The art deco movement in architecture came to Newark in a big way in the early years of The Depression, just as it did across the river. 

Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, the Empire State and Chrysler buildings are all shining bronze and marble examples of the movement, and the grandeur and wealth of America.

The irony, of course, all were built in the early days of The Depression, between 1929 and 1932, except for massive Rock complex, which was started in 1933 and completed in 1939.

Sign Up for Berkeley Heights Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Here in New Jersey, the movement was reflected in three landmark buildings: the New Jersey Bell Headquarters at 540 Broad St.; the copper-topped National Newark Building at 744 Broad, and the Lefcourt Building at 1180 Raymond Boulevard. 

The buildings work in concert with one another, on a much smaller scale than Lower Manhattan in the same era.

John Cotton Dana, the head of the Newark Library at the time, said the buildings changed Newark from a "huge, uncouth and unthinking industrial Frankenstein monster into a place of refinement."

And while not as tall or grand in scope, these buildings had famous New York landmarks in their DNA.

A.E. Lefcourt, the developer of 1180 Raymond, built the Brill Building, an art deco specimen. He developed another dozen art deco skyscrapers in the city, one of which was designed Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building.

The 10 murals of Newark’s history in the National Bank Building were done by artist J. Monroe Hewlett and Charles Gulbrandsen, who together painted the ceiling at Grand Central Station.

The New Jersey Bell Headquarters Building was designed by Ralph Thomas Walker, who was the most prolific and inventive architect of the art deco era. 

His most famous building is the big brother of Newark’s stylistic and ornate Bell Headquarters.  It was the New York Telephone Co. Building, also known as Barclay-Vesey Building, close enough to the World Trade Center be damaged in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Western Union, Irving Trust and the Salvation Army all commissioned Walker to build their headquarters between 1928 and 1931 in Lower Manhattan. Western Union, at 60 Hudson St., is one of Lower Manhattan’s most recognizable landmarks by its mass alone. 

Now Walker’s New Jersey gem has not only been restored to its art deco origins, but will bear his name.

Ribbon was cut on the Walker House last week by Mayor Ras Baraka and L+M Development boss Ron Moelis, whose company restored the Hahne’s building and the affordable housing twin towers of Georgia King Village.

The $120 million project turned the old Bell Tel office building into 263 luxury rentals, with 20 percent being set aside for affordable housing.  

In Sept. of 2017, Baraka stood atop the skeletal concrete of One Theater Square looking down at his city. We had a conversation about the varied old architecture of the city. The mayor said he was committed to preserving it, saying Newark wasn’t a tear-down city.
It isn’t.

I have always believed Newark should preserve and celebrate its architecture. Some of it is world class.

The Essex County Historic Courthouse was designed by Cass Gilbert, architect of New York's Woolworth Building and the U.S. Supreme Court. The Seated Lincoln sculpture out front is by Gutzon Borglum, who used a similar profile of Lincoln on Mount Rushmore.

Gilbert also designed the First National State Bank Building at 810 Broad St., which is also on the National Registry and is today the Hotel Indigo.

Newark City Hall is a studied example of Beaux Arts public buildings, it was designed by the father-son team of John and Wilson Ely.

The Elys themselves are worth study. They designed the National Newark Building, the Fireman’s Insurance Building at 10 Park Place (next to NJPAC), the monolithic neo-classical Mutual Benefit at 300 Broadway (now housing healthcare agencies) and the landmark American Insurance Building, another Depression-era tower across from Washington Park, which is now owned by Rutgers.

It is also a city of beautiful churches, many of which pad the city’s long list of structures on the National Registry of Historic Places.

A restoration movement is underway in Newark. That is different than a building boom. Yes, Newark has its share of glass and steel offices and residential high rises, but when the old architecture is lovingly protected and modernized, it not only gives a city character, it tells its history.