After Warren Street School Demolished, James Street Named ‘Most Endangered’

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Warren Street School met SHPO’s standard, but missed out on a historic landmark designation based on a technicality in the application. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

Historic buildings are the only works of art we feel the license to neglect and destroy. A sane person would never swing a hammer at a Rodin sculpture or slash a Picasso, even if such artworks offended them. But a schoolhouse made in that same era somehow stood in the way of progress.

Built in 1908, Warren Street School in Newark’s University Heights was a work of art — that was the opinion of the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) long before NJIT demolished it last week. Not even the facade will be spared — with its romantic resemblance to a medieval castle — nor the Louis Sullivan-style floral adornments hand-carved by Italian smiths.

Days after the demolition began, came a timely bookend. James Street Commons Historic District, whose residents had fought to save the nearby school for over a decade, was named one of the most endangered places in the state.

“Preservation New Jersey charges institutions and developers to think more deeply about ways their new projects can respect the boundaries and corresponding scale and stylistic guidelines of the James Street Commons Historic District,” said Emily Manz, Executive Director of the non-profit organization that decides the annual list of ten endangered places.

This announcement has been five decades in the making. Year after year, a row house here and a brownstone there disappear. Since 1975, nearly half of the buildings within the 24-block historic district have been torn down.

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The James Street Historic District, which overlaps with the campuses of Rutgers-Newark and NJIT, has lost nearly half the buildings within its boundaries since 1975. Image courtesy of Newark Landmarks.

Sometimes these structures were brought down by a private developer who promised otherwise. That was the case of the Lloyd Houses in the late 80s. Sometimes landmarks were turned into rubble by long-standing institutions who strung the community along.

Given the history of the city, and the exodus after the Newark Riots, criticizing an anchor institution like NJIT for its campus expansion is often construed as ingratitude or nimbyism. The university, which generates 5,000 jobs for the city, has many vocal defenders — some are readers of this publication. Other defenses come from higher-ups.

“NJIT has had a strong commitment to historic preservation, particularly when programmatically and economically feasible,” said Matthew Golden, Chief Strategy Officer, who noted the adaptive reuse of the fire-stricken school was too costly. “There are no other historically significant buildings on our campus slated for demolition.”

To be fair, NJIT has restored important historic buildings on campus at great cost — namely its flagship building known as Eberhardt Hall and the Central King Building. A 19th-century townhouse at 321 Martin Luther King Boulevard is currently undergoing renovation. In 2007, NJIT published a master plan that envisioned the 19th-century townhouses on the 200 block of the boulevard becoming a “Samson Row,” inspired by the famous street in Philadelphia. These are wonderful things on paper. But the Warren Street School demolition — and the tiptoeing around with which it was carried out — has put the community on edge.

NJIT has a trove of properties in and around the historic district with no clear timeline to use them or renovate them. This practice is known as land banking, which activists find improper for a tax-exempt institution to engage in.

“That’s not what a taxpayer-sponsored institution should do,” said Zemin Zhang, Executive Director of Newark Landmarks.

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A construction crew demolishes the Warren Street School. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

Zhang, a James Street resident, prepared the nomination last year for Preservation New Jersey in which he pointed out 12 landmarks in the neighborhood facing demolition. Since then, four of those landmarks have been demolished by NJIT, including Warren Street School. The pace at which the neighborhood is vanishing is only accelerating, according to the James Street Commons Neighborhood Association.

“NJIT has a vice president of real estate development. This is kind of strange, isn’t it?” Zhang said, referring to the title of one of the administrators. “If you use a real-estate mentality, you will treat the city and your own assets very differently.”

The problem appears to be citywide. Newark is a city with an extraordinary history, where suffragettes and activists brainstormed in row houses on Halsey Street. German brewers built kingly monuments. A civil rights activist, the father of a future mayor, was incarcerated in one of the oldest jails in the nation now crumbling and piled up with squatter garbage. These places — all works of art — are at risk of demolition.

As a giant metal claw ripped apart Warren Street School, Myles Zhang, Zemin’s son and an architectural historian, said he overheard the construction crew talking among themselves. “Those historians want to keep these old bricks,” they said. “You can’t tell the difference anyway.”

It’s true — some people can’t tell the difference. Others can. And when works of art are destroyed, we mourn them, as well as a world that sees so little value in them.

“When I first noticed the demolition of Warren Street, I was debating whether to let it pass or to make some noise,” Myles wrote to me.

Growing up on James Street, Myles has witnessed so much demolition in his life — places like the Polhemus House and the Westinghouse factories — that he dedicated his life to studying architecture. Spending time with family before beginning a doctoral program in Ann Arbor, he had come home in time to see the demolition of the schoolhouse. He spent an afternoon drawing the school as a memorial, then picking through the rubble of priceless ornaments — eulogizing both the building, as well as the decade-long fight to save it.

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Myles Zhang painted the Warren Street School on the day demolition began. Photo by Myles Zhang.

Another fight has been lost. But there are more endangered landmarks to save, such as the Colonial-era residences in Camden County, African-American churches in Cape May and Trenton, and other places recognized by Preservation New Jersey.

“Someone in power was counting on us to be silent. That was when I realized demolitions like this matter because they set a precedent for what state institutions and the city can get away with,” Myles continued. “Other monuments that we cherish more than Warren Street School could meet this fate, too.”

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  1. this was really heartbreaking to see….. that the city allowed this to happen is shameful. It has all to do with greed.

  2. Where was the building dept with the demo permit? Or who was responsible in the building dept for issuing the demo permit. Hopefully not too much was destroyed and perhaps the remaining part can be saved and made useful again.

  3. Please, learn the difference between historic and just old. I’m assuming you want newark to stay dirty. Maybe you got some shady business going on and work in your favor

  4. What a disgrace Newark is and continues to be. A city that has lost its soul and character. The fact that it’s 2021 and Newark is still allowing historic buildings like this to get demolished is an embarrassment. Enjoy your cookie cutter building that will replace it.

  5. I love Newark. This makes mesad to see but I am guessing most people commenting have not spent time there. I live one town over and I am from Jersey City. Newark is a treasure. It’s vibrant and interesting and historic. It deserves better than a dismissive ” It’s dirty”.

  6. On second thought, who cares! These are the same clowns who opposed all Redevelopment. Can you believe not one single housing unit has been built and James Street, Burnett Street or Eagles Street since the 1960’s!?

    Buildings have been sitting and deteriorating for decades and they don’t care. But the moment somebody wants to build something different on the location , they manifest themselves at the ghetto Lobby to prevent change!
    The people living in James Street Commons for the most part are municipal employees and the pieces of garbage do not want any change that will endanger the little fiefdom.

    It is so frustrating to see all the developments moving forward in Jersey City and nothing happens in Newark.

    I am sick and tired of hearing about vibe , Halo, Riverfront Square… oh I’m sorry, the late Riverfront Square, because they just flipped the land for a big profit after demolishing the stadium! Don’t be surprised if the 2020 census results reveal Newark and Jersey City be at a virtual tie in population if not ahead of Newark!

    If that happens, Newark will be forgotten as The Dumping Ground of all undesirables from Jersey City, Hoboken, West Hudson and every other newly vibrant Transit city in New Jersey!

  7. I am a current NJIT student who has lived on campus for the past 3 years. I detest most of Newark. It is a disgusting, deteriorating, and depressing city. Yes, you can see glimpses of its illustrious and prestigious past in the various older buildings you see around the city, but those days are long gone, destroyed by the events of the 60’s. Now those buildings stand as mere crumbling shadows of their former selves, falling into disuse and deteriorating, like the reputation of the city. I’m not saying we should get rid of all monuments, it is important to preserve the past, where suitable. However, buildings such as the Warren street school simply sat shuttered, vandilized, and deteriorating. They are not suitable for preservation, they are already too far gone. They are only sad reminders of a much better past, a past destroyed decades ago, and as such should be removed to make room for progress. Although I am not sure if this “progress” will even help lead to anything resembling Newark’s past prestige. It might be better to simply raze the entire city and rebuild, instead of trying to salvage what little is left. I truly hope that upon my graduation I will never have to return to Newark, except maybe only to utilize the airport the leave the cesspool of a state known as New Jersey.

  8. With that mindset don’t rob a of us of the slot your ungrateful special K derri air is taking from those who need it, such a waste ,you are pathic.

  9. LOL at the fools who actually believe this building couldn’t have been saved. Could have easily been renovated and kept the charming building. But NJIT purposefully neglected the building so it could eventually knock it down…same tricks St Peters used in Jersey City to destroy JSQ.

    That sad, helpless, loser mentality is exactly why Newark is what it is today. Oh the city is crap so let’s just knock everything down! Pathetic. I’m so glad JC has such a stronger community that fights these kind of attacks. Just recently St Peters tried to demolish an old historic school in Paulus Hook and the community stopped it. This would have never been torn down in JC.

  10. @Martin Osiewic, if you’re that repulsed by Newark, why not leave now? Instead of using your time at one of the state’s foremost research universities, to affect positive change and leverage your access to academic resources, you choose to assume the role of a singular Fifth Column of inanity and invective.
    It must take a sad existence to seemingly revel with delirium, over the challenges faced by Newark. Many residents and visitors to Newark complain about some aspects of the city. The difference in your case, unlike most others, they offer serious solutions or proposals to change what they criticize. You, on the other hand, seem foolishly content with disparaging the city with such contempt, yet you remain. There’s a multitude of institutions of higher learning where you can finish your degree. You sound like a bitter, angry mental midget, who’s better off leaving constructive criticism about Newark, to those who actually care about the city.

  11. Newark is an Old City…I’m 71 born in Brooklyn..moved too Belleville then North Newark.. Newark once was beautiful .. downtown was fun too shop…had many excellent stores…now has retail stores..the crowds that gather downtown are unsavory characters .you would never see that in the early past..Newark is being built up again slowly but surely..I personally haven’t been downtown Newark in many years..I haven’t lived in Newark for the past 6 years but my two daughters n there children live in North Newark…They both Graduated from Barringer High School n are both University Graduates..Rutgers…My Grandson Graduated from Barringer High n my Grandaughter..from North 13 street.Vocational High School…both grands also went too Rutgers..ones a R.N. the other is a Teacher …Anyone can make it anywhere if they put there mind in too it..I also think there are beautiful .. Historical Building n Mansions..that should be restored..Newark has many places for entertainment…If u can make it in Newark u can make it anywhere..

  12. Martin Osiewic, it’s wonderful that you were educated in Newark. You hate being here – when you graduate – leave don’t ever come back. We don’t need your negativity. Bye!!


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