Will the Abandoned Essex County Jail Be Torn Down?

essex county jail 285 new street newark
Abandoned Essex County Jail | Photo Credit: Jimmy Emerson via Flickr

It appears that the abandoned Essex County Jail in Newark’s Central Ward will not be demolished after all, or at least not for now.

Over the summer, it was revealed that the City of Newark filed an application with the Newark Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission (LHPC) to demolish the historic complex, which takes up an entire city block near the Norfolk Street Station. Located at 271-285 New Street, and stretching north along Newark Street to the Newark Light Rail tracks, the former Essex County Jail has largely been vacant for over 45 years since a replacement jail opened at 60 Nelson Place and later on Doremus Avenue in the East Ward.

This massive City-owned complex features crumbling buildings covered in shrubbery dating to 1837, 1890, 1895, and 1909, nearly surrounded by a century-old brick wall. 19 years ago, The New York Times described the facility as “a sinister and forbidding place,” and part of the film ‘Malcom X’ was even taped inside.

essex county jail 285 new street newark historic
Historic photo of the jail | Courtesy: Library of Congress

Over the summer, it appeared that the days that the abandoned jail would remain in University Heights were numbered, because the City’s June application with the LHPC stated that it was “seeking to demolish the building,” citing that “most of the roof has collapsed and the site poses a danger to the surrounding community and NJ Transit rail system.”

However, minutes from the LHPC show that Newark Director of Engineering Philip Scott was absent from the July 12th public meeting, and that the hearing would be adjourned to a subsequent meeting. Yet just the day before the following meeting on September 6th, LHPC records show that it received an email from the Department of Engineering “requesting that the application for demolition…[be]…withdrawn from the agenda due to lack of funds.” The note goes on to say that Robert Hartman of the LHPC shared “concerns regarding buildings which were previously demolished without approval of the LHPC,” and asked that the Commission meet with Scott regarding this.

Jersey Digs reached out to the City of Newark to find out why there are no funds to either rehabilitate or demolish a building that “poses a danger to the surrounding community,” and City officials issued this statement:

“The City of Newark is always interested in improving any location that is no longer being utilized for its intended use and poses a health or safety hazard to its neighborhood. That includes the abandoned Essex County Jail. At the present time, we are actively seeking a better use for this site, starting by pursuing its demolition and clearance. Once the abandoned buildings are removed, we will further pursue re-use of this land to make it economically productive and part of our efforts to strengthen Newark.”

Subsequent questions regarding when or if funding for the project will be restored or when demolition could begin have not yet been answered.

This is not the first attempt that has been made in recent years to bring changes to the property. In 2016, the Rutgers Law School filed a petition to de-register the complex from the National Register of Historic Places and the New Jersey Register of Historic Places, according to City records, and a complex called the University Heights Science Park was proposed for the site seven years ago.


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