Four Corners Historic District
The Four Corners Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. Adaptation copyright © 2014, The Gombach Group.
The Four Corners Historic District, at the intersection of Broad and Market Streets, is the heart and soul of Newark, New Jersey's oldest and largest city, and the third oldest major city in the United States (only Boston and New York City pre-date Newark). It is a city of outstanding importance — in size, population, industry, commerce, financial institutions, transportation facilities and its architecture. Newark's seaport and airport are some of the busiest in the world; its museum and library are nationally renowned, yet few know of its significant architectural resources or of its dynamic history spanning more than three centuries. It represents the growth of a great city, a place, which Newark librarian John Cotton Dana declared in 1917, had been transformed since the turn-of-the-century, from a "huge, uncouth and unthinking industrial Frankenstein monster into a place of refinement." Newark was founded, and initially laid out in 1666 by Robert Treat, the secular leader of thirty settler families from the New Haven Colony. The visual and spatial character of downtown Newark as prescribed by its founders in 1666 has remained intact, and is visible in the layout of the Four Corners Historic District to this day. The commercial streetscapes of Four Corners present a solid front with few vacant lots and few infill buildings. The visual character of the Four Corners Historic District is unique as well: buildings of various styles, heights and materials intermingle to produce a special, and at times, exotic, sense of place. The Four Corners Historic District is significant as the most important intersection in the city of Newark, and the city's heart since 1666. The district contains an excellent collection of commercial and institutional buildings dating from 1870 to 1930, including some of the most architecturally prominent buildings in New Jersey, retains its seventeenth-century New England town plan, and creates Newark's urban skyline.
The buildings in the Four Corners Historic District were constructed mostly between 1870 and 1930, with some earlier and later exceptions. They range in character from low-scale, two-story commercial buildings to thirty-five story office towers. In between these two extremes are a variety of early three- to five-story brick and brownstone, commercial and factory buildings with Italianate and Romanesque Revival features, some cast iron buildings, mid-size office buildings often to twelve stories, a variety of theater buildings and the oldest remaining church in the Four Corners, Old First Presbyterian. Although these buildings vary in height, massing, materials and architectural style, they relate to each other in age, function and quality of workmanship, indicative of the high level of architectural development present in Newark during the period 1870 to 1930.
Some of the most architecturally prominent buildings in the state of New Jersey are located in the Four Corners Historic District. These represent the growth and pride of the individual commercial establishments which constructed them, as well as the very growth of the city of Newark as the heart of metropolitan northern New Jersey. They represent Newark as the commercial, financial, institutional and social focus of the urban-suburban core surrounding the city. These include the obvious skyscrapers: National Newark and Essex Bank Building, the Raymond Commerce Building, the Federal Trust Company Building, Firemen's Insurance Company Building and the National State Bank. These tall buildings were basically built in two phases. The first phase, from 1900 to 1916, produced the earliest tall buildings in New Jersey. The Firemen's Insurance Company had dominated the northeast corner of Four Corners with their staid and perfectly sound, four-story, mansard-roofed, brownstone Victorian home since the 1870s. Eager to prove that the insurance company would meet the needs of the new century head-on, it surprised Newark with its decision to rip down this perfectly serviceable building and construct a new, vertically-reaching, office building. In 1910, the company's new, glittering, white, sixteen-story building towered over all, as Newark's first skyscraper, and visible symbol of the new twentieth century. Across the street, all traces of Robert Treat's former home were obliterated by the new, twelve-story Kinney Building finished in 1912. Southward, National State Bank replaced its modest nineteenth-century home at Broad and Mechanic (now Edison), with a ten-story building. Kept in check by Old First Presbyterian Church next door, the building only had forty-nine feet of frontage on Broad Street. The ten-story Union Building on Clinton Street went up in 1906 and the Essex Building several years after.
A second tall building boom started in the 1920s and ended with the Depression. In 1923, the nine-story Newark Athletic Club rose on Park Place (it was demolished several years ago for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center). This was followed by the twenty-one story Military Park Building, the tallest building in New Jersey at this time. In 1928, the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company built their twenty-story Art Deco tower on Washington Park. Two years later, the American Insurance Company followed with a sixteen-story Colonial Revival tower next to the Newark Public Library (now Rutgers Law School). At the same time, in the Four Corners area, the twenty-story Federal Trust Building was completed on Commerce Street. This race for the sky ended in the throes of the Depression, with the construction of Newark's two most famous towers, the thirty-four story, Raymond Commerce Building, completed in 1930, and the thirty-five story, National Newark and Essex Bank Building, completed in 1931. With their successive setbacks underscoring the idea of continuous vertical movement, these two buildings completed the dynamic city skyline. The effect became particularly dramatic because the architects of these buildings culminated the upward thrusts of these dramatic architectural shafts in intricate crowns of setback masses. The dense accumulation of skyscrapers projected an image of solid financial power, as well as American pride in the technological achievement of the skyscraper.
Many of the commercial buildings within the Four Corners Historic District were designed by both locally and nationally prominent architects; some of these were published in the architectural periodicals of the day. Perhaps the most famous of these architects was Cass Gilbert (1858-1934), who was responsible for the Gibraltar Building, the Kinney Building and the National State Bank Building, all key buildings in the district. Particularly known for his monumental government buildings, Gilbert was the architect of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., the Minnesota State Capitol, the sixty-six story Woolworth Building in downtown Manhattan, the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House and the US Courthouse also in Manhattan, as well as the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Outside of the Four Corners area in Newark, Gilbert designed the Essex County Courthouse, now  being restored, and the American Insurance Company building, demolished in 1981. (The doors of the American Insurance Company building are now in the permanent collection of The Newark Museum.)
Other nationally-known architects who designed buildings in the area include George Post, architect of the Howard Savings Bank on Broad Street, who was also responsible for the New York Stock Exchange and the Wisconsin State Capitol. He also designed the old Prudential Building, a remnant of which is still evident at the northwest corner of Broad and Market Streets. Post's Howard Savings Bank, in its staid neoclassicism, was the last of the nineteenth-century bank buildings to be constructed in the Four Corners. In contrast to the glittering and towering Firemen's Insurance Company several doors away, the Howard Savings Institution was the last symbol of the disappearing nineteenth century. Its monumental presence looked back in time, recalling the political and architectural ideals of ancient Greece and Rome, rather than the modernism and height that was to come with the early twentieth century.
Local architectural firms had their share of work in the Four Corners area. The most notable local nineteenth-century architect to work in the Four Corners area was Thomas Cressey. Born and trained in England, Cressey settled in Newark, and maintained a professional office in the city until his death in 1909. In 1896, Cressey published a portfolio of his work, a copy of which is in the Newark Public Library. This portfolio documents Cressey's work in photographs and drawings, and is a tremendous resource for the documentation of late nineteenth-century Broad and Market Streets. The portfolio show a wide variety of commercial and residential work done in Newark in the 1880s and 1890s. His designs include many buildings on Market Street and several on Broad Street.
The local father and son architectural firm of Wilson and John Ely were responsible for a number of significant public buildings in Newark, including the thirty-five story National Newark and Essex Bank Building within the District. Outside of the Four Corners Historic District, the Elys designed the Newark City Hall, Mutual Benefit Life Building on north Broadway, the former New Jersey Historical Society, also on North Broadway, and the American Insurance Company Building (Rutgers Law School) on Washington Place.
Frank Grad was one of the major figures in Newark's architectural life in the twentieth century. After emigrating from Austria, Grad opened a practice in Newark in 1907. In the 1930s he took his two sons, Bernard and Howard, into partnership, establishing the firm, Frank Grad and Sons (in the 1960s, the firm became the Grad Partnership). Grad's most famous work is the Raymond Commerce Building, which he designed in 1929. Other local architects include George Elwood Jones, designer of the Federal Trust Company on Commerce Street and the Academy Building on Academy Street, within the district, and the Griffith Piano Company building north of the district.
† Ulana D. Zakalak, Historic Preservation Consultant, Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, Four Corners Historic District, Essex County, NJ, nomination document, 1999, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.