Timelapse by Myles Zhang
Since 1971, the old Essex County Jail has sat abandoned and decaying in Newark’s University Heights neighborhood. Opened in 1837, this is the oldest surviving government structure 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.
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 preservation and raise awareness of the need to stabilize this site. Over the next year, an architecture studio led by Anthony Schuman and Darius Sollohub at the New Jersey Institute of Technology: College of Architecture and Design is conducting further site studies with a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust. 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 local government and the other stakeholders determine the logistics of a full-scale redevelopment effort.
Curated by Myles Zhang
and Zemin Zhang
Link to full credits
Shantal Henry (exhibition designer)
Ellen Quinn (design adviser)
Visual Print Solutions (installation)