The New Deal’s Lasting Legacy in Jersey City

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The country is in an economic crisis. The stock market is suffering the aftershocks of an unprecedented tumble, banks are closing, thousands of people are out of work and thousands of homes across the country are being foreclosed on. To generate jobs and try to get people back on their feet, the President of the United States is developing plans to increase faith in the economy and the country.

While this is the stuff of daily headlines today, we could just as easily be talking about the headlines of nearly 80 years ago.

Many commentators have referred to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — aka the federal stimulus package — as President Barack Obama’s “New New Deal.” With a New New Deal in the works, it’s time for a look back at the first New Deal and how it affected Jersey City.

As part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created by a presidential order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and funded by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. Over the course of eight years, the WPA created nearly 8 million jobs and resulted in new buildings, roads and infrastructure, and creative projects in the arts, drama and literacy.

The WPA left its mark on Jersey City, and several — but not all — of the initiative’s projects remain standing today.

Hague, FDR and WPA Dollars

Any discussion of the WPA and Jersey City must include former Mayor Frank Hague and his connection to Roosevelt. Hague’s ability to deliver the New Jersey vote to Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election was paid back with interest. “As long as the favors poured in Hague would use his machine to support Roosevelt, and as long as Roosevelt needed Hague the favors would be forthcoming,” Lyle W. Dorsett wrote in his contribution to the 1994 book A New Jersey Anthology.

Hague and his crew controlled all federal patronage in the state, from federal appointments to funding. Harry Hopkins, a former social worker, gave Hague control of more than 18,000 Civil Works Administration jobs in 1934. Hopkins then appointed William Ely, a Hague supporter, to be the state’s first WPA director.

And Hague made sure the city he called home was taken care of with WPA funds. According to Dorsett, Hudson County received more than $17 million in WPA funding between 1933 and 1938, with much of it coming to Jersey City. By 1939, that figure had reached $50 million.

Jersey City employees of New Deal programs complained about rampant political coercion — they were forced to vote for the Hague machine’s candidates and “tithe” three percent of their salaries to the political organization at election time. But Hopkins ignored this evidence and continued to find jobs for Hague’s friends.

Jersey City Medical Center

The Jersey City Medical Center was one of Hague’s pet projects. The complex was constructed in the elegant and modern Art Deco style that characterizes other WPA projects in Jersey City. Built into the Palisade Cliffs off Montgomery Street, the stepped forms of the 10 brick and terra cotta buildings ranged in height from 15 to 23 stories high. The complex had a total of 99 floors with 2000 beds. Hague invited Roosevelt to lay the cornerstone for the facility in 1936, and construction was completed in 1941.

According to Ulana Zakalak of Zakalak Associates, a Jersey City-based historical preservation consulting firm overseeing the restoration of the site, Hague wanted a top-notch medical center, particularly a maternity hospital, because he grew up in a large family and feared for his mother’s life every time she delivered a baby. Mothers delivering at the Margaret Hague center, named after the mayor’s mother, would be treated to a luxurious two-week hospital experience. It was the largest maternity hospital in the country at the time, and most locals would commonly refer to the entire medical center as “The Hague” or identify themselves as “Hague babies.”

The Medical Center left the site in 2004 to move to 355 Grand St., and the complex is currently being restored and converted into luxury condominium buildings known as The Beacon. The new site embraces the original Art Deco design of the site, and all of the buildings will be renamed after famous Art Deco theaters.

Because the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, special care was taken during the restoration process to bring the buildings back to their original brilliance.  Preservation easements were needed to do the necessary work, and nearly everything from the terrazzo floors to the ceilings was meticulously restored.

The original lobby for the hospital is now a billiards room for Beacon residents. The room is notable for a WPA-commissioned bas-relief mural carved in Tennessee marble titled “From Myth to Medicine.” The piece, which has been appraised at more than $1 million and flows around the entire room near the ceiling, stands out among WPA art because, unlike most works, it was signed. Zakalak says that the tiny signature of Allen George Newman was recently found in the swirl of a cloud.

Roosevelt Stadium

Built on a landfill at Droyers Point on Newark Bay, Roosevelt Stadium employed more than 2,400 workers during its construction. The stadium, which was built between 1935 and 1937 at a cost of $1.5 million, had a seating capacity of 23,000, but temporary seats for special events often expanded the capacity to 100,000.

“In its heyday, the stadium was the scene of epic baseball games between the Jersey City Giants and the Newark Bears, contests that a sportswriter who was there called ‘better than those played in the major leagues,’” Dan Weissman wrote in the Star-Ledger in 1984. “And, of course, there were the fights and college football.”

In addition to the boxing matches and minor league baseball and college football games, the stadium was also host to music concerts and recreational events. But it is perhaps best known as the site where Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier while playing in the minor leagues on Aug. 18, 1946, in a game between the Montreal Royals, a farm team of the New York Dodgers, and the Jersey City Giants. Robinson would repeat the feat in the major leagues the next year.

Roosevelt Stadium was designed in the Art Deco style by Christian H. Ziegler, reportedly Frank Hague’s favorite architect, who had also worked on the Jersey City Medical Center. The bowl-shaped stadium was two-stories high at the grandstand, with the bleacher and outfield areas surrounded by a low concrete wall. Terrazzo flooring ran through most of the facility. There were 20 entrances to the stadium, with the main entrance facing Newark Bay.

Renovations were made to the stadium in 1970, but a 30-foot light tower fell off the roof in 1978, weakening the integrity of the stadium’s exterior walls and light towers. By the 1980s, the field was beyond run-down.

“It was keeping us $300,000 a year to heat it, vandals had wrecked it, and it just got to the point where the direction we had to take was to build new housing facilities,” then-Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann told Weissman in 1984.

Upon its demolition in 1985, one of Roosevelt Stadium’s seats was donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and another one was sent to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The townhomes and condos of Society Hill now sit where the stadium once did.

A. Harry Moore School


One of the first public schools in the country built for students with disabilities, the A. Harry Moore School was named for the Hague ally and Jersey City native who is the only New Jersey governor to ever serve three terms. Construction on the school began in 1930, the cornerstone was laid on May 5, 1931, and students began attending that September.

The school was designed by Jersey City native John T. Rowland, who was also the general architect for the Jersey City Medical Center. Located at 2078 Kennedy Blvd., it is yet another example of the Art Deco style popular at the time, with white pressed bricks covering four- and five-story structures. The addition — with a natatorium, treatment rooms and solarium — was built in 1939 with WPA funds obtained by Moore during his time as a U.S. Senator.

An Egyptian influence can be seen in the design on the top story windows along the façade. Terra cotta panels with geometric patterns, classic elements of Art Deco design, are below the windows. Brick covers the ground entrance, and iron fencing with brick piers surround the school building.

The A. Harry Moore School was part of the Jersey City Public School System until 1963. The city later leased the school to Jersey City State College, and now approximately 190 students attend the school, which is affiliated with New Jersey City University’s special education program.

The 2009 Stimulus and Jersey City

While it remains to be seen exactly how the federal stimulus package will impact Jersey City, we’re starting to see some details. The city has already been told it will receive $7.8 million for the Housing Authority, close to $2.7 million for homelessness prevention via Emergency Shelter Grants and $1.7 million from Community Development Block Grant funds, according to spokesperson Jennifer Morrill. She says the city is awaiting instructions on how the block grant money can be used. She says Jersey City has also been told it will receive $4.5 million for street repaving and a $1.83 million grant from the Justice Department to fight crime.

While all of these projects will clearly help the city, it also seems like there won’t be the sort of grand-scale new construction that flowed from the New Deal in the 1930s. Even with stimulus money expected to help with construction costs of a new West District police station, it is unlikely we’ll see a new project on the scale of the Jersey City Medical Center, Roosevelt Stadium or the A. Harry Moore School.

Much of this research was helped by NCJU’s Jersey City Past and Present project and the Jersey City Free Public Library. Thanks.

PHOTOS OF THE JERSEY CITY MEDICAL CENTER RENOVATION:

a writer and editor who has covered Hudson County for the last seven years. She has been a reporter and editor for the Jersey Journal, editor of The Observer in Kearny and news editor at Music.com. She has also worked in public relations for two New Jersey state agencies.