NJPAC could demolish Newark’s “Black Power” building for loading bays and parking lots

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NJPAC plans to demolish an important building in black history as part of its redevelopment plan. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

A former church building in Newark that played an important role in black history may be demolished for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s loading dock and parking lot.

The arts organization testified before the National Preservation Commission last week that the building at 24 Rector Street must be demolished to accommodate its two-phase, multi-million dollar redevelopment plan. However, a senior official admitted the location of the Cathedral House makes it difficult for trucks to use the loading docks and demolishing the building would remedy the situation.

Built in 1941, Cathedral House is located in the Military Park Commons Historic District. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

“Our first, second, third, fourth and fifth choices were not to demolish this building,” said Tim Lizura, NJPAC’s senior vice president of real estate and capital projects. “WWithout the ability to load and unload 600 shows a year, we wouldn’t be able to work – and without being able to then function, the rest of this development will not be successful.”

Njpac Newark demolition
Members of Newark’s HPC believe the space between 50 Rector Street and Cathedral House is wide enough to build a thoroughfare with demolition. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

The organization considered both moving the building and “selective demolition,” but both options were “prohibitively expensive,” Lizura said.

Cathedral House was built in 1941 by local father-son architects John Ely and Wilson Ely, whose office designed several iconic Newark buildings, including City Hall. The building falls within the Military Park Commons Historic District and derives its name from its original use as a vicarage for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.

National Black Power Conference 1967 Newark
This image shows a press conference during the National Black Power Conference in 1967. Courtesy NYPR Archive Collection.

However, the building’s association with the 1967 National Black Power Conference became a point of contention for the commission.

“They spent so little time revealing the black history of this building,” said Richard Grossklaus, vice chairman of the HPC. “How does the black community feel about the loss of this building and part of their history?”

Lizura testified that he met with residents of nearby James Street to discuss the building’s demolition. A member of the James Street Commons Neighborhood Association confirmed to Jersey Digs that a meeting with John Schreiber, CEO and President of NJPAC, took place on May 16.

“We have urged NJPAC to include a strong historical preservation and education component in its future plan and operations,” said Zemin Zhang.

In 1967, Newark-based sociologist Nathan Wright organized the four-day Black Power conference and held workshops at Cathedral House. The event was timely as it came just days after the riots ended. Attendees included H. Rap ​​Brown (now Jamil Al-Amin) and Amiri Baraka, Mayor Ras Baraka’s late father.

“In my experience, when black issues are discussed in the presence of non-black people, our nation and our world are done a disservice,” Wright said of the conference.

Two of the current commissioners — Grossklaus and Richard Partyka — were on the board when NJPAC petitioned the HPC to demolish buildings in the historic district for its current home, which sits on a former African-American burial ground.

Partyka, chairman of the commission, reminded that the organization promised to preserve the other historical buildings in the district. One of these buildings, the old Ballantine Brewery, was later demolished after a fire. The central block erected on this site at 50 Rector Street contained artworks of the brewery in its facade as a last resort. NJPAC also wanted to integrate architectural elements of the cathedral building into the planned new building.

“Remember the promise made when they destroyed the other historical sites?” said Partyka.

An architectural historian hired by NJPAC testified that the “unpleasant changes” to the building’s original red brick facade, which was painted over by famed artist Paula Scher, compromised the building’s integrity.

“I think the painting of the brick exterior walls is a little problematic from a conservation perspective,” said Emily Everett, architectural historian at AECOM.

NJPAC revealed to the commission their plans to convert the eight-acre campus into a walkable neighborhood with row homes, ground-floor retail stores and public spaces. The goal is to extend Mulberry Street to Rector Street and then maybe further to Atlantic Street.

A director from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which worked with NJPAC to design the redevelopment, noted that Newark has lost many of its back streets over the years as institutions formed superblocks. According to Yasmine Kologlu, Head of Design at SOM, street life and connectivity have suffered as a result.

“Newark was once a finely knit street carpet that defined a tight-knit community,” Kologlu said. “Today we have an opportunity to reconnect the urban fabric and create an active community again, a connected neighborhood.”

However, the commission indicated that there was enough space between 50 Rector Street and Cathedral House to build a street without demolishing buildings.

“It’s heartbreaking to see our historic preservation fall by the wayside when smart people can preserve it and do exactly what we swore to do,” said Frederica Bey, one of two commissioners who voted no.

The commission voted 3-2, with 1 abstention, in favor of demolition on condition that the archway and facade be retained. However, for the demolition to proceed, the ordinance requires five yes votes.

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