Famous Newark monument stands tall - again

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on December 23, 2016

One of Newark's most famous monuments, which seemingly disappeared more than 10 years ago, has been returned to its rightful place -- facing the Passaic River.

The next time you're at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, walk toward the grassy area and the trees that are close to McCarter Highway.

You won't be able to miss "The First Landing Party of the Founders of Newark,'' one of four city sculptures created by Gutzon Borglum, an artist known for his work at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

But the tribute to Newark's founders didn't simply pop up again. This is the incredulous story of how it became part of the yearlong celebration of Newark's 350th anniversary.

Ready?

The sculpture had been gone from Newark's public art scene for many years when I wrote about it in this column two years ago. It was in bad shape.

Remember that?

Liz Del Tufo, president of the Newark Preservation and Landmark Committee, does.

During an unveiling ceremony of the restored monument at NJPAC on Monday, she took a few moments to explain that she had been surprised to learn from me in 2014 that the artwork was not in Lombardy Park on McCarter Highway.

The 9-foot-tall monument, which weighs 13,000 pounds, was lying on its back underneath a tattered blue tarp in a city lot at the city's Division of Traffic and Signals. Without further inspection, you'd think it was discarded junk.

The marble base was detached. The wooden pallet that held the monument was in standing water between a trash bin and a gaggle of inoperable traffic lights.

Not exactly what Newark's stakeholders had in mind when they gave it to the city in 1916 to celebrate its 250th anniversary.

After reading my story, Del Tufo and Richard Grossklaus, a member of the Newark Landmark and Historic Preservation Commission, began a campaign to resurrect the piece.

"How could we ever have misused that trust the way we did?'' Del Tufo asked.

Neither the city of Newark, nor its preservation community could explain how this artwork, which is listed on state and national historical registers, was abandoned.

The monument was originally in Landing Place Park on Saybrook Place, a street near McCarter Highway. It remained there until NJPAC was built in the 1990s. Sometime during those years, the landmark was moved two blocks away to Lombardy Park on McCarter Highway -- until construction began on the NJ Transit Light Rail in 2002.

Then, the monument was on the go again. According to the city of Newark, a construction crew moved it from Lombardy Park to the traffic and signals division out of necessity. The city, however, never explained what that meant.

And that brings me to John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union. He's a history buff, who wanted to know what happened to the monument that he would see while driving to work along McCarter Highway.

He tracked down the piece in the winter of 2013, then told me about it in March 2014 and the rest is -- well, history.

With $60,00 in funds raised by Newark's 350th Anniversary Committee, Del Tufo's group was able to have the sculpture brought back to its historical grandeur.

"I tried to recreate what was originally there,'' said Andre Iwancyk, an artist from Somerset, who was commissioned to do the work. "I only tried to imagine what was his (Borglum's) intentions, what he wanted to achieve, what he wanted to show.''

Borglum had sculpted the monument in bas-relief, a technique in which design elements and figures are barely prominent. There are several small images representing the founders along the top of the monument. Two Puritans are carved into the center, facing each other. At the bottom is a fountain basin. The founders' names are listed on the back of the monument.

Reclaiming this piece is a good artistic look for the city and the Newark350 Committee is glad that Del Tufo was persistent about conveying its importance.

"She (Del Tufo) cares so much about the city and its public art,'' said Irene Cooper-Basch, who served as fundraiser chairwoman for Newark350. "We listened to her and we should have listened to her.''

Now that it's not hard to find, the monument is also not far from Borglum's three other works in the city.

You can walk to The "Indian and the Puritan'' in Washington Park; the "Wars of America" in Military Park; and the "Seated Lincoln,''  which is in front of the Essex County Courthouse.

Much like the others, the founders' monument is now in a prominent and appropriate location. It's close to where the founders came ashore in 1666.

"I'm happy to see that it's back where it belongs -- overlooking the Passaic River, honoring the founders,'' Abeigon said. "It's in a more public area, where people can see it.''

That's probably what the 250th anniversary committee wanted, too.

"The people of 1916 expected that their gift to the city would last forever,'' Del Tufo said.

The people of 2016 just made sure it does.

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