(This article was prepared by the Newark Preservation and Landmark Committee and was originally published with a grant from the Newark Bicentennial Commission. It was prepared by Anthony Vacca and Jack Sheehan with the help of Don Dust, Margaret Manhardt, Elizabeth Del Tufo and Dawn Lospaluto, and was revised by Lawrence Parsons and Douglas Eldridge. Updates have been made to the original article based on new developments.)
To many, the strip of land east of Penn Station is an unknown entity—almost another city. Known also as “Down Neck, “ because it is partly located on a neck of the Passaic River, the Ironbound is so named because it is surrounded by railroad tracks and is bordered by several major highways. Until the 1820’s, it was occupied by a few farmers. Then came the German and Irish immigrants, the first foreigners to come in large numbers. They helped provide the labor needed by the new industries that were opening in this part of the city.
Down Neck’s relative isolation proved to be a natural attraction to industry. With the completion of the Morris Canal and the first railroads in the 1830s, the iron, chemical, brewing, tanning and leather industries flourished. Waves of new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe—mostly Italians, Poles, Jews, Slavs and Lithuanians—came on the scene as opportunities increased. More recently, Portuguese and Hispanics—from Spain as well as Latin America—have carried on the tradition of this area as a haven for new Americans. It has been estimated that more than 40 different ethnic groups live in this one section of Newark.
Motivated by a strong work ethic, these first-generation Newarkers have built their homes, churches, clubs and stores close to their factories. The Ironbound has changed very slowly through the years, and residential, industrial and commercial buildings are intermingled throughout the area. The neat, compact homes are among the best kept in the city. Although there are problems with air pollution and traffic congestion, the Ironbound has maintained considerable charm as a neighborhood of one and two-story houses built tightly together along narrow, clean streets, many of them lined with mature sycamore trees.
While some areas of Newark which once boasted wealthier residents and more palatial housing have declined in recent years, the Ironbound has been carefully preserved—and even improved. Family and community ties are strong, numerous restaurants and small businesses thrive and the crime rate is one of the lowest in the city.
The area’s success is often attributed to fierce neighborhood spirit, hard work, pride in home ownership, and mutual respect for the traditions of each group. By holding fast to these traits, Ironbound people have kept their community both attractive and distinctive.
1. PENNSYLVANIA STATION. Constructed in 1935 and now extensively rehabilitated and restored, Penn Station forms a natural boundary between the Ironbound and the downtown area, helping to isolate the Ironbound. This 293-foot-long structure, finished in Indiana limestone, contains many fine Art Deco details, including wall reliefs and ceiling sculpture. The total cost of construction was approximately $10 million. The station serves N.J. Transit, Amtrak, and PATH trains, plus the City Subway and long-distance and local bus lines. The station will be transformed by a $190 million renovation project that will retain its historic significance while improving the facility for the thousands of passengers who pass through each week.
2. MOTHER CABRINI PARK, This tiny park was named to honor Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American citizen canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. The park is just east of Penn Station. At the park’s east end is a bust of Jose Marti, liberator of Cuba, and a small, enclosed yard. They were built in 1975-76 by Cuban organizations in the Newark area.
3. PETER FRANCISCO PARK, Also located east of Penn Station, this small sitting park is named in honor of Peter Francisco, a Portuguese patriot of the American War of Independence. The park features a memorial to Portuguese-American war veterans, and an Ironbound Immigrants Memorial.
4. OUR LADY OF MT. CARMEL ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, (original), Ferry & McWhorter Streets. Originally constructed as the Second Dutch Reformed Church in 1847-48, this building was converted into a Catholic house of worship in 1890 by Italian immigrants. Architect William Kirk was the original designer of what was a classical, towering structure. The tall spire was shortened and modified. The present portico and stucco exterior are of 20th Century vintage. The construction of a new Italian church of the same name left the edifice vacant, and it is now the home of the Ironbound Educational and Cultural Center.
5. FERRY STREET, Created in 1765 by an act of the colonial legislature, which authorized the Old Ferry Road, this street became part of the first direct route between Newark and the Hudson River. In 1849 the old roadbed of rough logs was lifted and replaced with smooth planks. The name was also changed to Plank Road, and tolls were instituted. In 1899, when its charter expired, the road was turned over to Essex and Hudson counties. In 1913 the eastern end was rejuvenated to become a part of the Lincoln Highway. Today, the western part of the old road is a vibrant, bustling thoroughfare. Its enterprises are seldom without business, and the street seldom without traffic jams. Ferry Street is the commercial heart of the Ironbound, and Portuguese/Hispanic dominance is readily apparent.
6. CHRIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH, 76 Prospect St. Designed by Frank Wills, a leader of the Gothic revival movement, and built-in 1849-50, this brownstone church served an Episcopal congregation until about 1970. Then it was sold and later abandoned, and fell prey to vandalism and fire. But in 1978, it was bought by a lawyer, Anthony Cabelo, and his wife, who have rebuilt it as the Chancery Professional Center. The Cabelos razed the original rear of the building and transformed the main portion into two floors of modern offices and a loft apartment. The building is on the National Register, and Cabelo’s project has been praised by the Newark City Council as “an inspiration to others to save and adapt the many fine old buildings in our city.”
7. ST. JOSEPH’S ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, Lafayette, and Prospect streets. Constructed in 1858, St. Joseph’s was, until 1928, the Fifth Baptist Church, now defunct. In 1928 the Spanish and Portuguese people of the Ironbound joined forces and obtained the structure. The brick-modified Greek Revival church lost its spire some years back. The Portuguese half of the parish left St. Joseph’s when their church, Our Lady of Fatima, was constructed in the 1950s.
A new edifice now houses the Spanish parish, and this new building, finished in 1966, is called Immaculate Heart of Mary. The name was changed because of confusion with the church of the same name on West Market Street. The old church is now used for a few weekly Masses and as Lafayette Street School Annex. The most exceptional aspect of the old building is the catacomb in the basement. Replicas of those, which exist in Rome, the catacombs have crypts with wax likenesses of Spanish saints.
8. OUR LADY OF FATIMA ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, 82 Congress St. Constructed in 1958 for the large and growing Portuguese population here, Our Lady of Fatima is a modern, orange brick building with limestone trim. The church is the first ever built exclusively for the Portuguese in Newark.
9. ST. JAMES ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, 250 Lafayette St. The largest church in the Ironbound stood on this corner from the Civil War until 1979, when it was demolished by the Archdiocese of Newark to provide parking for the nearby St. James Hospital. The massive church, once the focal point of a thriving Irish community, had a 225-foot tower that was visible for miles. ST. JAMES HOSPITAL, founded in 1900, was originally adjacent to the church, moved to a new five-story building at 155 Jefferson St. in 1961, and is administered by the Sisters of St. Joseph. It has more than 200 rooms and houses intensive and coronary care units. As well as serving residents and workers in the Ironbound, St. James also acts as headquarters during emergencies at Newark International Airport, Port Newark, and local factories. The hospital chapel’s stained glass windows depict the patron saints of most of the residents’ countries of origin.
10. MURPHY VARNISH COMPANY. Started in 1865, this once vast operation was the largest of the numerous paint and varnish factories that made the business Newark’s fifth largest industry at the turn of the century. At that time, six major structures comprised the Murphy complex, of which only one is presently in existence. A noteworthy feature of the massive building on the west side of McWhorter, near Vesey Street, is a carving of a Roman chariot carrying a can of Murphy varnish. Today, the structure has been transformed into Murphy Varnish Lofts, a desirable residential complex.
11. INDEPENDENCE PARK. Originally named Eastside Park, this 12.5-acre tract was developed by the Essex County Park Commission in 1896 as one of the first neighborhood parks that could be enjoyed by nearby residents without transportation. In 1922, the community leaders submitted a petition to the Park Commission requesting the name be changed to Independence Park so that it could bring a new significance to the foreign-born residents about the tenets of democracy. The name was officially changed on July 4, 1923. The park features broad green lawns and winding walks, as well as a fine assortment of mature sycamores. Independence is the largest park in the Ironbound. The Essex County Park Commission, under whose administration it falls, is the oldest park commission in the nation.
12. OUR LADY OF MT. CARMEL ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, 259 Oliver St. This church was built in 1955 to replace the mission-like structure near Penn Station, which served Italian-Americans for more than 60 years. The construction of this Yellow-orange brick structure also represents the shift in recent years of the Italian population to the area south of Independence Park.
13. ST. MICHAEL’S RUSSIAN ORTHODOX GREEK CATHOLIC CHURCH, 277 Oliver St. Built-in 1910 directly across from what was then Eastside Park, this small orange brick edifice has three lovely gold onion domes, originally copper but recently changed to fiberglass. Both the fiberglassing and brickwork, done in 1954, were attempts to deal with the pollution caused by the heavy industry in this area. The parish consists of some 350 people, most of whom are of Russian/East European background and live outside the area.
14. IRONBOUND AMBULANCE SQUAD, Gotthart Street, and New York Avenue. Founded in 1952 to provide fast, reliable medical transportation for the eastern end of the city, this is now the largest and busiest private ambulance service in New Jersey. Its 75 volunteers provide round-the-clock service for Newark Airport, Port Newark, and several major highways, as well as neighborhood residents and workers. A major point of pride for the neighborhood, the squad, operates four ambulances from its modern headquarters, built in 1961 and expanded 20 years later.
15. EAST SIDE HIGH SCHOOL, 238 Van Buren St. East Side is Ironbound’s only high school. Built-in 1911 to provide the area’s youth with industrial and manual education, the curriculum is, however, now multi-faceted. An auditorium and gymnasium were added in the 1950s, and further additions in the 1970s. East Side remains the most ethnically and racially mixed high school in Newark.
16. HENSLER HOUSE, 426 Lafayette St. Now used as the Buyus Funeral Home, the structure only slightly resembles the house of years ago. Constructed in the late 19th Century, it is the largest home in the immediate area. As was the custom in the Victorian Era, Joseph Hensler built his house directly across the street from his brewery so that he could supervise operations at all times. Some original pieces, including stained glass windows, woodwork and interior arches, have been preserved by the present owner.
17. GEORGIA-PACIFIC CORP. PLANT, Ferry, Magazine, Niagara and Darcy streets. Begun in 1872, this complex was first known as Celluloid Corporation of America. It was founded by John W. Hyatt, who in 1868 invented celluloid; this was the first cellulose nitrate, and from it sprang the entire plastics industry. In the late 19th century the company manufactured such products as “iron” collars and cuffs, pipebits, organ stopkeys and beer scrapers. The complex was built when much of this area was open farmland. The plant is occupied by the Polymer Materials Division of Georgia-Pacific.
18. ST. STEPHAN’S UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST, Ferry Street and Wilson Avenue. This German church quaintly dominates the busy intersection. Built in 1874, in an area that was then largely German, St. Stephan’s is a fine example of a Romanesque red-brick church and its steeple give a rather subtle Georgian- Colonial effect. The interior features imported German woodcarving with a merry- go-round with rotating statues, pulpit and outstanding Italian paintings. The architect was George Staehlin and many of the interior pieces are donations of the Hensler family. The church is on the National Register.`
19. SAINT BENEDICT’S CATHOLIC CHURCH, 65 Barbara St. Constructed in 1882 in a then largely German area, this red-brick church with its 100-foot tower is a dignified representative of 19 th century Romanesque architecture. This is the second oldest church established by German Catholics in Newark, It is the second church at this location; the first was destroyed in a storm. Services are now held in Portuguese as well as English.
20. ST. ALOYSIUS ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, 68 Fleming Ave. Gothic in style, this handsome brownstone structure was built in 1881 in a largely Irish area. The Ballantine brewing empire, located directly across the street, donated the principal funds to construct the church. Architect Jeremiah O’Rourke of Newark designed the building, which is noted for its rich interior.
21. BALLANTINE & SONS BREWERY, Ferry and Freeman streets. Closed in 1972, this once huge complex is now partly demolished. Built by Peter Ballantine after his move from High Street about 1840, this was at one time the largest brewing establishment in the United States. Parts of some buildings are still standing and being used commercially. The complex is currently being reimagined as a residential and mixed-use development.
22. JACKSON STREET SWING BRIDGE, Opened to traffic on Nov. 25, 1897, this steam-powered bridge is under the joint control of Essex and Hudson counties. The span of the bridge is 705 feet and connects the Ironbound to the Town of Harrison.
23 ST. CASIMIR’S ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH, 83 Pulaski St. This structure was built in 1919 for the large Polish area of the Ironbound bordering Pulaski Street. Italian Renaissance in style, this twin-towered and contrasting brick church is especially fine in the interior. The seating capacity is very large, and the church continues to anchor the still substantial Polish neighborhood. The church also operates a grammar school.