Nestled amid the new construction of Newark's Science Park area stands the rapidly deteriorating symbol of a bygone era. The Old Essex County Jail Complex, also known as the Newark Street Jail, is the county's oldest public building. Located at Newark and New Streets, it was built 1837 along the banks of the newly constructed Morris Canal to house both county and city lawbreakers.
The Essex County Jail was built to replace an earlier structure that was located at the present site of the Grace Episcopal Church at Broad and Walnut Streets in Newark. That building served as both the county courthouse and jail before burning to the ground on August 15, 1835. The only evidence of it, "Remains in traces of the dungeons in the undercroft beneath the sanctuary floor of the Grace Church that was sealed years ago to exclude pranksters and protect adventuresome choristers from danger," wrote Charles Cummings in an article in the Star-Ledger Newspaper last year.
The new jail and courthouse differed from its predecessor in two ways when they were completed in 1837. First, it was decided to build separate structures for the courts and prison several blocks away. Second, the City of Newark (incorporated in 1836) would share both with the county in an effort to reduce costs and streamline efficiency.
The new buildings were designed by the esteemed architect, John Haviland, who also designed the State Prison in Trenton and the Tombs in New York City. The cost of the courthouse (and city hall) was $71,000, and the new prison totaled $30,000.
Haviland's original plan for the Essex County Jail called for a two-story square building along New Street, with a wing of cells along Wilsey Street. Both were built using brick and local brownstone. They were placed on an acre and a half of property situated in an almost campus like setting. Cummings wrote, "The grand old facility exuded warmth, character, personality, even coziness, if such things can be said about a jail." He added, "By comparison, the new Essex County Jail is nothing more than an impersonal concrete bunker." In the old jail, prisoners were encouraged to remain active, and there were gardens, cobblestone courtyards and walkways, and a greenhouse for the better behaved to amble about and tend to.
There were new buildings and additions added to the jail complex throughout the 1890's. In 1907, the current Essex County Courthouse was constructed to replace the 1837 Egyptian style building and the county also began an extensive rehabilitation of the jail. One hundred and twelve new cells were added and many new security features were installed. Each cell was now also equipped with running water and toilet facilities. Eventually, the jail would expand to over 300 cells.
The old jail continued to serve Essex County as its main detention center (augmented by the Essex County Jail Annex in North Caldwell) until 1970 when the current jail was completed. For a short time after it served as the home of the Essex County Narcotics Bureau, but when they relocated it stood empty.
Today the Essex County Jail remains abandoned and derelict, home to only the occasional drug dealer or vagrant. Although it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, no efforts have been made to preserve it. Essex County seems to be practicing "demolition by neglect," or in other words, waiting for the remaining structures to burn or collapse so they can redevelop the site. Even in its present state, however, one can be still be drawn to the unique and picturesque 19th century buildings in the middle of a modern 21st century city. Enjoy it while you can, it cannot last much longer.
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