City’s Housing Problems Yield Squalid and Elegant Solutions

History and Landscape
Published August 27, 1998

City’s Housing Problems Yield Squalid and Elegant Solutions

| Published August 27, 1998

The rose garden in old Weequahic Park, once heart of the Jewish community at the turn of the century. The Newark Public Library

As Newark changed from a rural township to the industrial and commercial center of New Jersey, its housing needs changed radically also.

With the tremendous increase in population, in some instances doubling between census years, there was a frantic need for inexpensive housing, especially to shelter the masses of immigrants arriving from Europe. This had to be done cheaply, for most people made only a few dollars a month and therefore could not afford any appreciable amount of rent or to buy a house. As a result, many houses were shoddily assembled and people lived under the most vile conditions—exploited by the ruling classes. Martha Lamb's article in Harper's October 1876 New Monthly magazine illustrates this point with a drawing: 'A bit of Germantown (Newark).' It shows the Clinton Hill section of the city with unpaved streets, pigs and geese wandering around, lines of clothes hung out to dry, and a nearby factory belching black smoke. In the foreground, ragged children play unsupervised on a street corner. A decade earlier, on Oct. 19, 1865, the Newark Daily Advertiser reported that 'the demand for houses in Newark is at present very great and the supply has almost entirely ceased. Rents also are generally high, as the landlords are able to obtain their own prices without difficulty. It is a matter of surprise that so few of our capitalists seem to appreciate the propriety of erecting houses for the people to live in.' The Daily Advertiser went on to report on locally high rents, noting that a house had been recently disposed of for $700 rent from October until April. 'This equals, and in fact exceeds many New York (City) rents. Also we hear that several leases which recently expired have been renewed at greatly increased rates.'

Tent City

Following World War I, Newark's housing situation forced the creation of temporary facilities to shelter the homeless. In April 1919, William J. Norgan, who headed the Newark General Housing Bureau, was charged with finding stopgap measures to meet the city's housing needs. Tents were erected at Hawthorne Avenue and Fabyan Place. Cooking was prohibited in smaller, individual tents for health and safety reasons, but a larger, communal one was provided for that purpose. So desperate were Newark's housing needs that officials went to Sea Girt seeking an additional 200 National Guard tents. At first, local people seemed reluctant to take advantage of the new facility, but soon it began to fill up. By 1920 plans were made to provide wooden platform floors in each tent as well as to construct water, sewer and electrical lines. The nicknames 'Tentville' and 'Camp Gillen' were soon applied to the area in tribute to Charles P. Gillen, who was in charge of the project. Thus a son born to the Samuel McCullbys, tent dwellers, was named Charles P. Gillen McCullby.

The Weequahic Barracks

Other temporary housing was provided in the early 1940s in the form of U.S. Army barracks built in the middle of Weequahic Park. Three hundred eleven acres of park were converted to Army housing. These buildings were occupied until the mid-1950s by veterans and their families. Each had two or three bedrooms plus gas, water, electricity and heat in 'a wooded land setting around beautiful Weequahic Park Lake,' where families could live and bring up their children until the serious shortage was ended. As was the case after World War I, many families could not find or afford decent housing, thus the Weequahic site seemed an ideal solution. Ulysses Rice and his wife and three children were typical residents. Rice, who had served in the Army in France and Italy, resided at Weequahic for eight years. The family's apartment included two bedrooms, a kitchen and bath. The monthly rent was $48.50. But the old wooden buildings were beginning to show their age, and the Essex County Department of Parks wanted its land back. By 1956, the last of the veterans moved out despite the handsome rental income—the Army had paid the county $160,000 annually and the state contributed $8,000 each year.

Forest Hill and Weequahic

The 20th century brought the development of two great residential neighborhoods in the northern and southern sections of town. Forest Hill, which developed first, traces its origins to the 1890s and owes its greatest debt to the Heller, Ballantine and Clark families, whose fortunes we previously detailed. Weequahic developed in the beginning decades of this century. It, too, drew many of its residents from the central city, as did Forest Hill. However, it was different in that it was more of a solid, middle-class residential movement composed of people from the old Jewish neighborhoods of Prince Street, High Street and Clinton Hill. The hallmark of its streets was well-manicured middle- and upper-middle-class homes. Forest Hill began as a farming community in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Hellers, Ballantines and Clarks began land speculation in the area just before the turn of the century. Unlike absentee landlords of Britain and Europe, Newark's industrial and financial barons lived in the midst of their speculative fields, building their baronial homes with proceeds from trading property and real estate. Beginning about 1890, the old Eighth Ward, today the Forest Hill section of the North Ward, began to change physically. Within a decade, Forest Hill became the wealthiest ward in town, boasting mansions and middle-class houses because of a group of real estate concerns established by Elias G. Heller. The family also ran Heller File Co. on the outskirts of the community. The next great family to influence changes in Forest Hill was the Ballantines. Robert Ballantine established a real estate development company and engaged Harrison Van Duyne to draw up a map of properties for sale. Chester Avenue was renamed Ballantine Parkway, and in 1899 the family donated 30 acres of prime property for Branch Brook Park and the Carrere and Hastings Ballantine Gates, at the cost of $27,895. To the list of big-name developers of Forest Hill was added the Clark family and their great mansion, which now serves as the North Ward Center. According to a news report, 'All three families had amassed great personal fortunes before buying large tracts in Newark's Eighth Ward, and all three settled in Forest Hill to build palatial homes for themselves and their relatives. Probably because they were all residents of the area, they seemed particularly concerned with its development.' As a result of these big investments, the area became the home for Newark's cultural elite for the next half-century. Among the suburban castles, halls, manors and villas were constructed some of the finest homes ever built in Newark. Today the area is a historical district filled with Colonial Revival, Georgian, Dutch Colonial Revival, Craftsman Style, Tudor, Shingle Style, Italian Renaissance Revival, Romanesque Revival, Spanish and Mediterranean Revival, Neo-Classical, Prairie Style and Beaux Arts houses. The entire expanse reflects some of the city's finest homes from its most successful industrial and commercial eras.

An equally important Newark residential district, developed subsequently, is the Weequahic section. Like Forest Hill, it includes a great county park, and has been known for over a half-century as a community of tree-shaded streets and exceptionally fine homes. Weequahic's earliest history was agricultural, and famous Newarkers in its past included Dr. James Mapes, the agricultural expert who developed commercial fertilizer in America, and his equally well-known daughter Mary Mapes Dodge, author of 'Hans Brinker' and editor of New York's St. Nicholas Magazine for children. Weequahic also was host to the old New Jersey agricultural fairgrounds and the Waverly Fair, and horse racing existed there until the midpoint of this century. As a residential area, Weequahic became famous as the center of Newark's important Jewish community and its institutions—Beth Israel Hospital and many synagogues—and its Jewish philanthropic organizations. The era of the Weequahic rose gardens, the Weequahic Diner and the Tavern Restaurant, and Phillip Roth's Newark remembrances are recorded in his powerful novels. So go back to the library and look at 'Goodbye, Columbus' and 'Patrimony' for yet another interpretation of the city.

1930s Luxury Apartments

Three of the best-known luxury apartments of the 1930s were the MacEvoy on Roseville Avenue, 75 Clinton Ave. and 376 Mt. Prospect Ave. The MacEvoy was built in 1937 by Clifford MacEvoy, a banker and building contractor, at Roseville and Seventh avenues. Its construction was thought to be a great benefit to the whole Roseville section. Its sponsor already had built the Centre Market across from what is now the old state office building near One Newark Center, and the Wanaque dam and reservoir. MacEvoy also took over the recently defunct Roseville Trust Co., reorganizing it into the Mutual Bank of Roseville. At the time this splendid accommodation was completed, there were only a handful of such beautiful facilities in the state. Yet the 10-story, $1,500,000 construction was hotly contested by neighboring apartment building owners, probably for fear of competition.

At 75-89 Clinton Ave., Newark architect Nathan Harris designed a $2 million apartment hotel. The first floor had a large public dining room, banquet rooms, a ballroom, a beauty parlor and suites for professionals. A roof garden was available for tenants' use, as was a two-story garage. A tennis court could be quickly assembled on the roof. Each floor had approximately 60 rooms. The average apartment consisted of four rooms, although there were some twice that size. The apartments included central refrigeration units and all types of labor-saving devices such as the new-fangled dishwashers.

The most elaborate of the elegant apartment houses was probably today's Mt. Prospect Manor at 376 Mt. Prospect Ave. The 215-room, eight-story condominium building with four elevators included a Tudor-style lobby, individually designed hallways and custom-designed antechambers on each elevator landing. Windows reflected the taste of the apartment owners, offering breathtaking skyline views of Newark and Manhattan. Rich plaster cornices and elaborate apartment interiors remain a hallmark of this still-elegant address. An underground garage houses more than 40 cars, and although some of the extremely large apartments have been reduced in size, the building is still one of the city's most prestigious locations.

Did we miss your favorite building or location? Well, hold on. In future weeks, we will visit some of the scores of low-rise apartment buildings that emerged in the 1930s and '40s and examine the concept of public housing and the construction of high-rise buildings all over the city in the 1960s. We also will offer solutions for Newark's housing problems as we approach the millennium.