Frank GG: Consider Montclair’s Past When Planning for the Future

Below is a statement from a 1909 development study, the Nolen Report, that resulted in today’s existing characteristics of Montclair Center. The study was attempting to develop a town center for what was then the second richest community in the United States. (Note that the width of South Park Street was due to the requirements of parallel parking for limousines!). The new projects currently on the township’s table ignore Montclair’s valuable past and the unique characteristics that make Montclair someplace and not just anyplace. Nolen’s 1909 statement is even more significant today, since we are about to lose all of what made Montclair one of the finest places to live, and what could be preserved to be one of the most important destinations of cultural tourism in the New York area. The images at bottom are from the Nolan Report, the Donato Digeronomo Collection and the Montclair Times 1922 Houses Collection.

The Nolen Report statement:

The Montclair of today has already, largely through thoughtlessness, created innumerable scars, blots upon the fair, natural face of the country, and, except in the beauty of private places, it has added little to atone for its destruction. The continuation of the present policy would be fatal. The Montclair of tomorrow should witness the preservation and, in some cases, the restoration of the natural attractiveness of the place, and should provide in many ways a new and more appropriate type of town development, one that will be worth more than its cost and add immeasurably to the daily satisfaction of everybody living in Montclair. The banding of the townspeople together to achieve these results will do even more-it will nourish a better town spirit. (John Nolen, March 6, 1909)

The Nolen Report prepared for the Municipal Arts Council of Montclair in 1909 was an urban planning survey that would have been used to provide an appropriate type of town development. Mr. Nolen’s examples suggest a rural English countryside hamlet look for buildings and a Town Commons, using the site of the old cemetery (now the Siena Building site). Since Victorian and Shingle Style architecture was going out of style, several houses and buildings had Tudor makeovers: 80 South Mountain, 121 South Mountain,14 Undercliff and the Marlboro Inn are examples of Tudor makeovers. I would think that from the 1910s to the late 1930s several local builders were engaged to satisfy this demand.

What we have at Montclair Center at present as an existing built condition is a combination of various buildings that came to be one by one prior to 1910 and then afterwards new additions that follow the Nolen Plan’s recommendations.

The Nolen Plan, however, is the strongest design concept in Montclair’s planning history that led to the general built landscape that characterizes the town today. The Nolen Plan concept and the natural landscape are what make Montclair valuable and unique. It was created to correctly develop a town that was then the second wealthiest community pro capita in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. I would strongly urge the Township to evaluate and respect the guidelines of the Nolen Plan in any further development of Montclair Center because it is an extremely valuable study whose implementation set the tone for Montclair’s unique and valuable built landscape.

Recycling the Nolen Plan into the present and respecting its guidelines as much as possible would insure maintaining Montclair’s important historical characteristics, thus reinforcing local property values.

Click here to sign up for Baristanet's free daily emails and news alerts.


  1. Thank you. We do need planning and governing bodies who’s planning horizon isn’t measured in days. And it’s about time we made our town attractive to premiere developers – not the bottom feeders we’re currently attracting. The key words here are vision and leadership – certainly not what we currently in place.

  2. I’d bet my last property tax check that back in the day taxes were a fraction of what they are now in inflation adjusted dollars, and businesses were less regulated and more lucrative.

    We have mostly ourselves, our bloated local government and regulations to blame for “pump and dump” being the only lucrative development option.

  3. “Pretty” doesn’t matter anymore. It’s “How many units can I cram onto x-number of acreage?” Or “How many fannies can we scrunch into these seats?” I wish these developers shared your vision and your sense of aesthetics, Frank GG.

  4. That is a great little slide show, but I can’t help but wonder where all of the people are?

    Was it shot at 6AM on a Sunday morning?

  5. Yes, ROC, those were the days, eh? 1910–when men were men!

    Back when 30% of the population of this country lived in poverty (as compared to 13% today), and the national life expectancy was 50 years (it’s 78 now), and when the U.S. GDP per capita was somewhere in the $5,000 to $7,000 range (it’s $38,000 now—all $$ figures in inflation-adjusted 2003 dollars).

    And, incidentally, when the top 1% controlled 40% of the nation’s wealth (which, as I’m sure you know, is exactly where we are today, having risen from 20% in the 1950s).

    There are definitely some things that are bloated, that’s true. Namely, the wallets and inflated sense of superiority and entitlement of the people who sit at the top of the economic food-chain.

  6. in 1910, cro, the entire world contained fewer than 2 billion people. There were only six people in Montclair, 352 in all of New Jersey. People had so much space, you had to take a trolley to get from your bedroom to the w.c.

  7. I can see why RPM wants to bring back the Trolley. It’s quite charming. The big old limos too.

  8. willjames, you forgot to mention the best parts of 1910

    Women could not vote
    Blacks could not vote
    Blacks had their own water fountains
    Blacks had their own seats way in the back of the bus
    Jews and Italians were basically the despised immigrants that Latinos are today.
    Your 15 year old son will probably die in the trenches in Europe in a few years from some horrific wound or disease.
    The air back home was thick with soot from coal furnaces.

    But the low taxes? Awesome, dude !
    Good looking buildings, too.

  9. Strangely, for all the understandable concern about planning and growth above, I see no mention of Montclair State’s own rather over-reaching expansion plans, which the Record recently covered in depth. And yet the campus is a key part of the town surrounding it (for the most part, that is).

  10. Pat,
    Actually, I don’t think the emissions from their new $90MM power plant now under construction are going to adhere to municipal boundaries.

  11. Spiro and willjames, you forgot to mention the best parts of 1910 in Montclair

    Women could not vote
    Lucy Stone lived North Mountain Avenue…..
    …and often had visits from abolitionist Julia Howe who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic…

    Blacks could not vote
    in Montclair there was the Black operated Washington Street YMCA where important historic civil rights figures often lectured and mentored. It was the second Black operated YMCA in the US….

    Blacks had their own water fountains
    …and in Montclair, Blacks owned important properties and businesses since the early 1800s. Adjacent to Lucy Stone’s property, James Howe, a manumitted slave, owned a 5 acre property inherited from General Crane in 1831.
    Meanwhile, about a mile away, Henry Howe, who descended from James Howe, a Scottsman who immigrated to Connecticut in the 1600s was one of the founding Landowners of Llewellyn Park….
    … the Howes were Farm Real Estate developers… the Edison Factory worker’s neighborhood next to the south end of Montclair was a Howe owned Poultry farm. What remains is of this tract is Howe Street in Montclair.

    Blacks had their own seats way in the back of the bus
    …and in Montclair, Blacks owned important properties, like the celebrity minister, Sweet Daddy Grace who owned the Gates Mansion on South Mountain Avenue…

    …as well as other Black owned estate properties in town, The deeds show that the properties were brought and sold for a dollar and then there are signatures of sheriffs, other important landowners and banks.

    Jews , Italians and Latinos owned estate properties,….as long as they had LOADS of money.

  12. Cathar, I haven’t been following the development issues at Montclair State but I think that style wise, they are building excellent new buildings and I would love to see some of those beautiful Neo Mediterranean buildings in Montclair Center. They would compliment the atmosphere of the Hinck building. Some brick Georgian inspired buildings like the Wellmont and and the YMCA would be great as well. Today’s technology is reinforced concrete structures with a technological glass skin. I would prefer to see good modern buildings mixed in to a maintained vintage atmosphere rather than the proposed big volumes covered in fake brick paneled facades. With the he proposed re development Montclair Center would loose all of the valuable characteristics that have made it valuable and desirable and Montclair would just look like any other re developed center anyplace.

  13. More information:
    The New Jersey School of Conservation (NJSOC), Montclair State University’s environmental education and field research campus, has been awarded a $2.65 million grant by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (NJBPU) as part of a competitive grant program for innovative energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at state facilities. The grant will allow the installation of a 300,000-watt solar farm that will meet all of the School’s electricity needs as well as generate excess power for use by local utilities.

    The solar farm, which is expected to be operational in late 2011, will be comprised of 1,400 200-watt modules on a half-acre tract site within the NJSOC. The solar arrays will feed into a bank of 24 Solectric inverters that will convert the DC electricity into AC electricity and feed into the facility’s main circuit breaker panels.

    In addition to energy cost savings, the U.S. EPA estimates the facility’s clean electricity solar system will reduce atmospheric emissions of 3,938 tons of CO2, 22,859 tons of NOx, and 14,730 pounds of SO2 over a 30-year period.

  14. Pat,
    Your reference to the solar farm is for a MSU facility in Northwestern NJ. Not sure what you are trying to indicate.
    I felt it was incidental, but the current MSU cogeneration plant is within Montclair. It produces 4.3 megawatts annually. I don’t know what the new plant can produce, but there is a new 2,000 student dorm coming on line in Sept. I assume they are building it because the old one was terribly inefficient gas/diesel type and there was a need for more capacity.

  15. Cathar raised an excellent point and the MSU expansion bears closer scrutiny. It is a key element in our still unpublished Master Plan that languishes in draft form. Town & Gown is an issue that has been ignored by the candidates and could be a key point of distinction specifically for the First Ward candidates.
    I always though one of the Mayor’s best initiatives was the Tri-Town Commission. Unfortunately, like the CFC, it got politicized to the point of being untenable. This could be a starting point for a candidate discussion.

  16. Look at all of that great parking on S Park St.
    To create an island up the middle of the street and lose that parking is almost the worst thing you could do to a business in the area.

    I would rather see the bottom of Church St. closed to traffic and let businesses use the street for seating and selling. It might even be a great place for the Farmer’s Market. There would certainly be more foot traffic.

  17. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could combine the best of 1910 with the best of 2012? Now THERE’S a thought. One of the best things about 1910 (besides the great architecture) was that there was no income tax! You earned it, you kept it.

  18. Dear Frankgg and the others:

    There was a meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission this past week. Several members of the Community, including Martin Schwartz who has always had important input, were at the meeting ’till 1 in the morning giving their ideas as to what the new DCH site should look like.

    Were you guys there?

    You had an opportunity to actually DO SOMETHING about the situation. Did you?

  19. Dear Mr. Africk

    I will NOT go to your meetings because speaking in public comments seems a total waste of time and annoying….but I do provide historic data to anyone who asks. The appointed officials do not take into consideration public comment.

  20. Cary,
    Thanks to the HPC, yourself and the other general public that attended. Their review is an important part of the process and I look forward to reading their report. Maybe the Planning Dept could post the report on the Township web site when it is ready? Was there any media in attendance? Maybe they will run a recap of the highlights before the April 30th PB meeting?
    Thanks again!

  21. How many more days until the current term is over?

    Really Cary, no one needs your finger waving. Any contribution anyone makes to the issue or discussion is of value.

  22. Cary,
    In all fairness, there was no public notice about this DCH presentation before the HPC.

  23. MM, you know more than me about income tax in 1910.
    But if there was none, ” you earned it you kept it” , how did we pay for our part in World War 1 a few years later?

  24. We should not build a vision for Montclair on the back of a report that is 100 years old. After all, Nolan wasn’t quoting from a 1810 planning manifesto when he made his own novel (at the time) recommendations for Montclair. Like other great and influential designers/planners, such as Haussmann, Sitte and Olmsted, he drew on numerous precedents to create an appropriate vision for Montclair. In 2012, we should have our own vision, respectful of the past, engaged with the complexities of the present, and like Nolan’s, forward-looking. And anyway, retro lookalike buildings in the downtown are not only inconsistent with Nolan’s vision, which promoted stylistic variety, they literally cannot be produced because of the costs associated with making buildings the “old” way.

  25. Spiro: The income tax was introduced in the U.S. in 1913. By the time we went to war in 1917 (correct me if I am wrong), we had enough in the coffers.

  26. Thanks for the info, MM. Of course, now I’m wondering about how the American people paid for the Spanish American war of 1898 .

  27. In Montclair’s Nolan Plan, Olmstead states,
    “Will it be beautiful?” should be asked as to any proposition for improvement, but it is not by any means the first question to be asked. ‘Is it in purpose and tendency aiming in the direction that we have deliberately chosen?” ‘Is it appropriate to that particular type of common, park, street, dooryard and township, which we can reasonably look forward to having during the period in which the improvement will be effective?” These are the first questions to ask in such a case. They are often hard to answer, but real improvements are not made easily and thoughtlessly. Time effort and money expended on embellishments, without painstaking thought as to their ultimate result, are apt to be worse than wasted; while wise forethought as a purpose and tendencies may so shape the simplest utilitarian necessities of a village as to give it the beauty of consistency, harmony and truth.” – Fredrick Law Olmstead

    Olmstead’s sons worked on implementing many of our local parks and private properties.

    Buildings today are reinforced concrete with glass or pre fabricated masonry curtain wall skin. This is practically a given. Triple wydth brick masonry buildings cannot be built today because of the costs (especially maintenance) One can still achieve good buildings in traditional styles with the present day method of construction if the design and construction respects certain standards of quality. The Siena building in my opinion is just a large building with cookie cutter artificial brick exterior wall panels rubber-stamped all over it. It has NOTHING to do with surrounding local buildings or with buildings in Tuscany. The Siena building is also insensitive to and blocks view of a huge and fabulous louis Comfort tiffany stained glass main window of the adjacent church. The proposed DCH project suggested facades look even less acceptable than the Siena. Aesthetics are an important factor in the Nolan Plan and it serves as an excellent learning tool.

Comments are closed.