The Newark that Could Have Been, Part I: A City Beautiful, Sky-High Ambitions, and Lost Focus

Newark Future Map
Business and Civic leaders were so confident that the Brick City was going to become the ‘Metropolis of Tomorrow’, they immortalized Newark in this delirious 1928 diesel-punk fantasy set in the then far distant year of 1986. Considering they couldn’t predict the economic crash that was going to happen in a year’s time, I’m going to guess there was something off with the bootleg liquor they were drinking. (Image from the Newark Public Library)

This is a guest post by R. Ballantine

Newark is a city of contradictions, both blessed and cursed by its history and most obviously its location. Its relationship to our pompous neighbor across the Hudson was always one where if we could ascend above their shadow, we would emerge triumphant in the eyes of both Garden State residents and our own downtrodden post-industrial contemporaries. We are always David trying to defeat Goliath, planning, dreaming, continuously strategizing how we could finally best this titan at its game of economic prowess and cultural capital. All this potential, however, sits idle because of a history of self-sabotage, misguided expectations, and powers beyond our control.

Westinghouse Factory Site Newark
Westinghouse Factory site, Newark.

That’s what I think every time I pass this infamous lot beside Broad Street Station. Once the site of the Westinghouse Factory, it has sat vacant for over 14 years without any real plan for redevelopment. Not even the owner of the site bothers to turn it into a parking lot, the most stereotypical response to wasted potential. It sits vacant, a wildflower meadow blooming every spring only for it to be gracelessly chopped down every summer. Prominently sited within a dedicated redevelopment district, here we are promised the site of a bustling transit-oriented community, and yet, 14 years have gone by with nothing to show for it.

To understand why prominent sites like this one are allowed to sit vacant and undercut our city’s future, we must go back into the annals of Newark’s past. We must examine how planners, architects and leaders envisioned the path forward to Brick City’s prosperity, through projects and buildings dreamed up to beautify, renew, and transform a city always at the cusp of greatness. Few of them managed to leave the drafting table, many were all but fanciful follies.

The late 19th Century was the beginning of a brave new world for the development of American architecture and urban design. America was experiencing several decades of rapid industrial growth and was quickly proving itself a dominant competitor to the industrial Empires of Europe. But the United States at this point lacked an ‘Identity’ as a great power, particularly when it came to its cities and its architecture. No one could dispute the effervescence of cities like Newark, Philadelphia, and NYC, but they grew rapidly and with rare exceptions, chaotically. Disease was rampant, extreme inequality ran across society, neighborhoods caked in pollution and soot from factory chimneys, and streets choked with traffic from horse drawn carriages and their ‘leavings’. The price for becoming an industrial nation was paid with cities that were unpleasant to live in, and unattractive to look at. Politicians and business leaders across the nation wanted a way to prove to the Powers of Europe that the United States was more than just factories and farmland. And it took a world’s fair in Chicago for American cities like Newark to start proving to the world they had civic and cultural capital.

Court Honor
Grand classical buildings, imperious fountains, bloated statuary, and sprawling lawns and flowerbeds awash in vibrant color to contrast against the ‘White City’. This Europhilic fantasy was loathed by the likes of American Architects such as Louis Sullivan and his successor Frank Lloyd Wright, who believed that a great democratic nation deserves to create its own architectural identity, not be a sycophantic slave to the autocratic manners of the old world. (Image from the Congress of the New Urbanism)

The Columbian Exhibition of 1893 proved to be the spark that would begin ‘The City Beautiful Movement’. Papier-mâché and plaster helped create a vision of an ideal city filled with great neo-classical buildings organized around grand fountains, lush gardens, and vast public spaces, all illuminated by the recent invention of electric lighting. The American public was astonished at the scale and spectacle of this exposition, and the political and philanthropic classes took notice. It became the priority of cities across the country to invest and plan great works of public and cultural infrastructure to address the urban ills of American cities, and to use beauty and nature to create civic pride and urban civility.

Newark Museum
The Newark Museum was originally founded in 1902 by the NPL’s Head Librarian John Cotton Dana. The 1913 and 1915 Newark Master Plans called for the construction of a dedicated museum building just beside the library. The original vision for the Museum was that of a building resembling a Neo-Renaissance Palazzo to complement the architecture of the NPL. The Museum we have today was built almost a decade later after Louis Bamberger made the donation needed to help build the main building in 1923, adopting a paired down Greek Classicism that evokes the earliest renditions of Art-Deco. One could argue that if they had built the Museum in its earlier location and style, the museum might have read more as an annex to the library, rather than its own cultural institution (The Museum’s first home was on the Library’s 4 th floor after all). (Left image from the Newark Public Library, Right Image from Author)

The City Beautiful Movement helped create many of the great buildings and public spaces we Newarkers now enjoy. Weequahic and Branch Brook Park, City Hall, the Central Post Office, County Courthouse, and our own public library were built in the spirit of using Noble Architecture and picturesque landscapes to not only beautify our city, but to shape the consciousness of its citizens in the attempt to mold a better society. The private sector did not want to be left out of this architectural boondoggle: banks were made to resemble Roman temples to finance, insurance companies made to look like gothic castles, and even the most utilitarian of industries were ornamented to build the reputation of being safe and prosperous enterprises. Here we start to see the dreams of what the Newark of tomorrow might have looked like, but here we also start to see that the planners and architects of the Brick City had to wait for their visions to leave their drafting tables, and in many cases, were transformed from their original visions by time and changing tastes.

Sacred Heart Newark
The Catholic Church, never to be outdone by other branches of Christianity, envisioned a great cathedral that would dwarf any other house of worship in the city and in the region. But Sacred Heart’s original design was altered during construction, the asymmetrical spires and heavy stone tracery took inspiration from English Gothic architecture but were then revised to be of the similar height and style as the French Gothic. If the original version had been built, we would still have a magnificent edifice that graces the North Ward’s skyline, but something tells me that it would have been in poor taste to design a Catholic church in the styles of a country best known for its Anti-Catholic history. (Left Image from American Architect & Architecture, 1906. Right Image from Author)
Prudential Company Newark 2
The Prudential Company has been as much a fixture in the urban history of Newark as the factories, department stores and breweries that built this city. But when an enterprising architect offered this Romanesque clocktower to be its new headquarters in 1908, the company didn’t think it was worth their time. I will defend the honor of the mid-century building they did build, but when I look at this rendering, I daydream at how (architecturally) romantic our skyline would have looked had this clocktower been erected. The company’s most recent contribution to Brick City’s urban fabric however is this near-comatose bore of a glass box facing Military Park. I suppose you don’t get to hold on to $1.35 Trillion in assets by building steel and concrete phallomania like its Cross-Hudson competitors. (Left Image from, Right image from Author)

The City Beautiful Movement had its limitations. Newark might have aspired to look as beautiful as the great cities of Europe, but Newark planners did not have the autocratic rule of kings and emperors who could command a tree lined boulevard be built straight through a neighborhood without objections to connect City Hall to the Opera House. Some of Newark’s greater ambitions had stalled either from lack of funds or lack of political will from a city government that was growing more unscrupulous with each new administration. Plans to build new roads through dense urban grids to ease congestion faced opposition from property owners, construction of more green spaces to combat pollution faced similar hurdles. The goal to create subway lines for Newark’s ever expanding Trolley system was equally slow-moving as investment in public transit was undercut by the popularity of the car.


Newark Penn Station
One of the long-delayed goals set up by the Newark Planners was the reconstruction of the Newark Pennsylvania Station. An older 1913 plan devised in the Beaux-Arts style was substituted by this sweeping Art-Deco edifice with a triumphant rotunda as its waiting hall and expansive plaza. The development of a luxury hotel and office complex was already in the works, but something tells me that a month after ‘Black Tuesday’ people were still in denial that all this planning and high-rise dreaming was going to go up in smoke… (Top image from the New York Times, Bottom image from

Fortunately so they believed, the city’s wealth and population had been growing continuously for nearly half a century, and on the surface it looked like this trend would continue. So the hope was that eventually these key projects would be completed in one format or another… then came the Crash of 1929.

What could be completed was done so, but the ambitious projects of years, sometimes decades earlier, were scaled back. The goal was no longer to celebrate a city’s greatness through architecture and urban design, the goal became providing jobs to keep what little prosperity remained, with the help of the federal government funding these projects during the Works Progress Administration. The fantasies created by the private sector however, blew away with the wind, lost with profits and fortunes that had now turned to dust.

Newark City Hall Rendering
Soon enough, skyscrapers soaring towards the heavens would render City Hall but a minnow amongst tuna in this ‘Metropolis of Tomorrow’(Left)… always on the go, always aiming its ambitions sky-high. What would Newark have become had the Great Depression never occurred? Perhaps we would have gone to see concerts in Symphony Tower (Right), maybe we would have gotten our own dedicated opera house decades before NJPAC. Perhaps we would have become to our Cross-Hudson neighbor what Metropolis is to Gotham. (Left and Right Images from Center image from the Newark Public Library)

The Depression and the Second World War helped hide a trend that city planners ignored, and business leaders denied, Newarkers had begun leaving the city for the suburbs during the 1910’s and into the 1920’s. The investments in grand civic and cultural institutions were not enough to overcome the fact that Newark was still a polluted, traffic choked city. There were still not enough green spaces, and that mismanagement of city funds resulted in wasted opportunities for urban improvement. Economic downturn and war just suppressed a trend that had already begun during Newark’s boom years.

With the end of the war and the Mid-Century rapidly approaching them, city leaders were caught off-guard and they decided to throw every rule about city planning they had out the window. They needed to rethink the entire way people thought of living in an urban center to save the Brick City from further economic ruin. And in doing so, they not only created the downfall they feared, but they also almost erased the city of Newark out of existence.

Urban Renewal Projects Newark
The road to automotive hell was paved with the good intentions of urban renewal… oh how misguided they were, and how drunk with power had they became as their technocratic dreams corrupted into segregatonist nightmares. (image from the Newark Public Library)

Join me for Part II of this tale of the Brick City that could have been… the missteps and flawed dreams of a Motorama future, of Neo-Liberal malpractice, and the compounding crises that are shaping Newark’s future today.


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