James Street Community Rushes to Stall NJIT’s Demolition of Historic School

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Demolition appears imminent at Warren Street School. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

A decade-long battle to save a landmark in Newark’s University Heights nearly ended in demolition. Frantic phone calls to lawyers and city officials managed to stay the wrecking ball in the eleventh hour — for now.


Beloved for its 19th-century fairytale design with castle-like parapets and witch-hat turrets, the Warren Street School is one of the oldest-standing public schools in Newark.

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NJIT’s Campus Gateway Redevelopment Plan endangers several buildings in the James Street Historic District. The Mueller Bros. building and a 19th-century rowhouse were demolished only weeks ago. The red-brick townhouse on the corner, however, seems to be undergoing renovation. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

The demolition is part of New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Campus Gateway Redevelopment Plan, an expansion program to redevelop 23 acres in University Heights, endangering several buildings in the James Street Historic District, Jersey Digs reported. The Mueller Bros. building and a 19th-century rowhouse were demolished only weeks ago.

“I am deeply disappointed that NJIT could not find a way to preserve at least a portion of the historic school,” said Anthony Schuman, an architecture professor at NJIT and trustee of Newark Landmarks. “Beyond the historic value of the structure, it added to the neighborhood character and scale.”

The former schoolhouse is supposed to be bulldozed for a seven-story dorm. The new building pays homage to Warren Street School by recycling one of the portico archways in its interior design and creating an exhibit dedicated to the school’s history.

“But these gestures will not satisfy those wishing to see the building preserved in part or in total,” noted Schuman, author of Newark Landmark Treasures, which mentions the Warren Street School. “My feelings on this matter are known to the upper administration.”

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The 2007 version of NJIT’s expansion program sought to transform MLK Boulevard, pictured here, into a pedestrian-friendly street inspired by Philly’s Sansom Row. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

The Gateway Plan was never a fixed blueprint but an ever-evolving vision that goes back to 2007. In the earliest version, there was a stated commitment to historic preservation. It included renderings that showed MLK Boulevard transformed into a bustling street inspired by Philadelphia’s “Sansom Row,” a block famous for its Second Empire townhouses and upscale restaurants.

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In this rendering in NJIT’s 2007 expansion plan, shows the corner of James Street and MLK Boulevard transformed into a walkable neighborhood. Today, that corner is a surface parking lot. Image courtesy NJIT.

Residents and local architects, however, argue that the original vision hasn’t been brought to bear during Joel Bloom’s nine-year tenure as president. The university, they claim, seems bent on destroying historic buildings while the new architecture on campus, such as Fenster Hall and the Innovation Institute, seem insular, without meaningful frontage on the boulevard. To residents, this signifies a lack of interest in being part of the city’s fabric. A street-facing entrance was built on Fenster Hall after protests from the community.

“What they’re replacing the building with is so insensitive,” said Madeline Ruiz, an architect at Newark-based firm SUAD that has restored historic buildings like the Murphy Varnish factory in the Ironbound. “The building is still standing and we can rethink this — I hope they do.”

Ruiz, who said she reached out last week to Bloom requesting he reconsider the demolition, graduated from NJIT, and is among a handful of architects in Newark who claim their alma master has never reached out to them for consultation. RISE Real Estate, the architecture firm that designed the new residence hall on Warren Street, is based in Georgia.

“They don’t even look to their own school of architecture for their expansion,” Ruiz said.

The campaign to protect Warren Street School began a decade ago when Newark Landmarks submitted a joint application to the National Register for six public schools built between 1890 and 1925. Warren Street School, once home to a top-ranked academy called American History High School school, was designed by Architect O’Rourke, a prestigious Newark-based firm in its day that designed Sacred Heart Cathedral.

“Historic preservation experts all agree that this school should have been landmarked,” said Zemin Zhang, executive director of Newark Landmarks.

The six-school application passed a preliminary review, but the National Park Services stipulated that each school needed to have its own application. Newark Landmarks, which had already spent $20,000 on research, was forced to stall the process. Zhang, however, hung his hat on the fact that passing the preliminary review would have a symbolic power in the eyes of City Hall. Other landmarks that have passed NRHP’s preliminary review, but were not finalized, such as the Mies van der Rohe-designed Pavilion and Colonnade towers, have been guarded by the city’s Landmark & Historic Preservation Committee. Nevertheless, the demolition of Warren Street School was approved.

Instead, NJIT administrators argue the damage from a fire that broke out at the school two years ago made a restoration unfeasible.

“The fire did extensive damage to the interior and structure of the building and this will be accessed as we move forward with planning,” Andrew Christ, senior vice president, told Jersey Digs in February.

Attempts to reach Christ for comment were unsuccessful at the time of publication.

In December, the State Historic Preservation Office denied the university’s request to demolish three buildings in the James Street Historic District. NJIT was also ordered by the state office to establish a historic preservation course at the Hillier College of Architecture & Design. At the time, Zhang told Jersey Digs that he thought NJIT’s attitude toward historic preservation had been chastened by SHPO’s decision. But doubts about their intentions have resurfaced in light of Warren Street School’s imminent demolition.

“The university might have gone through all the legal requirements, but there is a higher purpose than just the word of the law,” said Myles Zhang, Zemin’s son who grew up on James Street and is doctoral student in architecture. “Aside from complying with the bare minimum of what the law says, do you actually believe in historic preservation?”

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Let NJIT tear it down, its fire damaged and just another abandoned structure and a blighted eyesore. Progress and development should be a priority not an old school that’s in hazardous condition.

  2. NJIT could do a marvelous service to the community and restore the school and incorporate it into a part of the NJIT campus, similar to what Rutgers has done with Newark property on Washington Street. Newark has a great history in it’s architecture but seems determined to erase these marvelous buildings.

  3. It seems to me that this is a case where James Street Commons/Zemin Zhang/Myles Zhang/Newark Landmarks would be able to get much farther with what they are looking for, if they were to collaboratively work to build consensus with NJIT and other institutions in the area, instead of coming at it at loggerheads with James Street positioned as a victim. In certain cases, it is about collaboration and consensus building to find a solution that works for all, than to escalate rhetoric in service of defending a position to the death. Polarizing an argument to get what you want has divided this country has divided this country for four years too long, and it is not necessary to do so when the battle in the scheme of things is not a war.

  4. That fire was a convenient arson.
    It’s the same BS they pulled with Elliott Street School my uncle called me the night lightning struck the school. The lightning struck the corner of the cornice on Grafton Avenue.
    The school building itself was not damaged, yeah NFD was instructed to smash all the windows and spray their cannons into the building as a preventative measure. in reality, it was to destroy the wooden floors of the school through warping! And create a mess of mold issue to fast-track demolition off to school and half the residential block of Elliott Street.
    I grew up next to the school on 61 Elliott. Warren Street School needs to be preserved. that school, along with Franklin Street School needs to be landmarked!
    Renderings for the new dorm show it is bracket or “U” shaped.
    There is no reason why the new dorm cannot wrap around the old school and the school itself could be in Activity Center.
    Even if the interior warrants demolition the facade of the school and part of the roof could be incorporated into the new building.
    NJIT has the most ugliest most inhuman post-communist architecture I’ve ever seen.
    If not for the colors it would be so Bland!

  5. How much land and property does NJIT NEED? Why can’t NJIT work collaboratively with their own alumni to come up with a plan that includes the community with some preservation of the history of the buildings and community?

  6. NJIT has refused meetings with Newark Landmarks and the James Street Commons neighborhood association. The last meeting with NJIT was scheduled in 2020, the night before projects were set to be approved. This left no time for the community to effectively comment or for NJIT to respond to community comments through design compromises.

    The consensus of Newark residents, and even some NJIT architecture school alumni, is that the school has demolished dozens of buildings and constructed a bland campus architecture that faces inward and away from the city. About 170 out of 425 buildings originally included in the historic district have been demolished since 1975.

    Unlike NJIT’s current president, other developers like Samer Hanini and the L+M Group have a strong record of working with and listening to the community. Other developers have proposed demolition in the past, and the community has gone along with it because the process was open and flexible from the start. NJIT should be meeting with the community at least several weeks before projects go for approvals. To quote from one of our neighbors who’s lived here since the 1960s: “It wouldn’t take much to please us.”

  7. All of you need to learn about true history value and just plain old buildings. Tear it down and if you live in newark its good because of property value. You guys need to see redevelopment for resiliency-transforming brownfield sites and realize it is a similar situation. You all talk when it’s to say goodbye but when it’s there you don’t do anything.

  8. All of this talk of a single “community” is nauseating and paternalistic. Newark is a city of numerous communities. We do not all think alike, do not hold the same values and do not universally endorse the same political thought and beliefs.
    This attempt to ascribe monolithic, group-think tendencies to this city’s residents is disingenuous. There is no single “community” in Newark. The residents of University Heights may feel differently about this building than the residents of the James Street Commons, while the residents of Clinton Hill may not even think of this building. Some in Roseville and Forest Hill may not know where this neighborhood is located. This narrative of a single Newark community is backwards, insulting and ignores the diversity of ideas, thought, backgrounds and desires.

  9. The school could have been used to make studio apartments or dorms. Each large room would have been great for a studio with everything in one. Like an apartment. The existing bathrooms could have been retrofitted for two or three private baths… if that was a K-8 with two classrooms per grad, that would have 18 rooms. There might have been divisions of the the other large rooms, cafeteria, gym, auditoriums into community rooms or shared space. I would have loved to live there. The parking lot served as parking for the residents of the building.

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