These City Hall buildings hold an important place in New Jersey history

New Jersey has a significant role in the nation’s history that can be told through the architecture of its municipal buildings. These five town halls – in styles ranging from neoclassicism to art deco – made a statement about the importance of our state when they were built.

Paterson City Hall
Paterson City Hall. Photo by Gianfranco Archimede.

Paterson City Hall

Photographs of the Great Fire of 1902 show City Hall’s spire still standing tall amid the slagging ruins of inner cities. It’s fortunate to have survived, as it has set the standard of beauty for other municipal buildings in the state, Gianfranco Archimede, director of historic preservation, told Jersey Digs.

The city had considerable wealth from the silk industry and the city center was rebuilt over the next decade when Beaux-Arts was all the rage. Centered on City Hall, the historic district is now known as the finest collection of Beaux Arts commercial buildings in New Jersey.

“The fact that we had the fire at the time we did it is significant,” Archimede said. The building was designed by Carrére & Hastings as a miniature version of the City Hall in Lyon, France. The homage is fitting as one of the city’s nicknames is ‘Lyon of America’ due to the silk trade. Today, Lyon is Paterson’s official sister city. In 2008 the building was restored, preserving the copper dome and clock.

Newark City Hall. Photo by Nathan Racansky.

Newark City Hall

Completed in 1906, this building was designed by two local architects who prevailed over nearly 60 competitors. John and Wilson Ely felt that the state’s largest city deserved a municipal building worthy of the honor. The father-son team designed a four-story granite and columned building at 920 Broad Street that is arguably the state’s finest example of Beaux Arts architecture.

The project spared no expense. The interior is bathed in marble and the polished double staircase leads to a mezzanine on the second floor. The lavish council chambers, often referred to as the “Palace of the People,” are fit for a king.

Two of the building’s most recognizable features were not part of the original design. The iconic gold letters spelling out City Hall were added in 1951 and served as a backdrop for historical events such as President Kennedy’s visit days before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The 24-karat gold dome was a gift from developer Harry Grant, who was trying to woo the city to build a 141-story skyscraper that never materialized.

The New Jersey Historic recently awarded a $750,000 grant to restore Tiffany’s stained glass laylights.

Perth Amboy City Hall
Perth Amboy City Hall. Courtesy of the Office of the Mayor of Perth Amboy.

Perth Amboy City Hall

Perth Amboy was the first capital of New Jersey. The surviving City Hall briefly served as the state capitol until it was moved to Trenton after the Revolutionary War. (The Royal Governor’s mansion also still exists at 149 Kearny Avenue, where William Franklin, Ben Franklin’s son, lived as governor under British rule.)

The original building has been swallowed up in alterations, including a Second Empire-style tower and a mansard roof. It claims to be the oldest city hall building in the nation, but there seems to be some debate as to that. Nonetheless, the building, which is listed on the National Register, tells the story of the state’s colonial history, making it one of the most important municipal buildings in the state.

Last year Perth Amboy confirmed its role in the Middle Passage with a marker indicating where African slaves were traded. The city would also play an important role in their liberation. In 1870, Thomas Mundy Peterson became the first African American to cast a vote for the newly ratified 15th Amendment. “The City of Perth Amboy had come full circle, that is, from a haven of slavery to a haven of freedom,” said John Dyke, city historian, at last year’s June 16 celebration.

Trenton City Hall
Trenton City Hall. Courtesy of the City of Trenton.

Trenton City Hall

The New Jersey capital has a number of palatial state buildings within its borders. Perhaps that is why the architecture of the municipal building, with its three-sided marble facade, massive columns and second-floor gallery, was built to stand between them.

It was designed in 1906 by Philadelphia-based architect Spencer Roberts, who also designed the city’s public library, and cost $1 million to build, making it, along with Newark City Hall, one of the most expensive city buildings ever built were built in the state. The New Jersey Historic Trust awarded $750,000 to restore the building’s exterior last year.

Camden Town Hall
Camden Town Hall. Courtesy of the Carol M. Highsmith Archives, Library of Congress.

Camden Town Hall

The 18-story tower atop Camden City Hall is both the city’s tallest building and the state’s tallest municipal building. It is a statement of the city’s importance in 1932 when it was completed.

Interestingly, Byron Edwards, one of the architects – the other being Alfred Green – was a descendant of one of the original 18th century Danish settlers in Bridgeton, NJ.

Last year, artist Donna Backues unveiled her interactive mural in the building’s hallway. The image weaves together chapters of the city’s history, including the boom years during the First World War when Camden Dockyard became the largest in the world.

East Orange City Hall
East Orange City Hall. Photo by Darren Tobia.

East Orange City Hall

Built in 1929, the East Orange Municipal Building was designed by the same architects as Newark City Hall. Colonial Revival architecture was the standard style chosen for urban buildings during this decade (compare nearby town halls in Verona, Maplewood, West Orange). But this has to be the best example in the state.

The limestone facade contrasts with its brick counterparts, and the carefully landscaped plaza with Frank Edwin Elwell’s statue of Abraham Lincoln heralds the suburbanization of the state and the early 20th-century prosperity of this community.

In 2020, Mayor Ted Green announced a plan to redevelop the area around City Hall. The neighborhood is home to a number of neoclassical buildings and a Victorian railway station, which is listed on the National Register and has direct links to the city centre.

New Jersey is often snubbed as a cultureless expanse between two great metropolises. But it has played a pivotal role in the nation’s history from the Revolutionary War to today, as home to one of the busiest ports in the world. Its importance is enshrined in the architecture of our country.