The Exhibit

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Timelapse by Myles Zhang

Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Built beginning in 1837, this is among the oldest government structures in Newark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The building desperately needs investment and a vision for its transformation. Few structures in this city reflect the history of racial segregation, immigration, and demographic change as well as this jail.

In Spring 2018, a graduate studio at Columbia University’s architecture school documented this structure. Eleven students and two architects documented and explored the jail’s condition, context, and history. They built upon this historical analysis to form preservation strategies. Each student developed a reuse proposal for museum, public park, housing, or prisoner re-entry and education center. By proposing 11 alternatives for a site long abandoned, the project symbolically transformed a narrative of confinement into a story of freedom.

Student Design Group from Columbia GSAPP

Inspired by this academic project and seeking to share it with a larger audience, Myles Zhang and Zemin Zhang proposed to transform the results of this studio into an exhibit in the Hahne’s Building. With $15,000 funding from Newark Landmarks, the curators and a dozen collaborators translated Columbia’s work into exhibition. We enriched this exhibit with primary sources and an oral history project, recording the experiences of former guards and people who witnessed this site’s trauma. We are grateful to Anne Englot and Liz Del Tufo for their help securing space and funding. Over spring 2019, the curators collaborated with a team at New Jersey City University to design the exhibit panels and to create the corresponding texts and graphics. The opening was held in May 2019, and is recorded here.

The hope is that, by presenting this jail’s history in a public space where several thousand people viewed it per week, we can build support for its preservation and raise awareness of the need to stabilize this site. Over the next year, an architecture studio at the New Jersey Institute of Technology: College of Architecture and Design is conducting further site studies. Before any work begins, the next immediate step is to remove all debris, trim destructive foliage, and secure the site from trespassers. These actions will buy time while the city government and the other stakeholders determine the logistics of a full-scale redevelopment effort.

Axonometric View of 1837 East Wing

Curated by Myles Zhang and Zemin Zhang
Link to full credits

Shantal Henry (exhibition designer)
Ellen Quinn (design adviser)
Monica Sarmiento
Yujin Cho
Visual Print Solutions (installation)

View the Exhibit Design

Video soundtrack above from freesound.org
Photos by Myles Zhang