Thursday, May 2, 2024

American Strip Steel

Passaic Avenue in Kearny looks much different than it did at the turn of the century. Factories and machine shops used to tower over both sides of the street. Those industries have since died out and made way for cookie-cutter retail and tacky, high density housing. One such factory that was recently demolished was the American Strip Steel Company. 

American Strip Steel was founded by Newark Entrepenuer LeRoy Schecter. Schecter had just returned home after fighting in World War II. After a brief stint working in the local steel mills he founded his own rolling mill just up river from the city in Kearny.

After a few decades, Schecter noticed that one of the pinch points in his operation was having to rely on outside trucking firms to move his goods around. The mill had a shoreline crane to load barges and was adjascent to a freight railway, but fright was losing out to truck transportation as more and more lines across the country closed and consolidated. This led Schecter to found Norbert Trucking in 1965. 

Kearny experienced the same heavy blows to domestic production that much of the country faced as the decades passed. The Aluminum Bat Factory to the north had been shuttered, as had the Clark Thread Mill to the south. Despite this American Strip was thriving. Things were going so well they began branching out to fill other niches.

In 1989 the company started manufacting metal studs under the name Ware Industries. Ware then purchased the Marino company four years later, rebranding themselves Marino-Ware. 

The Passaic Avenue Industrial corridor was beginning to become a nuicense to the town of Kearny. They declared the strech "an area in need of redevelopment". This allowed them to rezone the area for high density and grant special tax incentives so developers can make a ton of money rebuilding the properties. 

Most of the old industrial buildings were swiftly demolished. American Strip Steel, however, managed to hang on just a bit longer. It wasn't until the 2020's that American Strip had finally left Kearny. They moved to the large Marino-Ware compound in South Plainfield. 

At this point their old buildings stood out a bit like a sore thumb among the equally unappealing "peel and stick" style apartments. The oginal American Strip Steel Buildings were eventually demolished in the early 2020s. Workers moved slowly to salvage some of the overhead gantry cranes that were built into the structure, but by 2023 the buildings were entirely wiped away.

The site is currently being reworked to accomidate the new buildings that will rise where American Strip Steel once stood. Hopefully they pay some sort of homage to what once stood there, as the story is such a quintessentially American one. Only time will tell. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Vineland Training School

As an avid explorer of old asylums, it's been a bit of a mission of mine since the mid 2000s to document as many institutions as I can. So many have been lost with little to no documentation, and as that happens the stories they hold begin to fade away. The story of the Vineland Training School is an important one, and one that I've wanted to tell for quite some time.


The Vineland Training School was founded in 1887 in the Millville home of Steven Olin Garrison. Garrison, a Methodist minister, had two developmentally disabled siblings. His family had long been pushing to get the state to open an asylum to research and treat children who are born in such a way. Vineland philanthropist B.D. Maxham heard of his mission and donated the Scarborough mansion and 40 acres along Landis Ave. to Garrison the following year. 

Source: TFPNJ Postcard Archive

The New Jersey Home for the Education and Care of Feeble Minded Children, later renamed the Training School at Vineland, was the very first instition for the developmentally disabled in the state. Those living at the school learned various vocations as well as farming, and lived in small cottages rather than the large, linear plan institutions like Trenton and Greystone state hospitals. The Training School at Vineland was one of the earliest "cottage plan" aslums in the country. It influenced different institutions all over the country including the seperately ran Vineland State School. That facility opened across the street from the training school one year later.

Source: TFPNJ Postcard Archive

Source: TFPNJ Postcard Archive

Source: TFPNJ Postcard Archive

The campus continued to expand, with more cottages being built in 1892 onward. As the facilility grew, Steven Garrison began to fall ill. Recognizing the need for a contingency plan for the school, he began the search for his successor. The man he chose was Professor Edward Johnstone, who at the time was the Principal of Instruction at the Indiana School for Feeble Minded Youth. Steven Garrison passed away at the age of 46 on April 17th, 1900. 

Source: TFPNJ Postcard Archive

One of the first major decisions Edward Johnstone made was choosing a new director of research. Henry H. Goddard was chosen for the position in 1906. Goddard was a professor working at the Pennsylvania State Normal School. Despite the somewhat jarring and institutional name, a normal school is essentially a university for teachers. This position gave Goddard a large amount of influence and credibility. Now, at the Vineland School, he was in charge of the first research laboratory for intellectual disability in the united states. 

Goddard was a fervent eugenecist, believing that those with developmental disabilities should be segregated from the general population and advised to not reproduce. In 1908 he introduced the IQ test to America, having translated and reformatted the Binet Intellegence Scale to English for the first time. This was done after thorough testing on the population at the training school. Two years later he would coin the term "Moron", and introduce it into clinical use to describe those with an IQ of 59 to 70. He dubbed those with an IQ of 26 to 50 as "imbeciles" and those who landed between 0 and 25 "idiots". All of these groups, as he believed, should be weeded out of the gene pool for the betterment of society as whole. 

In 1913 a seperate farm colony of the training school was formed on a acre plot of land southwest of the main campus, but still within city limits. The campus was constucted using the labor of those who would go on to live on the property. The new campus was dubbed "The Menantico Colony". 

At the same time, Henry Goddard began an "intellegence testing" program at the isolation hospital on Ellis Island. The end result of the testing determined that up to 80% of the steerage-class immigrants coming to this country were "feeble minded". Surprisingly this xenophobic arrogance didn't completely discredit him, it actually seems to have led to him getting a better job.

Goddard left Vineland in 1918, one year after his Ellis Island findings were published. He went on to become the Director of the Ohio Bureau of Juvenile Research. His work was eventually largely discredited, but not before his influence made significant and long lasting changes to the landscape of psychology, and the lives of millions.

Stanley Porteus, an Australian immigrant, took over Goddard's position as Director of Research. As much as I love the fact that an immigrant took over a xenophobe's job, Porteus was quite problematic himself. He held stong beliefs about caucasion people being intellectually superior to all other races. 

Porteus served for six years before moving on himself, which brought psychologist Edgar Arnold Doll to Vineland. Doll is best known for developing the Vineland Social Maturity Scale in 1935. The scale measures social function, and is still widely used by psychologists. 

Despite the hopeful and noble purpose with which the Training School was founded, conditions and care at the facility began to decline. Federal funding towards research was being shifted away from private institutions, removing one of the pillars that had held up the school. The cottages on the campus were deteriorating, and the exterior fire escapes mandated by new building codes left the students vulnerable to unauthorized entry. 

This came to a head in 1979 when a deaf child was mutilated and murdered inside his cottage. Police completely ignored reports of a tall blonde stranger who had been seen around and even inside the cottage on several occasions. Three fellow students were blamed for the murder, two 15 year olds and an 18 year old boy. The families and several staff members objected to the charges, as they were all harmless and not physically capable of causing the injuries to the deceased boy. The boys also said they saw the previously described tall blond man inside the cottage when they came upon the body. These reports went nowhere, and as far as many people are concerned the murder was never solved. The boys who were blamed never ended up facing any formal punishment. Two of them even continued to live at the training school. 

The following year, two reporters from the local newspaper "The Record" went undercover at the instition to try and see how things really operated. Valerie James and Henry Golman exposed multiple instances of physical and sexual assault on students, as well as a prevalent cover-up culture. Multiple members of the administration ended up being arrested after the exposé, including the president of the school at the time, William Smith. James and Goldman ended up winning well deserved awards for their work. The act likely influenced Governor Richard Cody to do a similar undercover investigation at Marlboro state hospital a few years later. 

The future was uncertain for the school at this point. The state of New Jersey was about to step in and and shut the facility down when a private organization named Elwyn announced they were going to take over 

in 1981. Elwyn's main mission was to depopulate these institutions and reintegrate their students into society through group homes. One of their first major missions was to clean up the decrepit Vineland facility. They began moving students out of the aging cottages and tearing them down. By the early 1990s they began building new group homes on the campus itself, the first construction the property had seen in nearly 100 years. The remaining cottages were vacated and kept around for storage.

The now depopulated Vineland Campus was put up for sale in 2022. By this point all of the remaining cottages were boarded up and in severe disrepair. They were all demolished, in an effort to make the campus easier to market. The only historic buildings that managed to survive were the old Scarborough mansion and the "New School", which became an apartment building. As sad as it is to see the important campus bare, the facility had become outdated, and simply was not able to offer the students the level of care and comfort that they deserved. Even though the buildings are mostly gone, the story of the Vineland Training School will go on to serve as an important reminder that providing the best care means learning and evolving over time. Who knows what the next big breakthough will be? All I know is I hope I can be there to help tell the story. 

 Thanks for learning with me everybody.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Campbells Pond Pumping Station



Situated alongside Campbells Pond in the South Mountain Reservation, this old pumping station has sat empty for decades. It was built around 1895 when the park was founded. 

Famed architect Frederick Law Olmstead desighed every aspect of the park, including the pumphouse. Olmstead is best known for his contributions to the buildings and landscape of Central Park in New York City. 

The pumping stations main function was to supply drinking water to the city of Orange. It had a capacity of 2.5 million gallons per day. The station ran for a number of decades before a fire put it out of operation.

When the county acquired the property and made it a reservation, they dammed up the pond. But they left the pumping station sitting just over the old train bridge that used to carry the trains bringing coal to the building.

Numerous vandals have broken into the building over the years, and there is very little left of its past. Pieces of the old chimney are breaking off and falling down to the ground below, which prompted the county to put up a fence around the structure. 

As of 2024 the county has actually taken some serious strides to preserve the shell of the building. They filled in the basement with all the trail races and the large well in the main room, to ensure nobody would get hurt inside the ruin. They also removed what was left of the wooden roof, which by that point had been burned and thoroughly rotted. I think keeping the shell of the building around is a fanatic compromise, considering it serves no other practical purpose. Make sure to stop by and check it out next time you're in the area!

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Leonardis/Drew Funeral Home

Sometimes when I'm writing an article about a building I get overwhelmed by all the relevent information I have to comb through. Other times I have to search high and low for any little breadcrumbs the internet has to offer. This story is definitely an example of the later.

The Leonardis Memorial Home on Sanford Ave operated out of a large turn of the century home on the corner of Florence Place. The residence was largely gutted and rebuilt in the 1960s to accomidate the business, who had another location on Lafayette St.

Leonardis eventually moved out to Florham Park. The Vailsburg location was sold to the Drew Funeral Home chain, who were already well established around Essex County.

Drew Funeral Home used the facility until 2013. Unfortunately it wasn't long before the vacant building had fallen into disrepair . The property was taken over by city of Newark, and anyone who reads this blog can probably guess what happened next. The city boarded up the building and walked away. Metal thieves made quick work of the copper pipes and wires, while the occasional squatter took up residence inisde. I passed by the building man times over the years, only stopping to check it out once. 

After a decade of sitting vacant, the city finally demolished the shuttered funeral home in 2023. The land where the building sat is still vacant, but the whole block certainly does look better without the crumbling structure towering over it. Hopefully some new affordable housing will soon take its place. 

Kastner Mansion

The brewing of beer has long been ingrained in the history of Newark. The city was home to a number of breweries in the late 1800s, all of whom had wealthy owners who were trying to stand out on High Street. The Kastner mansion was once such home that stood out amongst the rest. 

The land on which the mansion was built was purchased in 1890 from the Frelinghuysen family, one of the most prolific early settlers of New Jersey. The home took two years to complete.

The home was designed by Henry Schultz for Franz Kastner, one of the city's legendary brewers. The name Henry Schulz should ring a bell to regular readers of this blog, as he designed Newarks most iconic residence, the Krueger-Scott Mansion. The homes actually shared several architectural flourishes, including the staircase ballisturs. 

In 1957 the home was purchased and used by a casket manufacturer for a short period of time. It was then sold to the Pride of Newark Elks Lodge No. 93. The Elks added a large meeting hall on the backside of the mansion, and appropriately enough they also added a bar on the first floor. Other than that they kept the interior more or less original.

Unfortunately the large home was quite expensive to maintain and had begun to fall into disrepair. Local resident Denise Colon stepped up and purchased the building from the Elks in 2007. Colon had a hopeful vision for the property, with dreams of restoring the mansion to its original glory and operating it as a community center. Such an undertaking required a massive financial investment, which Colon was up for. Unfortunately the projrct soon became unsustainable. Colon made several attempts to get a Tax Abatement to help ease the cost of the conversion. In the mean time she used the building as the headquarters of her income tax prep service.

Colon never ended up getting any help from the city. Five years and a few hundred thousand dollars later, the city ended up regaining possesion of the building. They threw up some plywood and never looked back. It wasn't long before some of the local unhoused population took up residence in the mansion.

A large fire severely damaged the building in October of 2019. The folks who were living inside the mansion when it burned ended up moving on to the nearby B'nai Jeshurun Synagague during that buildings brief period of disuse. We actually ran into them while we were documenting the synagague. The one gentleman explained to us they were using the vacant mansion as something of a boarding house. They all agreed to certain rules and made an effort to keep the digs as nice as possible. Unfortunately they ended up having to kick someone out of the squat, and that person returned later when nobody was around to burn the place down. 

After several more years sitting vacant with no roof, a second large fire tore through the building one October night in 2023. This one was far more destructive than the last fire, leaving the mansion nothing more than a shell. It was also too dangerous to leave the facade standing, so the city came in and tore down what was left of the building. 

The Kastner mansion is just one of thousands of historic, significant Newark buildings lost to neglect and arson. Hopefully this trend comes to an end soon; I shudder to think which building could be next.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Sunrise Mountain House Hotel/Hilltop Care Center

Hilltop Care Center will always hold a special place in my heart. Despite being a total dump, ir was one of the first places I ever traveled by car to visit. I grew up with both the Overbrook Hospital and Essex County Jail Annex practically in my backyard, so it took me a while to branch out. I ended up visiting the place many times over the years, but it was only recently I was able to piece together the buildings long history.


What came to be known as the Hilltop Care Center was originally built as a hotel. The Konners, said to be the first Jewish Family in Montville, bought the old Vreeland Farm and opened the the Sunrise Mountain House Hotel in the early 1900s. Business was good through the decades, so by the 1930s the Konners built a large 100 room structure complete with a ballroom and indoor pool. The new building was prominently perched on the ridge of their property. It could even be seen while traveling down Bloomfield Avenue in Caldwell. 

After the Konners sold the building the name was changed to the Pine Brook Hotel. In 1944 the structure was sold to the well known spiritual leader Father Divine. Divine was a controversial figure at the time, having been jailed in the 1930s for encouraging racial harmony with his religious views. He eventually ended up purchasing a number of iconic hotels, including the "Divine Loraine" in Philadelphia and the "Divine Riviera" in Newark. 

Father Divine passed away in 1965. Shortly afterwards the bulding was converted to nursing home. This is where the more familiar "Hilltop Care Center" name was coined. 

The care center operated without much notoriety for a few decades, but was eventually closed in 1996. The existing patients were absorbed by St. Clare's health network. The facility were described at the time as "deteriorating", so it didn't stand much of a chance of re-use. Two years after the center closed it was pitched as a location for a new, similar sized nursing home. However the would-be operators decided they wouldn't make enough money to justify the project. 

Thrill seekers eventually started venturing to the shuttered nursing home, and eventually scrappers and vandals found the place too. This came to a head on August 24th 2006 when a massive fire engulfed the building. An anonymous tip led to the arrest of three people who told investigators they intentionally set a couch on fire. All three ended up going to jail for their actions. 

I visited the place for the first time around 2009. Even though it had been torched prior I still thought it was a pretty awesome place to explore. It was probably within the first dozen sites I ever visited. At the time this article is being written, I've visited roughly 1300 unique locations in 30 states. I have such fond and nostalgic memories of my multiple visits to the center, even all these years later.

The Hilltop Care Center was demolished at the tail end of 2012, and as of 2024 the property off Hook Mountain Road is still undeveloped. I still remember the first time I drove down Bloomfield Avenue and saw the empty patch of ground on the mountain where the building once stood. 

It's kind of wild how much the historic landscape of the state, and the hobby of "Urban Exploring" have come in that time. Hopefully these photos serve the same nostalgic purpose to others who didn't get a chance to take photos of their visits.