If Walls Could Talk, They’d Shout ‘Off with the Vinyl!’

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Historic Homes Newark
These houses are protected from the ill-intents of Developers who use the “beauty is in eye of the beholder” pretense as a lazy scapegoat to build cheap buildings with cheap materials and little architectural merit. But the use of historic districts has its own fallacy, they treat the buildings within them as talismans that will retain and inflate their value, while the houses outside of them become a part of gentrification’s free-for-all. Photo by Author.

Guest Post by R. Ballantine


Newark’s Gilded Age created a group of families that together helped build this city into an industrial powerhouse. These families also left a legacy of beautiful and stately piles that showed their owner’s wealth and status. Some were lost to the ages, others donated to posterity, and as of the Kruger-Scott Mansion, saved from near ruin. When you walk by the Newark Museum today, you see another of our great houses shielded behind a cube of white film, being lovingly restored by its cultural patron.

Newark Architecture
One of our Gilded-Age Icons now sits wrapped in protective film as it undergoes restoration. Like so many great houses that were built at that time, what was important was that Newark’s elite had to be close to their businesses and to the center of commerce and trade. The luxury of being centrally located meant that this mansion’s former owner could make his way to his vast riverside brewery without having to get into his carriage. Photo by Author.

When you walk through the leafy streets of Forest Hill, you see the second generation of these great houses. Proud of their eclecticism and style, these houses hold no shame in their front lawns and porte-cocheres. At the turn of the century, to be wealthy was not just to have an opulent house, but to have a lot big enough to appreciate it from the street. They emerged in a time when owning an automobile was a luxury, and to be surrounded by nature and be within city limits was a bragging right. Newark today still holds these houses in high regard, and stand ensured that they are protected from the ravages of time and development’s bad actors. These houses are held up on a pedestal… much to the detriment of the rest of Newark’s Residential Heritage.

John M Miller Esq House Newark
Formally known as the Residence of John M. Miller Esq., this elegant Colonial house on Ballantine Parkway has seen little change since it was built in 1909. This second-generation mansion along with its well-heeled neighbors became the new epicenter of status in our city. The ultimate symbol of your wealth was not the size of your residence, but how much land you could “spare”, to best appreciate your good taste from the new tree-lined Boulevard. Photo by Author.

Newark was not a city just for the rich and powerful… It was a city of proud clerks, doctors, butchers, bakers, union laborers, and market speculators. They each contributed to creating houses that were eclectic and brimming with architectural flourish. When you are proud of where you live, you tend to put more effort to curb appeal than any curmudgeon landlord. You look at your modest budget and tell your builder “Make my house pop!”. You look through photographs from a century ago and you see charming Victorian and Queen Anne houses, with neo-classical porches and tall turrets, topped with copper finials. Elaborate brickwork when a carved stone was too expensive, and colored stucco just to match the brownstones up the street. These houses competed with charm, form, and color. You might not have the means to compete with the Clark’s or Krueger’s, but you sure as hell could show off your house to your coworkers as the streetcar passed by on your way to work.

Row Homes Newark
This is a regular scene in many parts of Newark, houses clad in vinyl and aluminum with asphalt shingles. But underneath that ill-fitting skin made from long-dead lizards hides quaint examples of Queen Anne, Dutch, Italianate, and Second Empire domestic architecture. Built at a time when Newark’s prosperity allowed a common factory worker the means to express their individuality in the house he shared with his family. Photo by Author.
Historic Homes Newark 2
The same house pictured when first built at the turn of the 20 th Century versus Now. Bits and pieces of the exterior decoration hide behind cladding, and the neo-classical columns were replaced by wrought iron posts. This house, unfortunately, fell outside of the Historic District it now abuts. Right image from Gonzalo Alberto for NewarkPhotos.com, left photo by Author.

This beauty is now hidden by layers of vinyl and asphalt shingles. Newark became a victim of a mid-century push for concealing and removing what was seen as frivolous embellishments. Newarkers chose to cover up this charm and individuality behind mass-produced facades. Beautiful Victorian homes became clad in the ill-fitting garb of the suburbs, making the residential neighborhoods of our city far uglier places to call one’s own. This only gives license to outsiders to view these houses clad in petrochemicals as eyesores to be replaced by cheaply built, fake modern developments, or worst of all, Bayonne Boxes. Social Media is littered with images of people finding gems behind the vinyl and returning old houses to the jewel boxes they once were. San Francisco leads the nation in obsessively reproducing neighborhoods ravaged by the aesthetic crimes of past generations.

Flemish Revival Architecture
These four Row-Houses with their eclectic gable ends are a rare example of Flemish Revival Architecture. Although the people who live in them may not have the means to restore them to their original state, they still feel compelled to add to them their own personality and flair. They still hold a sense of pride for the place they call home. Photo by Author.
Historic Homes Newark 3
Another group of row-houses whose residents had no qualms about expressing their colorful attitude to living in the Brick City. Photo by Author.

Sadly, those with the means to restore these neighborhoods are the ones who don’t live in these houses. Forest Hill and Weequahic have the luxury of communities that can afford the expense of preserving their neighborhood’s charms and legislate for their protection. Where are the people advocating to restore Roseville and Mount Pleasant?

San Francisco Victorian
San Francisco’s Victorian neighborhoods are so beloved by its residents they have become tourist spots. The image above is a before-and-after restoration conducted by San Francisco-based Designer Thomas Leach. The results speak for themselves, talented architects and designers like Mr. Leach return residential neighborhoods into the beautiful confections they once were. We need to find the means to aid Newark residents who wish to return their homes to their original beauty. It might be the most powerful tool by which we protect our homes and neighbors from the uneven hand of gentrification, and from the whims of developers who use the ugliness of vinyl to undervalue our city. Photos by Thomas Leach.
Historic Homes Newark 4
In Newark (outside of a Historic District), it is uncommon to find houses like this one, whose gingerbread tracery and ornate detail are still preserved and well-maintained. Photo by Author.

Newark could have the prettiest neighborhoods in America… but only if we gave the humble rowhouses on Summer Avenue the same dignity to be saved as the greatest mansions on Ballantine Parkway.

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