Mysterious painting reveals architect’s unfinished vision for Newark
It has been fifty years since Ludwig Mies van der Rohe passed away and details of his international career have been carefully archived. But a mysterious painting has surfaced that reveals what may be an early draft of his Newark master plan.
In 1957, the famous Modernist architect designed three glass towers in Newark that were the pinnacle of style and technology. The Colonnade, North Pavilion, and South Pavilion were meant to attract middle-class residents who were moving from the city and its aging infrastructure to the suburbs.
The work, which appears briefly in a somewhat obscure documentary by Austrian filmmaker Heidrun Holzfeind, portrays a much more ambitious vision where seven towers – instead of three – rise from a park stretching from Branch Brook Park to along the Passaic River, then north past 6th Avenue.
âMies wanted to bring his vision of a minimalist city, a modernist city, to Newark just like he did in Detroit,â said Gabriel Dal’Maso, a Newark-based architect, who spotted the painting in the documentary. âIt gives credit to the painting I found. Could it be a master plan that attempted to reproduce Lafayette Park? “
Dal’Maso’s attempt to decipher the painting began a few years ago when a developer proposed a building on long-abandoned land between the lodge towers. In protest at the new development, Dal’Maso, who lived in the lodge at the time, made a public comment at a city council meeting. In preparing for his testimony, he pored over research materials and amassed a wealth of historical records on the glass and aluminum towers.
“The modernists had an almost utopian belief that by creating a city that was friendlier to its citizens, we could create a better society,” said Dal’Maso. “I wanted to protect the integrity of this vision.”
Modernist architecture has always struggled to be accepted. In the 1960s, when bold new designs challenged the aesthetics of the Golden Age, critics were dismayed. George Wilson, reporter for The Evening Star, wrote that Modernist buildings were like “putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa”. The struggle to protect these mid-century structures never ends. In April, Jersey Digs reported on the battle to save Trenton’s health and agriculture buildings, which were demolished after the post.
Despite the importance of Modernists and the role these buildings play in the history of urban renewal, Colonnade Park, the collective name of the Three Towers, is not protected by a landmark designation, despite an attempt to local curator, Zemin Zhang, to appoint him. The owner did not consent to the designation, so his efforts were in vain.
As for the painting, Zhang agrees that it is a first interpretation of the park of the colonnade. The developer, Herbert Greenwald, originally wanted eight acres of land, which the county refused to grant him, Zhang noted.
âWith all the restrictions, including the timing, they settled on four towers which then became three,â said Zhang, executive director of Newark Landmarks.
Greenwald, who was Mies’ longtime collaborator, was killed in a plane crash before the Colonnade opened in 1960. The reins were taken over by a new developer, Bernard Weissbourd, who appeared to briefly rekindle the hope to expand development. A 1964 Newark Evening News article mentions a proposal by Metropolitan Structures, Weissbourd’s company, for a nine-block addition to Colonnade Park. But then the track cools down.
One possible explanation why the other towers were never built is that the town in the town of Mies never kept its promise to keep the middle class in Newark. Initially, the solution was to dazzle the inhabitants of the Colonnade and the Pavilion with the kind of white glove service reserved for large hotels. Babysitters, dog walkers, barbers and masseuses were all services offered there. If a tenant had an overnight guest, a bellboy would carry a cot to their apartment.
But whatever the length of the staff, nothing could stop the social forces of suburbanization. People often say that the riots of 1968 caused Newark’s decline, but the riots only accelerated what was probably inevitable. Louis Danzig, then director of the Newark Housing Authority, became the scapegoat for the failure of urban renewal.
âAfter the Newark rebellion, the urban renewal process collapsed,â Zhang said. âDanzig has become like a criminal. “
Meanwhile, a new five-story residential development proposal in the abandoned lot between the two towers of the Pavilion may soon be submitted to city council. The developers will surely clash with the guardians of Mies’ vision.
“If Mies was still alive he would think, ‘My God, did you put this next to my building?’ Zhang said.
As for the painting in the documentary, which began ten years ago, no one seems to know what happened to it. The management of the Colonnade and Pavilion buildings told Jersey Digs they had never seen it.