NY Times July 17, 1981



A place that people think less of going to than of leaving. It is a city with houses of aluminum siding and asbestos shingles, where the streets have diners and corner taverns with neon signs and where the major presences on the skyline are the Beaux-Arts domes and towers of the county courthouse and the city hall because this city was never prosperous enough to clutter itself up with glass skyscrapers. Paterson has not changed much since the early 1950's, except for the ripping down of a few downtown buildings in the expectation of an urban renewal that never came; if the city looks in any way different from 30 years ago, it is that its center seems just a little bit older and a little bit more tired.

But there is one part of Paterson that has changed dramatically, and that is the city's industrial district, centered around the Great Falls of the Passaic River. Paradoxically, there, in a complex of factories and industrial buildings that a traveler would expect to be the city's grungiest quarter, Paterson is at its most promising. And it is definitely worth going to.

Paterson occupies a crucial role in the history of American industrial development -there, around the Great Falls, Alexander Hamilton organized the Society for Useful Manufactures in 1791 in the hope of building a group of American factories that would compete for the first time with the industrial centers of Europe. Hamilton's corporation, a sort of forerunner of the quasipublic development corporations and authorities of today, led to the construction of an immense manufacturing city, with cotton mills, locomotive factories and silk mills. By 1900 Paterson was the 15th largest city in the United States.

Today, there is little manufacturing going on in Paterson: the decline of most northern industrial cities has hit as hard there as anywhere. But what is happening instead is that the city, in cooperation with Federal and state authorities, is restoring the abandoned factory buildings around the Great Falls and turning them to other uses. More unusual still, the entire industrial complex, including the hydroelectric plant beside the falls and the system of ''raceways,'' or canals for Metropolitan Baedeker transfering water power from the falls to the factory buildings, is being restored as a vast, outdoor museum of technology.

The Great Falls Historic District, as the area is now called, bills itself as the ''cradle of American industry.'' What it is, right now, is an enticing 119-acre mix of natural sights, restored factory buildings and old mill and factory buildings awaiting restoration. The finished sections right now are few - but the unrestored buildings, in combination with the falls, make for a remarkable sight nonetheless.

The showpiece of the Paterson renewal thus far is a vast factory that was the erecting shop of the Rogers locomotive works, a reminder of Paterson's status in the 19th century as the country's leading manufacturer of locomotives. The Rogers building is owned by the city, which purchased it in derelict condition for $1 and restored it for $2 million; it has a museum of the city's history and technology on its ground floor and office space, available for lease, on its upper floors. Across the street, the old Union Mill has been privately restored as a private elementary school, and other factory buildings are slated to become housing and studios for artists. Under the aegis of ''industrial archeologists'' as well as architects, restoration work is also going on or planned for other industrial structures, such as a wheelhouse that once powered a paper mill.

The point of the Paterson project, however, is not solely to create a museum - this is to be no Colonial Williamsburg of industrial development. Neither does it appear likely that it will turn into one of those cute, precious quarters of bars and boutiques and gas lamps that so many cities have seen as the proper destiny for their 19th-century structures. Rather, the shapers of Paterson's historic district, who include Mayor Lawrence Kramer and his wife, Mary Ellen, see the city's remarkable collection of 19th-century industrial architecture as an attraction that will bring not just tourists, but businesses and permanent residents.

These buildings are seen, in effect, as a catalyst for a broader and deeper kind of development than mere tourism. Thus, for example, the plan to turn some of these abandoned mill buildings over to the use of artists is intended to broaden the base of the city's population and stabilize the area by giving it a cadre of permanent residents.

The Rogers Works

The Rogers building, at the corner of Spruce and Market Streets in the middle of the historic district, is a good place to begin a visit. It is a great, sprawling pile of a reddish-brick building, simple and direct in its architecture in the way that the greatest of 19th-century mills and factories were: they were potent and nononsense structures, relatively free of the ornament that filled the facades of so much architecture of their time, but eloquent in their stretched-out clerestory windows and with arches so powerful that they are really celebrations of brick. The Rogers building does not feel like a heavy mass - its facades are thin, almost tensile, with its windows, looking as if they could have been punched through, making graceful rhythms.

The building, which was completed in 1871, was the final stop along a locomotive assembly process that stretched through two and a half blocks. Here, the pieces of the locomotive came together to create a finished product, one of which was completed every other day, making the Rogers works at their heydey in the 1870's the busiest locomotive manufacturer in the United States. Each completed locomotive would be wheeled out through a set of double doors, and the building could accommodate a dozen at once; hence the 12 sets of doors that make up its Spruce Street front.

The Rogers building was respectfully restored by the architect David Bilow, who shifted the entrance to the parking lot on the far side of the building, inserted an elevator for office tenants on the upper floors and designed other modifications, all of which are properly discreet. The actual restoration work was done by Gordon Ash, who assembled a crew of craftsmen who remade all 12 wooden doors, rebuilt windows and redid brickwork throughout the structure to high levels of quality.

The main floor, which is open free to the public Saturdays and Sunday from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M., contains, in addition to a brief exhibition tracing Paterson's history, memorabilia from the city's industrial past. There is a submarine made in Paterson in 1878 by John Holland, and there are also two real 19th-century locomotives sitting out in front of the building. But perhaps the greatest value of the Rogers building is the chance it offers for a close-hand look at what these old mill and factory buildings can be turned into architecturally. The great, sprawling ground floor, which must have been oppressively loud and harsh in the days when it functioned as a factory, today seems like grand and monumental space.

Just across Market Street is the Union Works, a fairly similar building erected in 1890 as a locomotive manufacturing mill and turned into a ribbon factory in 1916. Its facade is now owned by the city, which is restoring it; the interior is the property of the Evangelical Committee for Urban Ministries in Paterson, which uses it to house its private elementary school.

Spruce Street Spruce Street has the Rogers Building and the Union Works on one side and a fine array of mills on the other; as a totality it provides a remarkable picture of a 19th-century industrial street, almost intact. Indeed, only the Falls View Grill, which offers Paterson's local gourmet specialty, the hot dog drenched in chili sauce, breaks the 19th-century vista.

The buildings across from the Rogers erecting shop were mostly other parts of the Rogers plant: the locomotive frame-fitting shop of 1881 and the millwright shop of 1879, as well as two non-Rogers complexes, the Barbour Linen and Flax Mill of 1879 and the Dolphin Jute Mill complex of 1844-80. Perhaps the finest building architecturally in the row is the old Rogers administration building, which now has the words ''Paterson Silk Machinery Exchange'' painted across its facade, a reminder of a later tenant; this is of red brick, but richer and deeper than the erecting shop, with windows set deeply into a strong, solid facade -here, architecture clearly symbolizes the difference in status between the headquarters and the working structures.

Spruce Street rises as it moves away from this cluster of mill and factory buildings, heading toward the Great Falls a moment's walk away. En route is the Ivanhoe Papermill Wheelhouse, built in 1865, which has particularly eloquent stone and brickwork and is undergoing restoration under the supervision of Gordon Ash. The wheelhouse is a good place from which to get a glimpse of the raceways, those man-made streams that brought water from the falls to the factories; the system was conceived initially by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the urban planner who laid out Washington, though his version proved too expensive to execute. A simpler raceway system was constructed between 1793 and 1846, of which this, the Upper Raceway, is a part.

Right now the Upper Raceway has been dammed up to permit restoration of the stone walls, and it is dry and full of weeds. It looks more like a ruin than a stream. But the heavy, well-crafted stone walls can be examined more closely than when water runs through them.

The Great Falls At the intersection of Spruce Street and the McBride Avenue extension (at the top of the Spruce Street Hill) there is the sort of juxtaposition that runs through this district - an abandoned gasoline station on one corner and the overlook to the Great Falls on the other. The 77-foot-high falls themselves are not Niagara, but they are a natural wonder of sorts, and it is not difficult to see how Alexander Hamilton, looking at them in what was a relatively unsettled part of New Jersey, could envision them as the catalyst to the industrial development of the United States.

There is a small, paved overlook, known officially as Haines Overlook Park, as well as an automobile parking area right off McBride Avenue. Beside the park is a small, banal brick building, from 1934, which served for years as the administration building of the Society for Useful Manufactures and now functions as special events office for the Great Falls Historic District. Nearby, a little bit to the left on McBride Avenue, is another old S.U.M. building now used as a tour center for the district. Tours of an hour and a half to two hours are given at 11:30 A.M. and 2:30 P.M. on weekends. They are free, but donations are appreciated. At other times, tours are available by appointment - telephone the tour office at (201) 881-3896.

The hydroelectric power plant, completed in 1914, sits down below the road at the bottom of the falls; it is best seen from the falls overlook. But those who wish to walk down two flights of steps to the water's edge can view it more closely; there is a great, cathedrallike space within, containing four immense penstocks, or water intakes, and four turbines. It is strange to see it all so silent, this place that until as recently as 1967, when the plant stopped functioning, was filled with deafening noise. Now it broods, awaiting restoration - and is still as potent a reminder of the great power and strength of industrial architecture as one could ask for.

Mill Street Next, take McBride Avenue in the direction away from the tour center, past mills that sit awaiting restoration. At the corner of Mill Street is the Franklin Mill, dating from 1870, which is to be converted into artists' studio space; beside it on Mill Street is the Essex Mill, a complex that has sections dating back as far as 1807. The Essex is to be converted into 83 units of housing for artists.

Mill Street has been used by Paterson's city planners as a test case for a program of street improvements to bring more physical unity to the historic district. There are new slate sidewalks and handsome street lamps painted in deep blue-gray and reddish gray. The design is excellent, and it seems to sum up the special quality of the Paterson district. There are no cute devices like gas lamps - the mood is direct and entirely consistent with the architectural traditions of the district.

And there is never perfect unity -the real city of Paterson always intervenes. In the midst of this fine row of mills, just as Mill Street turns the corner into Van Houten Street, is the Allied Textile Processing concern, still a working factory; it will, of course, remain. (Part of this complex has some ornate classical pediments in brick, surprisingly elaborate for mill architecture.) Across the street from the Phoenix Mill on Van Houten Avenue - an important area built between 1815 and 1870 that will be converted into housing - is the Question Mark Bar, a working-class tavern that has its own important role in Paterson's history. In the early years of this century, when the bar was known as the Nag's Head, Paterson's radical mill workers made it their headquarters, and the bar was the spiritual center of Paterson's great silk strike of 1913.

But the visitor comes back, again, to the remarkable mill and factory architecture, for it is the real gem of this city. Mill Street at this point, like Spruce Street, comes together to form a surprisingly cohesive urban composition. Here, the rich brick facades of the mills and the crisp forms of the smokestacks play off against one another, with the cliffs of the Great Falls providing a serene background. It is a place in which it is almost easy to romanticize these buildings and to forget that they were, for all their architectural splendor, far from wonderful places in which to work. But they remain a positive and, on the whole, proud part of our history. And in any case they create a civilizing urban environment - a cityscape the likes of which we will not make again in our time. 

Getting There

To reach the Great Falls Historic District by car from New York City take the George Washington Bridge and Route 80 westbound to Exit 57, Downtown Paterson. Turn left at bottom of ramp two blocks to Grand Street, then left on Grand four blocks to Spruce Street. Turn right on Spruce to the Rogers building at the corner of Market Street. For convenient parking, turn right again on Market to a lot beside the Rogers building, or continue up Spruce to the lot at McBride Avenue overlook.

Manhattan Bus Line's intercity bus No. 30 goes to Paterson's City Hall from the Port Authority Terminal. The historic district is a three-block walk west from there, or take the No. 128 bus.