A Land Use Riddle in Newark

One summer during graduate school, I often walked past the National State Bank Building on my way to an internship in Newark’s City Hall. The building is located at 810 Broad Street, at Edison Place. I wondered: Why did Cass Gilbert, architect of the neoclassical tower that was completed in 1912, design his building to have a completely detailed façade that faced a mid-block lot line?

It’s unusual for a zero-lot-line property to have its lot-facing wall detailed. And this one is elaborate. How did the developers here know– correctly– that more than a century later, their southern exposure would continue to look out on sunlight and green space, rather than find itself pressed flush against a high brick wall?

A first thought was that maybe the bank had owned the yard, but that didn’t seem to check out: Behind the yard is an older, church-related structure which the green space adjoins; across the yard, and closer to the street, is a very old church. These two structures are related: along with the yard, they make up the campus of the Old First Presbyterian Church.

The Old First Church had its origins in the Puritan congregation of Robert Treat. Treat’s was the party that settled Newark under a charter from Governor Carteret in 1666. The church building, itself, was begun in 1787, simultaneous with the Philadelphia Convention. That’s all pretty significant, at least on a local level. Could the history of the church have meant that its property would be preserved by some device that predated formal historic designations?

It sounds plausible that Newark might have had an ad hoc arrangement to preserve its first church, even though widespread historic preservation statutes didn’t arrive until the late 20th century. But even if some arrangement had been made to preserve the historic church, that structure is located far enough from the lot line that the intermediate land, including the yard and the auxiliary building beyond, could presumably have been sold and developed without disturbing what was meaningful to the city’s history.

Another thought was that there might have been a burial ground on the land in question, and that some common-law precept would have therefore prevented its future development in the minds of 1912 architects. I actually thought this was the answer, but it turns out that what had looked (to me) like tombstones once before are actually weathered concrete benches. Here’s the patch of land, and it doesn’t contain any visible tombstones (at least, not in the summer undergrowth):

The gates are usually padlocked, so it’s difficult to get close. But a look at the Sanborn map from 1892 also fails to support the cemetery theory:

In 1892 there was, in fact, a large cemetery near the Old First Church, but it was in back, where the Prudential Arena now stands, reaching east toward Mulberry Street. The land in front was not labeled at all. Meanwhile, the same bank also had a previous building on the site of its 1912 building. So, what’s up here? Are we dealing with a private law device? Some early way of preserving genuinely historic properties, including their grounds, before everything that had grown old was ‘historic’? Was there some sort of a covenant between the bank and the church?

I’m only writing about this because I drove past the site today. There was an empty stretch of curb, and it was a good day for taking a few pictures. It jogged my memory. I’d like to dig some more, but if anyone could shed some light, please do.