Old Jail Could Inspire Youth to Stay Out of Prison — but Only If It SurvivesBreaking News
tags: historic preservation, New Jersey, urban history, prison, jail
Monuments are a record of the values we share as a society. What better way to enshrine the lessons we’ve learned from decades of mass incarceration than by transforming the remnants of Newark’s first penitentiary into a gathering place — be it a museum or community center — that might bring about the end of a problematic legacy.
The old Essex County Jail in Newark was built in the 1830s by John Haviland. As the mastermind behind Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, Haviland is arguably one of the most prominent architects of the early 19th century because of the hundreds of prisons throughout Europe his designs inspired.
His penitentiary— in the true sense of the word as a place to do “penance” — was, in his time, a new approach to crime and punishment. Today, it is the oldest public building still standing in Newark: but “standing” is a generous term. The complex, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is both one of the most important structures in the city, as well as the most endangered: most of it is in a late stage of disrepair due to exposure to the elements and a fire that destroyed an entire wing almost two decades ago. What remains owes itself to the strong sandstone walls — and a prayer.
“This is our last best chance to save the site,” said Darius Sollohub, an associate professor of architecture at NJIT. He led an undergraduate studio last semester to brainstorm plans to reimagine it as an “open ruin” with a graffiti park and self-guided tours using augmented reality.
The university’s College of Architecture and Design, led by Tony Schuman, the interim dean of the department, has taken the lead on determining its cost and feasibility. He, together with colleague Sollohub, is submitting a study about the jail next month to the New Jersey Historic Trust, which has issued a grant for the site to the University Heights Science Park, a consortium including NJIT and Rutgers.
“We’re providing four different options on what to do with the site,” said Schuman, “from razing all the buildings to the ground to stabilizing the walls with buttresses.”
And make no mistake — there is a very real chance the site could be demolished.