PATERSON, NJ – Hinchliffe Stadium seems headed for the big-time in terms of historical status.
A federal advisory committee on November 7 unanimously endorsed Hinchliffe’s designation as a national landmark, a move that the stadium’s supporters say could finally generate the funding needed to save the badly deteriorated structure.
Hinchliffe’s advocates say the stadium has to go through two more steps to gain landmark status, but they say the biggest hurdle was getting the landmarks committee’s support. The rest of the process may take several months.
“It’s quite an honor to have that recognition,’’ said Marty Feitlowitz, chairman of the Paterson historic preservation commission. “There’s a little more than 2,000 of these in the entire country.’’
At present, New Jersey has 56 national landmarks, including three in Passaic County. They are the Botto House in Haledon, Ringwood Manor and the Great Falls/ Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers building in Paterson. In 2004, Hinchliffe was added to the National Register of Historic Places, a group that includes 80,000 sites.
Gaining landmark status would put Hinchliffe in far more exclusive company and make it more attractive to benefactor. “It would give it a much higher profile,’’ said Flavia Alaya, one of the founders of the Friends of Hinchliffe Stadium. “Donors want to be associated with a national landmark.’’
“This is important not only for Paterson but really for the African-American narrative,’’ said Brian LoPinto, another founder of the Friends of Hinchliffe volunteer group.
Hinchliffe’s main claim to historic fame is the fact that it stands as one of three remaining stadiums from baseball old Negro leagues. The others are Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Al., which is still being used for sports events, and Bush Stadium in Indianapolis, which has been converted to housing and commercial space.
Legends like Monte Irvin, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Buck Leonard played at Hinchliffe, which was primarily the home of the New York Black Yankees. Larry Doby, who went on to break the race barrier in the American League, played high school sports at Hinchliffe.
“Hinchliffe Stadium played a crucial role for some of America's finest athletes who, because of their race, were barred from playing in the major leagues of our national pastime,’’ said Leonard Coleman, the former president of baseball’s National League in testimony supporting Hinchliffe’s inclusion on the landmark list.
Hinchliffe was noteworthy not only for what happened on the field, according to its supports.
“This stadium, from its opening, showcased what baseball could be like without Jim Crow,” Alaya said. “When it was new, a black sportswriter reporting on a game there called it "the most beautiful stadium in New Jersey." For a sports arena that was unsegregated in seating and integrated in play from Day One, that idea--that ideal--must have resonated throughout the New York Metro area baseball-loving--and fairness-loving--community.’’
Besides the Negro league games, Hinchlifee also hosted boxing, auto racing and local sports events. All that history almost was lost. Local officials shut Hinchliffe down more than 15 years again when disrepair rendered it dangerous. After that, conditions grew worse as squatters used the abandoned stadium as makeshift housing and the fires they built to stay warm further damaged the structure.
There was talk about possibly demolishing Hinchliffe about a decade ago, which is when the Friends of Hinchliffe group was formed. “They deserve a lot of credit,’’ said Feitlowitz. “They stepped up when we were in danger of losing the building.’’
Indeed, Hinchliffe remains on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places. “I lose sleep at night wondering what failed now,’’ Alaya said of the structure. “It really is heart-breaking.’’
Several years ago, city voters passed a referendum endorsing up to $15 million in bonding for repairing Hinchliffe, the Paterson Armory and Bauerle Field. In fact, the city bonded about $2.3 million of that money, using some to stabilize portions of Hinchliffe and most of it on renovations at Bauerle.
But the city has been mired in a fiscal crisis the past two years and there’s been no further bonding for Hinchliffe. Part of the problem is that local officials have not reached a consensus on what should be done at the site. HHHHinchliffe is owned by the Paterson Public Schools and city education officials insist that any renovations should include inclusion plans for the stadium to be revised as a city recreation facility. There has also been talk of creating new amenities at Hinchliffe, such as skating rink or restaurant.
But Hinchliffe would lose its historic designations if substantial changes were made to the structure that rendered it different from what was standing in the 1930s and 1940s, supporters said.
Even though Hinchliffe nears national landmark status, it is not included on Paterson’s own local historic preservation list. That’s because the school board, which owns the stadium, voted more than two years ago to reject that designation. Education officials at the time were concerned that inclusion on the preservation list would inflate the costs of repairing the building.
City Schools Commissioner Jonathan Hodges said he remained concerned about any historic designation “that would tie our hands” in the effort to renovate the stadium. But he also said he welcomed the landmark status as a way of boosting Hinchliffe’s profile and attracting funds for the project.
Paterson’s public works director, Christopher Coke, said the extra costs involved with repairs that met historic standards should not be seen as an obstacle. “When you’re talking about a stadium like this and its significance, I think it’s worth the additional dollars,’’ said Coke, who had been active in the Friends of Hinchliffe before he took his city job. “It’s a jewel and it needs to be refurbished.’’
Mayor Jeffrey Jones hailed Hinchliffe’s impending national landmark status as a boost for Paterson’s efforts to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. Jones said Hinchliffe’s proximity to the Great Falls national park makes it all the more attractive to potential visitors. Jones has talked about the possibility of someday hosting re-enactments of Negro League games at Hinchliffe.
“This is a tremendous thing for the city,’’ the mayor said of the landmark status that he hopes will trigger Hinchliffe’s revival. “We can let it become a pile of rubble or we can make it what it’s meant to be, part of the construct that will let the world know something historic happened here.’’