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Archi Awareness: Military Park The history and its Future

BY Nicholas Dingman

Something’s stirring in New Jersey’s largest city. Having straggled on through the last 40 years, flirting with death, enduring successive surgeries that often did more harm than good, Military Park is undergoing a corrective surgery. The developer promises to undo the damage and revive the dearly needed Military Park in earnest, and they have the credentials to prove it. First, a history lesson.

Settled in 1666 by a congregation of Puritans lead by Robert Treat, Newark is America’s third oldest city. The group decided to leave the New Haven colony in Connecticut after the colony formed a union with the Connecticut colony. Robert Treat knew staying meant diluting the power of his congregation, so they left to create a more religiously conservative community. Sailing up the Passaic River, they made their landing on the then verdant shores of Newark. The settlers were able to form a peaceful relationship with the Lenape Indians which occupied the land at the time, and with the supplies they had brought with them, were able to purchase a large tract of land on the Passaic. One of the first things the Indians showed the settlers was the widely used hunting trail, which was adopted by the colonizers and came to be known as Broad Street.

The street is not straight. As a result, when laying out the city’s grid, three triangular parks were formed: Washington, Military, and Lincoln, from North to South respectively. Military Park has been at the physical and social center of Newark since its inception. It has undergone many transformations of use and appearance; has survived neglect and served in times of need. Today the park embodies a multiplicity of feelings, most prominently though, it stands as a testament to resilience and adaptation.

While the first settlers of Newark were becoming acquainted with the area, Military Park served as the town’s common area. Goods were traded and as the town grew, shops cropped up alongside wealthy residences to form the foundation of all successful parks: an unbroken street wall. The southern tip of the park was dominated by the Market House, a stone tower that was razed in the late 19th century.

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That’s not to say the park hasn’t seen its fair share of action. 110 years after the first settlers arrived in Newark, a budding nation found itself at war the preeminent global power of the time, in a fight for independence. The sensitive nature of housing soldiers meant the American’s couldn’t’ well ask their neighbors for room and board. The grounds of Military Park (as well as Washington Park) answered the call. Recruits were trained and troops mustered in little cities of tents. When America was faced with the threat of a divided nation, Military Park was there again, to serve.

Consequently, the park is dotted with memorials to these wars. The most prominent feature of the park today is the hulking sculpture, ‘Wars of the Americas’ by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore. The park is a veritable repository for Newark’s sculptures.

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With the proliferation of the automobile and the lifestyle that came with it, Military Park’s life as a trade hub ended. It was far from forgotten though. As early as the 1930s visions of how the park could be adapted to serve the new mode of transportation had been conceived.

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In the wake of the riots that gripped the city and sent businesses fleeing, one of the city’s preeminent architecture firms, Frank Grad and Son, answered the call. The pace of commerce had quickened, and so, to keep Newark relevant, a massive engineering project was undertaken to tuck 4 levels of subterranean parking beneath the park. This was to be coupled with a surface restoration. The exits for fire egress would be joined by several similarly styles pavilions .There have been several re-imaginings of the park throughout its life though this was the only one to be built.

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The work of Frank Grad turned out to be too little too late. As the city reeled and shrank, the pavilions were removed and the elegant concrete shell housing for egress stairs were replaced with the bleak concrete-block huts people are familiar with today. The sword-shaped reflecting pool dried up and the trees began to die. The park became a haven for muggings and drugs. The most populated points were the bus stop on the park’s western edge. For all intents, it appeared as though the park had been left for dead. That remained the case into 2013.

Today the park is a hive of activity. Renderings of what’s to come dot the edges. Will this renovation succeed in breathing life back into the park where so many others failed? In April of 2014 we will find out.           _MG_7016

Biederman Redevelopment Ventures, which is giving the nearly 350-year-old park a makeover, said today the owners of Maritime Parc restaurant in Liberty State Park will open a venue in Newark when renovations are completed in 2014.

Dan Biederman and the Military Park Partnership began rehabbing the underused and often overlooked swath of urban greenery in May. Biederman hopes he can do for Military Park what he did for Manhattan’s Bryant Park, changing it from a drug-invested meeting place into a mini cultural center.

According to a news release, the yet unnamed restaurant “is expected to be casual, comfortable, unpretentious and delicious, specializing in hand-crafted burgers, salads, donuts and shakes.” It will serve wine and local craft beers.  ”We’ve wanted to expand beyond Jersey City for some time,” Maritime Parc chef and co-owner Chris Siversen said in a statement, “but the right opportunity never presented itself … until now.”  Biederman said Siversen and his partner Marc Haskell “know how to make a restaurant complement a park environment.”

Manhattan-based designer Stephanie Goto has been commissioned to design the eatery.

The restaurant will sit near the epic statue “Wars of America” . It will be across the street from the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (a planned resident tower), as well as the Prudential office towers that are being constructed on Broad Street. It will also be near the new apartment and retail center being built at the former Hahne’s & Co. center and the planned apartment building on Rector Street that includes NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal.

 

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