Picture it: More than 100 boys and girls, most between 2 and 10 years old, living and learning in the three-story Elizabethan Gothic castle-like edifice fronting Martin Luther King Boulevard near the corner of Central Avenue. Where today there is a rear entryway leading to a small courtyard outside the building, in the 1800s that area was a pantry and kitchen. And while the present décor is rich in color, back then it likely featured an institutional palette of drab grays and greens.
The building is Eberhardt Hall, home to NJIT’s Office of Alumni Relations and Alumni Association and location of numerous university activities. When construction was completed in 1857, however, it served as the Newark Orphan Asylum and provided vital shelter and sustenance to parentless children. Hailed for its past dedicated to community service as well as its notable architectural design, Eberhardt Hall is listed in both the national and New Jersey registers of historic places. It also is now included in the Newark Walks self-guided walking tour, which kicked off this past fall as Newark, the third oldest city in the United States, celebrated its 350th anniversary.
A History of Humanity
The Newark Orphan Asylum was founded in 1847 by a group of women associated with the Old First Presbyterian Church in Newark, and chartered by the New Jersey State Legislature. It employed a staff that included caretakers, a nurse, cook, seamstress, laundress and custodian. Independent educational instruction was provided on-site.
“Many, if not most, social-service functions in the mid-19th century were often covered by philanthropic organizations,” noted Zemin Zhang, executive director, Newark Preservation & Landmarks Committee.
Ten years later, the building that would become Eberhardt Hall was erected to accommodate the original orphanage’s growing number of charges. Designed by John Welch, a noted church architect in the 19th century and a founder of the American Institute of Architects, it featured such “modern” conveniences as hot and cold running water, steam heat and gaslight, as well as an early fire-extinguishing system — all of which were rarities in even affluent homes of the time.
The asylum met its mission into the next century and in 1948 merged with the Protestant Foster Home of Newark. The new organization became known as the Newark Home for Foster Care, and the building on MLK Boulevard was sold to NJIT, then called Newark College of Engineering.
An Award-Winning Restoration
After NJIT purchased the building, for $58,000, the board of trustees named it Eberhardt Hall, in honor of the late Frederick Eberhardt, a past trustee, alumnus and longtime friend of the university. Eberhardt Hall initially served as an administration building and housed the office of the university’s president as well as some classrooms.
Decades later, in 2001, NJIT embarked on a multimillion dollar restoration of the three-story, 35,000-square-foot structure. Numerous architectural design firms were enlisted for the project, which was overseen by Cody Eckert & Associates of Princeton and conducted with meticulous attention to both exterior and interior details. On the outside, for example, red brick and brownstone mortars were chemically matched to those used by the original builders.
David Gibson of DF Gibson, Inc., an experienced preservationist who was an associate professor of architecture in the early days of NJIT’s College of Architecture and Design and was also responsible for five campus master plans and the design of several campus buildings, played an integral role in recreating the interior of Eberhardt Hall. To lend an air of authenticity, Gibson incorporated wallpaper, ceiling coverings and carpets that reproduce patterns created by Christopher Dresser, considered one of the 19th century’s first and foremost residential and industrial designers. (Gibson points out that this installation of Dresser wallpaper may be among the biggest in the country.) Additionally, he installed electrical fixtures with a gaslight aesthetic, from the chandeliers to the lamp-like figures that top the landing posts of the grand staircase.
“This is my interpretation of what the founders would have done if they owned the building in 1881,” said Gibson of his work.
Gibson did include a contemporary take when it came to some of the furnishings, with glass-and-metal coffee and end tables from Italy and classic modern sofas and club chairs. He also put in a back door to provide access to an elevator foyer, in accordance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, along with two sets of stairs leading to the rear entrance from the ground-floor lobby. And he mounted brass handrails on the grand staircase over the lower wooden handrails sized for use by the asylum’s children. That staircase and its wooden handrails as well as the trim and ornamental border around the interior of the front door are, to Gibson’s knowledge, the only original interior features.
Today Eberhardt Hall is a rare example of Elizabethan Gothic Revival style of the Victorian period. The restoration of the storied structure received the Newark Preservation & Landmarks Committee’s 2006 Donald T. Dust Recognition Award, the nonprofit’s highest honor. In accepting the award, then NJIT President Robert A. Altenkirch remarked, “This award recognizes much more than the successful physical restoration of an elegant and historic building. It honors a commitment to the well-being of a city and its people that spans 150 years, and which looks forward to a prosperous future.”
A Point of Interest
Not only is Eberhardt Hall among the more than 70 Newark sites and districts listed in the state and national registries of historic places, it also is one of 83 points of interest on the first Newark Walks tour (NewarkWalks.com). The goal of the 3.1-mile trail “is to provide some structure around telling Newark’s history,” said Byron Clark, project coordinator of Newark Walks, a program of the Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Eberhardt is considered to be architecturally significant. It’s a landmark building.”
The committee to select sites for the walking tour included residents of Newark as well as local historians and representatives from corporations, county and municipal governments and higher education. Anthony Schuman, interim dean of NJIT’s College of Architecture and Design and an architectural and Newark historian, played a role and was a valuable resource Clark said.
“We really wanted to include the University Heights community,” Clark added, stressing the importance of the city’s higher-education district. “There’s so much history there for people to discover.”