidential Conference Commission streetcars (built in 1946)that came from Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, renaming it the NewarkLight Rail and ordering new cars.
Inkeeping with the Art-Deco style that was used in all WPA construction projects,the Newark City Subway gained distinctive mosaic murals by city resident andartist Domenico Mortellito, who grew up along the old canal, and remembered itin action during his childhood. He had already sculpted parts of Grand CentralTerminal and worked as a commercial artist at DuPont, so he was the rightchoice.
Mortellitoused ceramics produced from clay beds near Perth Amboy, and created large colorfulArt-Deco mosaics in the four underground stations on the line, depicting scenesfrom the Canal in operation and the subway during construction, putting themhigh enough on station walls that they would remain in pristine condition 85years later.
Eachstation got at least two mosaics – identical versions of the same one on theinbound and outbound platforms so that no commuter would feel cheated.
AtWashington Street station, Mr. Leiner passed out NJ Transit tickets to the tourmembers, who, being unfamiliar with the Newark Light Rail, had to figure outhow to time-stamp them before use. Once that was taken care of, the group couldride the gleaming new trolleys that took over for the PCCs in 2003, exploringthe mosaics at the three stations: Washington Street, Military Park, and PennStation.
WashingtonStreet has two mosaic panels per platform. One shows men using an enormoussteam shovel like the heroine of the 1939 children’s classic “Mike Mulligan andHis Steam Shovel,” Mary Anne, which digs Town Hall for Popperville in the book.However, Mortellito’s steam shovel and crewmen are more prosaic, but just ashard-working. The other depicts an oarsman at the tiller of his canal boat, asit maneuvers under a bascule drawbridge.
Everyoneboarded a light rail car to go to the next stop, which was originally namedBroad Street and still has the mosaics to that effect. It was re-named“Military Park” when the light rail was extended to Broad Street Station in2004, to avoid confusion with the new station. In November 2011, the stationbecame “Broad Street” again, for the “Gotham City Subway,” as Christopher Nolandirected the big-budget film “Batman: The Dark Knight Rises” in the station.
Now thetour group looked over Mortillito’s three contributions to Military Park station,one showing stevedores unloading a canal boat full of lumber, vegetables beingtransferred onto the site of the old Farmer’s Market, and a group of five nakedboys swimming in the canal on a hot day – something that Mortillito himself haddone as a youth.
Mr.Leiner pointed out how both the WPA’s social realism and worship of work andthe experiences of his childhood along the canal had inspired Mortillito’s workat this station.
At thefinal stop, Pennsylvania Station, there was only one ceramic wall mural left:Canal workers taking a break on the tow path, with a steel bridge over theCanal behind them.
A finallook at the art, a collection of the earphones, and the tour was over, but notbefore Byron Clark, Executive Director of Advancement and External Relationsfor the Greater Newark Convention & Visitors Bureau, greeted the attendees.
“I wantto thank everyone for coming,” he said. “Our tourism bureau has been here for10 years, to promote Newark on a global scale. Every year, 1 million peoplestay in our hotels. We’ve had explosive growth, with 15,000 apartments, $3billion in investments, and another $5 billion in the pipeline.
“Newarkhas a rich Art Deco history, and we are thrilled to partner with the Art DecoSociety of New York to share these architectural treasures with the world,” headded.
“I haveobserved Newark for many years and have always seen it not as a suburb of NewYork but as a very distinct and complex American city that has evolve over manyyears,” Mr. Leiner said, commenting on the tour later. “Between the wars, whenthe Art Deco movement was in full flower, Newark was experiencing full vitalityand grown. The architecture there is not interchangeable with other places.It’s distinctively Newark. The historic buildings add greatly to its identity.Today, that adds a tremendous amount of appeal to the city and itsrevitalization, with the adapting and use of fine architecture. It’s thrillingto see this rich architectural treasure trove play a role as the city advances.”
He alsohad thoughts about the impact of the tour itself. “Developing and giving thetour was extremely meaningful for me to illuminate what Newark has – creators,developers, occupants, and social history – for people who go on tours. As aguide I have a responsibility to share my love and appreciation of Newark andbetter understand how special it is as a place to visit. It took a lot ofpassion and research, a lot of prior arrangements with building owners, theNewark Police, and other agencies.”
Most ofall, he said, “it was Byron Clark at NewarkHappening, who greatly helped me inso many ways; and it was a pleasure to have this hard-working and kind person.I’d sincerely love to repeat this tour again, and I believe that there isgrowing interest in visiting and learning about Newark’s surprisingly rich ArtDeco heritage,” he said.
RobertaNusim, the President of the Art Deco Society of New York, which set up the tourwith Mr. Clark, gave both the history of the organization and its view of thetour.
Thesociety was founded in 1981 in New York, to protect many examples of 1920s and1930s architecture that was no longer modern, and deserved recognition. Theirlast tour of Newark had been in 2005.
“ButNewark is a short train ride away,” she said, “and we had not visited here in14 years. We knew that Newark has been revitalized and has positive energy.”
Andwhat did she and her group find? “It exceeded our expectations,” she said. “Thevariety of buildings, their re-purposing, and the art-deco architecturedeserves recognition. They are national treasures,” she said.
So willthe group return to Newark? “We want to come back here in April to both see theCherry Blossom Festival and more of the Newark Museum of Art’s BallantineMansion,” she said. “We’ll start planning that tomorrow.”
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