The first decade of the 20th century was an age of great optimism for Newarkers. The city had world-class beer brewers, one of the nation’s largest insurance industries, a far-reaching rail network, and a busy harbor.
Another growing source of hometown pride was its architecture. In 1901, the Newark Public Library, then boasting the state’s largest collection of books, moved into its new marbled home modeled after an Italian palazzo. The Essex County Courthouse — completed in 1907, designed by the most famous Gilded Age architect, Cass Gilbert — was a work of art, inside and out. Perhaps most beautiful of all, Sacred Heart Cathedral, which took a half-century to finish, was beginning to rise in one of the nation’s first county parks.
When the time came to build a new City Hall, the building had to be worthy of a city on the rise. “When a new municipal building was agreed upon, it was decided to spare nothing to make it one of the finest in the land,” the New York Tribune reported in 1907.
The new building had special significance. The municipal building had always been quartered in makeshift spaces. The previous City Hall was located inside the Stuart Hotel on Broad Street. Before that in the county courthouse. The new City Hall would be the first dedicated to the work of the municipal government.
In 1900, three commissioners were chosen to lead the effort: James E. Howell, District Court Judge Andrew Kirkpatrick, and beer brewer Gottfried Krueger. The new municipal building — the seventh one in city history — would be the grandest of all, in typical Gilded Age style. In 1902, the commissioners held a contest choosing the design by Newark’s own father-son team John and Wilson Ely. The four-story gray granite building we have today is beloved by residents for its grand marble staircase, stained-glass dome, and council chambers.
But could history have turned out differently? Below are some of the other submissions. The through line connecting nearly all of the contestants, including the chosen design, is the influence of Beaux Arts architecture, which in the 1890s had come to the United States by way of France, the epicenter of Victorian architecture and art. The style is a distillation of Greek classicism and the Italian Renaissance, with the addition of lavish surface ornamentation.
The one outlier is the submission by Vas and Tach Architects, which was designed in the Egyptian Revival style, which became popular during Napoleon’s expedition of Egypt, ending in 1801. The French emperor brought with him a team of archeologists whose findings dazzled the imagination of European architects. Newark had a famous building designed in the Egyptian Revival style, the old county courthouse, which was demolished to make way for Gilbert’s courthouse that stands today.
In its day, Newark’s City Hall was praised as a “great architectural success” and “one of the finest edifices in the state.” But compared to the other submissions it was far less opulent. It is important to note that while this was an era of great wealth for some, it was also a time of great sickness and suffering for others as epidemics like typhoid, malaria, and scarlet fever raged. In a political cartoon in the Sunday Call, the caption reads: “I would feel happier in building my new marble palace if my children suffering from contagious diseases were better housed.” Perhaps the great feat of the new City Hall. was striking the balance between dignified and ostentatious.
Here were some of the other submissions.