Thursday, April 6, 2017

Monastery of the Perpetual Rosary

Picture by Lucio Fernandez from the book Union City in Pictures Collection.
"Union City in Pictures" available at at:

Monastery of the Perpetual Rosary was erected in 1912 – 1914 and referred by residents in what was then West Hoboken now Union City as the “The Blue Chapel” because of its glowing bluestone masonry walls and cool-tinted stained glass memorial windows.

On December 21, 1891, the first community of the Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary was founded in West Hoboken (Union City), New Jersey. In New York Harbor, four Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary arrived from France. They were met by the founder of their cloistered order, Father Damien Marie Saintourens and proceeded to their new home.

The monastery was completed in 1914. Here the nuns would follow a disciplined routine of household chores and prayer, based on a schedule known as the Liturgy of the Hours, praying for those who do not pray. From this first American Monastery of the Perpetual Rosary, 21 others throughout the nation would rise. Today the Blue Chapel remains an oasis of tranquility in Union City and a reminder of the City’s rich historical heritage.


Below is a wonderful history written by John Gomez for The Jersey Journal 

Google maps
The Google Earth satellite image of the Convent of the Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary -- referred to since 1915 by West Hoboken (and now Union City) residents as the "Blue Chapel" because of its glowing bluestone masonry walls and cool-tinted stained glass memorial windows -- appears to be occupied. But it has been vacant since 2009.

From above, through the fixed levitating lens of a Google Earth satellite, the Convent of the Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary -- referred to since 1915 by West Hoboken (and now Union City) residents as the “Blue Chapel” because of its glowing bluestone masonry walls and cool-tinted stained glass memorial windows -- appears to be occupied.

The elevated grounds, perimetered by plumb pointed trap rock stone walls 15 feet in height, are seemingly maintained. Giant hedge bushels, planted ages ago in a centered convent court outlined above by roofed abbey walkways, are still finely sculpted and manicured. Old growth trees dating back to the early 1890s still forest and shroud the now-endangered architectural monument bounded by Central Avenue on the west, 13th Street on the south, Morris Street on the east and 14th and West streets on the north.

Little can that sacred satellite sense that since 2009, after nearly 120 years of Dominican Order nun occupation, the ornamental iron gates of the closed-off cloister campus have remained locked, save for the daily presence of a property caretaker.

One must be at ground level, at the 14th Street sidewalk entrance, to hear the footstepped echoes still emanating from the abandoned chambers within.

These Blue Chapel grounds are an ancient hollow -- one of the only remaining traces of the once dominant Kerrigan Woods of West Hoboken and Union Hill, two 19th-century cities that merged later in 1925 as Union City.
A statue-lined vista fenced off by steep walls and sharp wire - the piercing peals of the present absorbed and silenced by the aged buildings of a municipal monastery. Time here has been captured - light and architecture are captured, frozen, cocooned. I could be standing on 14th Street in 2011 -- or Traphagen Street in 1891.
Someone -- something -- is watching, be it the eyes of a man-made orbiting lens or the spirits of the departed sisters.
The non-Union City visitor - the historic site stumbler, the urban adventurer, the lover of landmarks -- will ponder the complex at the narrow concrete bourn and ask, What is this solemn place? Who reared its magnificent walls and chapel? Who laid out its idyllic lots with Dominican Order saints perched on pedestals, tucked away in towers? Why here at this precise precipice on the volcanic Palisades ridge?
Staring, pushing through the secured “Ave Maria” fence fired and fixed in place in 1915, asking more: Where are the cloistered sisters who came here so long ago - where have the peeking eyes and inner Gregorian chants gone?
The Google Earth satellite imagery gets it all wrong: the tranquil place is not immortalized on the lot. These memorized masonry walls are surmountable after all. Architecture is adrift here -- images from the past abound and are superimposed with the present. What was snapped-shot by multimillion-dollar technology in 2010 could instead be facsimiles of former moments.
Such is the indescribable mysticality of the Blue Chapel. Time here gives way to four French-speaking nuns and a vision-filled priest. I -- anyone -- could be standing there with them as their story and destiny unfold: they wave their arms at the forested property as if conjuring the Gothic Revival structures that will rise there almost 25 years later.
Father Damien Marie Saintourens, O.P. and the four nuns -- two from Rouen, France and two from Louvain, Belgium -- have traveled to America via the steamer Gascogne exactly eleven years after founding the Perpetual Rosary order in the French town of Calais in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. The Dominican friar’s intent: spreading the preachings and spiritual philosophies of St. Dominic through the cloistered contemplative order of sisters whose apostolate is the constant recitation of the rosary for the sinners of the world.
In Father Saintourens’ eyes, West Hoboken is the perfect spot for this growth - affordable lots and easy accessibility to Manhattan via a newly erected trolley trestle leading from Hoboken to Palisade Avenue.
The potential for growth -- and longevity -- is, however, greater than they can ever realize. After rooming for a few months in a tenement on Hudson Avenue, the ambitious monk and sisters purchase the former Chambon Estates property -- and the ancient ramshackle wooden structures it comes with -- thereby establishing, with the signing of a West Hoboken deed, the first Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary monastery in the country.
We could, even now, see these five pilgrims transforming the estate into a makeshift cloister: reconfiguring buildings into prayer and dormitory rooms, Gothicizing facades, laying out walking paths and gardens for meditation. By 1895, 34 postulate nuns, prioresses and Father Saintourens are occupying the “Mother-House” and adhering to, day after day, around-the-clock, orthodox vows of poverty, chastity and strict obedience to the order.
To support themselves they farm their own organic fruit trees and vegetables. They tend to their ailments with self-taught medicinal treatments. They train and support themselves in the handicrafts of the then-burgeoning Arts & Crafts period: embroidery, sculpture, jewelry, painting. The sisters become skilled artisans and smart merchants in the surrounding West Hoboken community, selling rosary beads, condolence cards and other religious articles.
While they become a self-reliant, self-sustaining order, they seek out the support of the nearby, all-powerful Passionists at the Monastery of St. Michael the Archangel. The priests become both chaplain and protector of the sisters and will assist them in their architectural ambitions later on.
The sisters’ success is derived from their commitment, energy and drive. As a new century turns they branch out to establish cloisters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1897), Catonsville, Maryland (1899), Camden, New Jersey (1900), Buffalo, New York (1905), La Crosse, Wisconsin (1909) and various cities in Canada and the West Indies.
And as 1912 arrives the sisters find it necessary to expand and add on to their own house. With the financial help of the public, they will erect a vernacular convent and chapel complex on their 1.3 acre campus, gifting West Hoboken (and the future Union City) with its greatest architectural landmark - a landmark now silenced and threatened with erasure.

The Blue Chapel's rich stained glass memorial windows are extraordinary examples of the Munich School style and were crafted by the Leo P. Frohe Art Glass Works of Buffalo. The Sacred Heart, Dominican saints and the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary are all depicted in triptych and lancet panels located in the north nave wall, clerestories, chancel and choir. Photo by Andrew Blaize Bovasso

This distinct Catholic history continues to willingly unfold at the Blue Chapel site as I trace its rustic landscape, explore its graveled grounds, contemplate its uncertain future, walk with the imaged spirits of its founders.
Grottoes -- some sacked and barely discernible in the shadows, others perfectly intact with glowing statues of Dominican Order saints -- are greened and glazed by moss-mud and gripping poisonous vines. Ivy patches and great overhanging tree branches densify the paved and pebbled grounds. Gated pathways and stepped courts, well-worn by decades of gentle footsteps, traverse the blue convent walls and lead into a labyrinthine landscape of leaf-layered cavities and alcoves. A museum-like series of statues are galleried across the courts. Graves edge the elevated perimeters in inadvertent pockets. A central cemetery lies along the Morris Street wall. Leaning sun sheds, solitary clothing line poles, hand-built barbecue huts, stone seats, heaps of leaves - all still ring with the presence of the departed sisters.
But I am drawn most to two massive cornerstones -- an architectural enigma that also unravels at every time-cross-dissolved step.
One is etched with the year 1912, marking the construction of the convent dormitory. The other block glows with 1914, informing us that the chapel addition was started slightly after. Two highlighted years, I see, and yet one defining moment in October 1915 when both are unveiled simultaneously to the public.
Designed by Buffalo-based architect Henry Spann and contracted by Michael T. Connelly of Jersey City, the costly u-shaped Gothic Revival cloister complex -- $175,000 in total, all raised by chapel store sales and public donations -- is built of specification bluestone and terra cotta trimming. Each stone trap rock block is a memorial, a purchased prayer of perpetuity and penance. The names of the dead and their donors are etched between the mortar, hidden from view.
Staring at the cornerstones, I can almost see it: nearly 800 people gathering into the Ave Maria Chapel on October 23, 1915 for the blessing and dedication of the conjoined convent and chapel in its entirety, from deep basement to high rooftop, by Bishop John J. O’Connor. Above, glowing even now in a towering flèche coming out of the nave, an electrically illuminated statue of the Virgin Mary donated by Mrs. B. Holmes of Hoboken.
“The procession was led by six little girls, dressed to symbolize angels, and four little boys, who acted as pages...” observes a reporter in 1915. “Bishop O’Connor was highly pleased when 4-year-old Frances Markay, of Charles Street, West Hoboken, presented him with a beautiful bouquet of roses before he left the convent.”
Seminal image-filled words that pull me into the inner Blue Chapel sanctum where echoes -- some ancient, others of the present -- still resonate.
I pierce a shallow wood-worked vestibule that leads into a seated parlor reception area. Immediately, from this 1915 center point, this waiting room, the chapel’s sister-watched spatiality becomes evident.
This Blue Chapel is the revived architecture of the French medieval monastery - drenched in darkness, floor-planned with cavernous chambers, cellars, closets, corridors. Windows and transom lights are screened off. Surrounding doors, labeled with directional placards, are shut tight. Hallways and stairways fade into a lingering pitched shadow-fog. All is shadows and silence.
“A lattice divides the room,” another reporter observes at the dedication ceremony and public inspection. “On one side the visitor may be seated on a chair and through the small opening of the lattice work, about four inches square, may converse with the sister seated on the other side. This is the only means of communication with those who have taken the veil...All conversations are held in an undertone.”
Entering the chapel area, I see -- I imagine -- the actual 1915 crowd, now packed into the chapel. Their presence concludes a two-week public inspection -- a dispensation - initiated in early October in preparation for the dedication and the official sisters’ enclosure where, afterward, no layperson will be permitted to view their habited faces or cross over into the convent’s communal depths.
The sanctum is vaulted at the top. A mosaic crucifix reredos adorns the altar. Recessed apsidal alcoves pulsing with animated shrines line the north nave wall. Decorations by the famed Rambusch Decorating Company, including brass railings, sanctuary lamps and gold-leaf crown heraldic patterns, are abundant throughout. Stained glass memorial windows crafted in the Munich School style by the Leo P. Frohe Art Glass Works of Buffalo depict, in triptych panels, the Sacred Heart, Dominican saints and the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary.
I infiltrate the abandoned depths of the convent through an expansive choir chamber flanked by more large memorial window lancets and hanging lamps. Industrial and medical rooms and corridor divides transition into the three-story, 51-room dormitory. Climbing upward, my steps releasing trend-creaks and banister rasps, I enter a once-closed region of architectural echoes and lingering primordial light. The convent rattles with wind. Chimes ring out in unseen corridors. All is lit by shafts of sunlight.
Across three floors, at each landing, over fifty doors shoot down in a pointed perspective. The rooms, each a narrow cell lit by a single Gothic window, are blocked by upturned beds, desks, chairs. Dust is accrued across the sagging threshold. Rain water leaks down freely through compromised plaster walls. Rosary bead parts lay scattered like spilled salts. Sleepy-eyed statuettes are left atop tables. Heavy crucifixes are innumerably pinned to walls. A cloistered open-air abbey runs across the convent wings high above. Below, a classic medieval cloister courtyard, squared off by a screened mint-green subway tiled abbey, centered by a large statue of the Virgin Mary.
I hurry back to the chapel. The dedication event is ending. The West Hoboken residents file out into the municipal void. Like a lost nitrate film, a fading to black occurs - or it could be that the hourglass measuring my visit expires under the coppered light of dusk.
But before leaving, the silent, slow-motioned bishop carries out a final astounding act. With the turning of his long staff, under the glow of mosaic and metal, he ceremoniously locks the convent and chapel for eternity -- effectively transforming the exposed edifice into a private monument, a surreptitious sanctuary meant not for public peering ever again.
With that locking, architecture pulls itself away from public eyes and sacrifices itself to the shadowed veil of the sisters.
Outside it is now 2009 -- and the Blue Chapel, after 118 years, has been decommissioned, vacated, orphaned. By the early fall, the last few sisters of the Union City mother house are gone.
The next year arrives. Preservationists in Union City, frustrated with a municipal government that has a terrible preservation track record, submit an application to the non-profit, Trenton-based Preservation New Jersey, in the hopes that the Blue Chapel will be added to its 2010 Most Endangered Historic Sites register.
It is.
For a brief moment, the landmark is on the lips of the public. Suggestions for adaptive reuse -- a home for the aged, a school, condominiums -- are put forth.
But ownership is not clear. People ask: who is in charge of the Blue Chapel’s fate? Who will determine development plans? The deed, they claim, lists the Society of the Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary as owners. Others say the true proprietor is the Newark Archdiocese. Still some surmise that the Manhattan-based Dominican Order can lay claim and no one else.
In truth, in the larger preservation picture, the question of ownership is irrelevant. Union City itself will decide what happens to the Blue Chapel.
Recently, in a generous though missed-the-mark gesture, the city ceremoniously declared the site a city landmark. Everyone knows that that is not a binding protective designation and could be challenged and overturned in court.
A progressive city needs a preservation ordinance with legal oversight and regulatory powers. Why Union City does not have a real historic commission is beyond comprehension.
The Blue Chapel is Union City’s greatest preservation opportunity. From this precious monument can come an inner-city pastoral park oasis, an enriching cultural site, a civic amenity unlike any other.
The biggest mistake would be to allow developers to dictate reuse - or decide on demolition.
Pulling back, I walk past the elevated walls of the Blue Chapel. The tops of the site’s old growth trees bend and sing with leaf-whirs.
Reaching Palisade Avenue, I catch the flèche flickering within, candle-like, with the green efflorescing glint of a half-obscured statue.

Circa-1913 photo of the Rev. Father Damien Marie Saintourens, O. P. In 1880 Father Saintourens founded the Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary in the French town of Calais, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. By 1891 he and four nuns - two from Rouen, France and two from Louvain, Belgium - were in America to establish a "Mother-House" in West Hoboken, New Jersey (now part of Union City). The Dominican friar's intent: to spread the preachings and spiritual philosophies of St. Dominic through the cloistered contemplative order of sisters whose apostolate is the constant recitation of the rosary for the sinners of the world. The Catholic Church in the United States of America, Vol. II, The Religious Communities of Women, 1913. The Preservation Papers, Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy Architecture & Historic Preservation Collection, The New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library. - John Gomez, M.S. Historic Preservation, Columbia University

Circa-1913 photo of the Convent of the Dominican Sisters of the Perpetual Rosary, Traphagen Street, West Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1891, Father Saintourens and four Dominican sisters purchased the former Chambon Estates property bounded by Traphagen Street (now 14th Street), Hill Street (now 13th Street), Morris Street, West Street and Central Avenue. The 1.3 acre site, once part of the fabled Kerrigan Woods, came with ancient ramshackle wooden structures that were transformed into a makeshift Gothicized cloister (above photo). By 1895, 34 postulate nuns, prioresses and Father Saintourens were occupying the "Mother-House" and adhering to around-the-clock, orthodox vows of poverty, chastity and strict obedience to the order. As the 20th century dawned, the West Hoboken monastery branched out to establish cloisters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1897), Catonsville, Maryland (1899), Camden, New Jersey (1900), Buffalo, New York (1905), La Crosse, Wisconsin (1909) and various cities in Canada and the West Indies. The West Hoboken sisters, however, found it necessary to expand and add on to their own house. With the financial help of the public, they were able to unveil a substantial bluestone convent and chapel complex on their picturesque campus, gifting West Hoboken (and the future Union City) with its greatest architectural landmark - a landmark now silenced and threatened with total erasure. The Catholic Church in the United States of America, Vol. II, The Religious Communities of Women, 1913. The Preservation Papers, Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy Architecture & Historic Preservation Collection, The New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library. - John Gomez, M.S. Historic Preservation, Columbia University

For well over a century the Blue Chapel's population of Dominican sisters was revered and beloved by the surrounding community. Of all, however, Sister Mary of the Compassion, O.P. (1908-1977) stood out for her artistic brilliance. Born in London in 1908, the former Constance Mary Rowe studied at the Clapham School of Art and the Royal College of Art before winning the internationally prestigious Prix de Rome. In 1937 she journeyed to Union City to enter the Dominican cloister -- for life. While there, she painted Catholic art canvases that found their way into monasteries, museums and private collections across the country. Later in life she turned to the handicrafts, including smithmaking, in order to help her fellow sisters raise much-needed funds. Phyllis Liguori, a Union City resident, befriended Sister Mary in the early 1970s and helped curate an exhibit of her latest art work. As a token of her appreciation and their friendship, Sister Mary crafted a stunning gold and jade ring that she called The Loaves and Fishes. "To this day I treasure this ring," says Phyllis. Photo credit: The Dominican Province of Saint Joseph, The Order of Preachers, -- John Gomez, M.S. Historic Preservation, Columbia University

By John Gomez for The Jersey Journal 

Related Stories 

Sister Mary of the Compassion, O.P. (1908-1977) 

Blue Chapel Historical Marker:  

A closer look at a cloistered life:

Three short films on the Blue Chapel, go to PreservationTV's YouTube page.  

Friday, July 4, 2014

Embroidery Industry In Union City, New Jersey

For many decades from the late nineteenth century to the last decades of the twentieth century, the embroidery and lace manufacturing industry was the dominant business of Union City and North Hudson County. Although all but gone from Union City, the impact that the embroidery industry had on the development of the City is not forgotten. A banner stretches across an overpass in Union City above the NJ 495 roadway. It proclaims, Union City “The Home Of The American Embroidery Industry.” The Schiffli embroidery symbol is featured on the Union City seal, adopted in 1975. And May 30, 2014 saw the dedication of Embroidery Plaza on New York Avenue & 30th Street in Union City.

Embroidery business’s had existed in West Hoboken and Union Hill since the 1860’s, run by skilled Swiss, German, Italian and French artisans. Embroidery at that time, the mid-nineteenth century was all done by hand or manually operated machines. It was in the early 1870’s when Issac Groebli of Switzerland invented the first practical Schiffli Embroidery machine. This machine was based on the principles of the newly invented sewing machine. Groebli’s machine utilized the combination of a continuously threaded needle and shuttle containing a bobbin of thread. The shuttle itself looked similar to the hull of a sailboat. “Schiffli means “little boat” in the Swiss dialect of the German language, so his machine came to be known as a schiffli machine. The machine, powered by electricity, allowed for the mass- production of fine embroidered silks. Dr. Robert Reiner of Weehawken, a German immigrant who came to America in 1903, was the person most responsible for bringing the schiffli embroidery industry to Union City. He realized the potential for embroidery and became the American Agent of a German company that manufactured schiffli machines. Then began the mass importation of embroidery machines to northern New Jersey. Hundreds of Austrian, Swiss, and German immigrants, many in West Hoboken and Union Hill, became the manufacturers of schiffli embroidery. Many of the names of the Silk Mills still hold a familiar ring. The Schwarzenbach, Huber & Co. Silk Mills, Givernaud Brothers’ Silk Mills, De Poli Silk Mills, and the R. & H. Simon Silk Mills. From West Hoboken to Union Hill these and many other Silk Mills brought employment and prosperity to early Union City. 

Many other factors contributed that made Union City the ideal place for the embroidery industry.  First, was its location directly across the Hudson River from New York City and its garment district. Second, was the solid bedrock of the Palisades to which the five- ton to eight-ton machines were anchored by twenty-foot shafts, in order to keep the needles from vibrating. Third, the bustling shipping ports and railroads on both sides of the Hudson River, that until the 1950’s, were the main ways to transport goods across the country and overseas. Fourth, was the large labor force of skilled and unskilled workers employed by the silk mills. Whether employed in one of the areas silk mills or doing “piecework” for the mills at home, the embroidery industry employed thousands of people, many of them first-generation-immigrants. From the early German and Swiss immigrants of the late 1800’s, to the Italian immigrants of the early 1900’s, and the Cuban immigrants fleeing the oppressive regime of communist Cuba in the 1960’s and 1970’s, they all found employment in the Silk Mills of Union City, giving them the opportunity to succeed in America.

"The Embroy" Sculpture

Perhaps the most enduring legacy to the embroidery industry in Union City was seen at the dedication of the Embroidery Plaza. Many of those in attendance were the children and grandchildren of those first-generation immigrants. Most of them leading successful lives as doctors, lawyers, educators, and artists. They stood there in the sunset with smiles on their faces remembering their immigrant ancestors and the opportunity that was given to them by the silk embroidery industry in Union City.

Union City Embroidery Industry Documentary

Friday, June 1, 2012

Union City Film History

Union City has been used as the location for a number of feature and television movies, including the low budget film “Union City” (1980) starring Deborah Harry; “Out of Darkness” (1985); “Bloodhounds of Broadway” (1989); and “Far From Heaven” (2002).

 In 2010 the City saw the release of the cult art-house independent film, “Vampire in Union City” (Available at at:  The film lensed all over the City and even held its world premiere with a star-studded red carpet event at the Summit Theatre on Summit Avenue in Union City.

In 2011 the independent short "Massacre in the Woods" was filmed partly in Union City as well as in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.  The film went on to win first place at the 2011 NoHu International Short Film Festival. Watch it now: 

Also in 2011 the documentary "Cubanoson: The Story" rolled in the City, and received a release on January 2012.  Watch it now: 

In 2012 a group of young filmmakers from Hudson County banded together to shoot the feature film “The Death of April”, which is to be released Fall of 2012. The feature was shot all over Hudson County with locations in Union City including Botanica “La Milagros” on Bergenline Avenue, and a scene in the Union City Police Department.

“The Death of April” is project of Mojo Creative Group, the film is written and directed by Ruben Rodriguez, and with Humberto Guzman serving as Director of Photography, both from Jersey City.  Cesar G. Orellana, Brit Godish, Dan Lefante, and Lucio Fernandez, all of which are from Bayonne or Union City, are producing it.

The feature stars Katarina Hughes in the role of “Megan Mullen”.  In the film, Megan Mullen, freshly moved into her East coast home, keeps in touch with her friends through a video blog.  As her entries (and her life) become more complex and emotional, strange things begin to happen in her apartment: and the camera captures it all.

Told from the point-of-view of a wireless webcam mixed with documentary footage, The Death of April” explores the unsettling activity in an otherwise average teenage girl’s apartment and the mysteries that surround it.

The film promises to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.  What lurks in Megan’s mind, or in her new home? 

In 2015, the documentary film "Bahia de Cochinos, Nuestra Perspectiva" 
(Available at at: dealing with the Bay of Pigs Invasion, was filmed in Union City at the William V. Musto Cultural Center.  The documentary is composed of interviews with members of the 2506 Brigade still living in New Jersey and of raw footage and photographs.  The film premiered in Union City before screenings all over the world.

Union City is rich in its artistic history, and filmmaking has and continues to showcase the city to the world.  The City is also very friendly and welcoming to the film industry.  In the future, it hopes many more films of all genres chose Union City as its backdrop. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Union City Mayors

John F. Boylan (1925 – 1927)

Charles A. Mohn (1927 – 1929)

William Rannenberg (1929 – 1932)

Lewis B. Eastmead (1932 – 1939)

Harry J. Thourot (1939 – 1962)

William V. Musto (1962 – 1970)

William J. Meehan (1970 – 1974)

Willian V. Musto (1974 – 1982)

Robert C. Botti (1982)

Arthur Wichert (1982 – 1986)

Robert Menendez (1986 – 1992)

Bruce D. Walter (1992 – 1998)

Raul “Rudy” Garcia (1998 – 2000)

Brian P. Stack (2000 - present)
Commissioner Maryury A. Martinetti
Commissioner Lucio P. Fernandez
Mayor Brian P. Stack
Commissioner Christopher F. Irizarry
Commissioner Tilo E. Rivas

Union City 15th Street Branch Free Public Library

Union City Free Public Library, circa 1911
The Builders

One of the most prominent names in the history and development of West Hoboken and Union Hill (in 1935 the two towns merged to become the City of Union City) is that of the Cranwell family. Arriving penniless from Ireland in 1857, George Cranwell as a young man studied and learned the building trade. He founded a construction firm and became one of the most prolific and respected building contractors in what would become the City of Union City. Joined by his son James, the firm of George Cranwell & Son erected many of the most notable buildings in Union City. Many of these buildings still stand today and are a testament to a hard working immigrant family that attained the "American Dream" of success in Union City. Some of the notable structures erected by the firm of George Cranwell & Son are the Union City Town Hall, Union Hill Middle School (formerly Union Hill High School), the St. Michael's Monastery, Hudson Elementary School, St. Michael's High School, and the Carnegie endowed West Hoboken Free Public Library. The newly renovated Union City 15th Street Branch Free Public Library West Hoboken Library (West Hoboken Free Public Library) is now the William V. Musto Cultural Center, housing museums, art galleries, a concert hall, and rooms for community activities. The legacy of the building skills and talent of George and James Cranwell continues, now spanning three centuries. It is of special note that the direct descendants of George and James Cranwell, spanning many generations, still reside in Union City, a city built in part by their family.

George W. Cranwell, a prominent builder and contractor of West Hoboken, was born in Ireland on Christmas Day, December 25, 1836, and is the son of Edward Cranwell and Elizabeth, his wife. Coming to this country with his parents when very young, he received his education at the Christian Brothers’ school in Utica, New York, and in 1857 removed to West Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1866 he returned to Utica, where he resided until about 1886, when he again returned to West Hoboken, which again became his home. Mr. Cranwell became identified with the building and contracting business while yet a mere youth, and during a period of nearly thirty-five years followed that vocation with uninterrupted success, becoming one of the best known contractors and builders in the country of his era. He learned the trade of mason and builder in Utica, and there erected the German Catholic Church, the Wheeler, Kiernan & Company’s Stove Works, St. John’s Protectory (then St. John’s Orphan Asylum), and many other buildings of importance. He also built the north wing of Hamilton College in Oneida County, New York, St. Mary’s Catholic Church at Cooperstown in the same State, many well known structures in Little Falls, and a large part of the buildings erected by Alfred Dolge at Dolgeville, New York, during a period of twenty years, and the large public school edifice in that town. These are only a few of the contracts executed by him in a number of towns and cities, including the City of New York. In New Jersey he was also active in contracting and building. He erected the original part of the Hoboken Monastery in West Hoboken, the new town hall in the Town of Union, and numerous other private and public buildings in the town of Weehawken and the City of Hoboken. Mr. Cranwell’s work shows great skill and ability, and stamps him as one of the ablest members of his vocation. Active and energetic, honest and upright in his dealings, thorough and exact in the work committed to his care, and faithful in the discharge of every trust, he was highly respected and esteemed. In politics he was an ardent Democrat. He married Miss Margaret Fullerton of Jersey City, NJ. His son James became a partner in his father’s business under the firm name of G. W. Cranwell & Son.

James W. Cranwell - Few men have contributed more to the growth and prosperity of the Town of West Hoboken than James Cranwell, during his era, one of the foremost builders and contractors in the county. Associated with his father under the firm name of George W. Cranwell & Son, he erected many buildings of historical significance in the town of West Hoboken.  His work however was not confined to West Hoboken alone, but also extended over the whole State of New Jersey as well as New York State. The Union Hill Town Hall, the Union Hill High School, St. Michael’s Parochial Grammar School, Public Schools Nos. 6 and 7, Free Public Library of West Hoboken, St. Joseph’s R. C. Church of Bayonne, Public Service Commercial Building in Union Hill and hundreds of factories, loft buildings, large apartment houses and private residences were erected by his firm. 

George W. Cranwell erected the original part of the Monastery in West Hoboken, and numerous churches and structures of all kinds throughout the States of New York and New Jersey. When he retired from active life, his son James W. Cromwell conducted the business.

Like his father, James became one of the most conspicuous builders and contractors in the State. His work demonstrated great skill and ability and stamped him as one of the ablest men of his vocation. He was thorough in every detail, conscientious and practical in carrying out his contracts. He achieved an eminent reputation for his foresight, sound judgment and his capacity for business. He was a public - spirited and enterprising citizen and was universally respected for those virtues that make up the loyal friend and honest man.

James W. Cranwell was born in Union Hill in 1866. His parents were George W. and Margaret (Fullerton) Cranwell. He was the oldest of five children and the only son. His father’s parents were Edward and Elizabeth Cranwell, natives of Ireland, where George W. Cranwell was born on December 25, 1836. The family immigrated to this country and settled in Utica, New York, and in 1857 moved to West Hoboken. A short time later James was born and the family returned to Utica, where James received his early school education. The family moved back to West Hoboken in 1886.

After finishing his early education, James Cranwell started to learn the building and contracting business of his father, and was later taken on as a member of the firm. While always interested in the welfare of his town, James never sought nor accepted any political office, with the exception of that of Tax Collector, which office he held for some years. James married Katherine McConan in 1894. They had ten children, five boys and three girls. His wife died in 1913, and two years later James married Katherine’s sister Minnie.

Andrew Carnegie and Union City

Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, on November 25, 1835. He was the first son of William Carnegie, a linen weaver and local leader of the Chartists (who sought to improve the conditions of working-class life in Great Britain), and of Margaret Carnegie, daughter of Thomas Morrison, a shoemaker and political and social reformer.

An Émigré at Age 13 
William Carnegie's handloom business dwindled in the wake of industrialization, and in 1848 the family immigrated to the United States, settling in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. There, at the age of 13, Andrew began his career as a bobbin boy in a cotton factory. A voracious reader, he took advantage of the generosity of an Allegheny citizen who opened his library to local working boys. Books provided most of his education as he moved from being a Western Union messenger boy to telegraph operator and then to a series of positions leading to the superintendent of the Western Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The Young Entrepreneur 
While still employed by the Railroad, Carnegie invested in a new company to manufacture railway sleeping cars. From there, he expanded his business ventures to encompass the building of bridges, locomotives and rails. In 1865, he organized the first of his many companies, the Keystone Bridge Company, and in 1873, the first of his steel works.

In Partnership with His Workers  
Carnegie's companies were founded not as stock corporations but as partnerships, in line with his philosophy that “it shall be the rule for the workman to be Partner with Capital, the man of affairs giving his business experience, the working man in the mill his mechanical skill, to the company, both owners of the shares and so far equally interested in the success of their joint efforts.” As associates, Carnegie attracted young men with exceptional talent for organization management. His steel company prospered, and when Carnegie sold the company to J.P. Morgan in 1901, the Carnegie Company was valued at more than $400 million.

The Birth of a Philanthropist 
Andrew Carnegie's philanthropic career began around 1870. He is best known for his gifts of free public library buildings. His first such gift was to his native Dunfermline in 1881, and it was followed by similar gifts to 2,509 communities in the English-speaking world.

The Rich as 'Trustees'
In 1889, he wrote “The Gospel of Wealth” in which he boldly articulated his view that the rich are merely “trustees” of their wealth and are under a moral obligation to distribute it in ways that promote the welfare and happiness of the common man. Carnegie was a prolific writer, but the quotation for which he is most famous comes from “The Gospel of Wealth”: “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.”

Full-Time Philanthropist  
When Carnegie retired from business in 1901, he set about in earnest to distribute his fortune. In addition to libraries, he provided hundreds of church organs to local communities.  Carnegie's wealth helped to establish numerous colleges, schools, nonprofit organizations and associations both in his adopted country, as well as in Scotland and throughout the globe. His most significant contribution, both in terms of money and in terms of enduring influence, was the establishment of several endowed trusts or institutions bearing his name.

By the time of his death in 1919, Andrew Carnegie had given away about $350 million, but the legacy of his generosity continues to unfold in the work of the trusts and institutions that he endowed.

The Union City 15th Street Branch Free Public Library
The industrialist turned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie had little formal schooling, but he educated himself. He prized books as the means to his self-education. As part of his charitable efforts, Carnegie endowed many libraries in the United States. The West Hoboken Free Public Library was one of his beneficiaries. He gave $25,000 for the construction of a new library building and the enlargement of the collection. The new library was erected in 1903 on the north side of High Street - now 15th Street - between Clinton Avenue and Spring Street - now New York and Bergenline Avenues.  A similar donation was given to the Town of Union Hill in 1905 for the creation of their Free Public Library, now the Main Branch of the Union City Free Public Library on 324- 43rd Street, Union City.

Cultural Center
The historic building received a major renovation, and on Saturday, June 11, 2011 Mayor Brian P. Stack & the Union City Board of Commissioners, rededicated the historic building as the William V. Musto Cultural Center.  The building is now home to the Union City Museum of Art; Union City Art Gallery & Concert Hall; Union City Police Museum; Union City Museum of History; and Union City Senior Citizen Center.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Brief History of Union City

Compiled by Gerard Karabin

Eighty-five years ago on June 1, 1925, the Town of Union (colloquially known as Union Hill) and the Township of West Hoboken joined together and became one, the City of Union City. Today with a population of approximately 80,000 residents the city is experiencing an unprecedented period of economic, cultural, and artistic growth needed to remain vital and prosperous in the 21st century. As Union City looks forward and embraces the future it is also proper to pause and reflect on its past. In 2010, the City commemorated its 85th anniversary, but eighty-five years only marks the incorporation of the City of Union City. Its history is far older.
The original inhabitants of the area where Union City is now situated were the Native Americans. An Algonquian group, the Munsee speaking branch of the Lenni-Lenape, wandered the vast area of woodlands Henry Hudson encountered during his voyage of exploration (1609-1610) in service of the Dutch. Of the many European countries colonizing North America, the Dutch claimed this area, which would include the future New York City, and named it New Netherland. Peter Stuyvesant, the Governor of New Netherland, purchased the part of land that would one day become Hudson County from the Hackensack branch of the Lenni-Lenape in 1658. The deed is preserved in the New York State Archives. The deed describes the boundaries of the land purchased: “The tract of land lying on the west side of the North (Hudson) River. The tract beginning at the Great Clip or Great Rock of Wiehacken (Weehawken) through lands above the Islandt Siskakes (Secaucus) from there to the Kill van Kull and along the channel side to Constables Hook. From Constables Hook once again to the Great Clip in Wiehacken.” The tract of land was purchased for the price of “80 fathoms of wampum, 20 fathoms of cloth, 12 brass kettles, 6 guns, one double brass kettle, 2 blankets, and one half barrel of strong beer.”
The relationship between the early Dutch settlers and the Native Americans was an uneasy one. Disputes over property and land claims frequently led to skirmishes and war between the two groups. In seeking a way to protect the defenseless farmhouses in the newly acquired area, Peter Stuyvesant in 1660 ordered the building of a fortified village. The village known as Bergen was the first permanent settlement in New Jersey, now Jersey City. In 1664 the English captured New Netherland from the Dutch. At that time the boundaries of Bergen Township encompassed the area we know as Hudson County. To the north of Bergen Village was a largely unpopulated area known as Bergen Woods that would slowly be claimed by settlers. Some streets in Union City still retain the names of the early settlers. Yet the area that would one day become Union City remained sparsely inhabited until the early part of the nineteenth century.
The English granted a new town charter to the Town of Bergen in 1668. Then in 1682 Bergen County was created with its county seat in Hackensack. The new county comprised all of present day Hudson, Bergen, and Passaic Counties. In naming the new county Bergen, the English recognized and honored its earliest Dutch origins. Although sparsely populated during the 17th and 18th centuries, by the early part of the 19th century the population of the southeast section of Bergen County had increased to a point where it was deemed necessary to organize it as a separate county. In 1840 the New Jersey State Legislature created Hudson County. In 1843, the newly created County of Hudson was divided into two townships – Old Bergen Township and North Bergen Township. Old Bergen Township through the consolidation of its various communities eventually became Jersey City. North Bergen Township was gradually partitioned into the various municipalities of present day North Hudson. In 1849 the future City of Hoboken severed its ties with North Bergen Township. The next separations were the Township of Weehawken and the Town of Guttenberg in 1859. Union Township was created in 1861. From it, developed the Town of West Hoboken in 1861 and the Town of Union in 1864. The northern section of Union Township was finally incorporated as the Town of West New York in 1898.
The city that would one day become the City of Union City grew as two separate entities for over 60 years until 1925. From these two towns Union City derives a rich heritage of cultural diversity that continues to this day. For example, in the 1890’s a small five- block area of West Hoboken running on Central Avenue from 23rd street to 27th street was known as the “Dardanelles” section. It was here more than nineteen different nationalities were represented. From the earliest Dutch, English, and French settlers a steady stream of immigrant groups would come to live in Union City. In 1851 Germans began to settle the area that would become known as Union Hill. The progression of immigrants would continue throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Swiss, Belgian, Italian, Irish, Armenian, Greek, Chinese, Polish, Syrian, Jewish, and Russians all found a home in Union City.
Today that same cultural diversity can be seen throughout Union City, especially in the stores and restaurants along Bergenline Avenue. Various nationalities are represented, but dominated mostly by people from Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Beginning in the early 1950’s Cubans began to settle in Union City. Many found work in factories and embroidery mills. By the early 1960’s, when it became clear that Castro had embraced Communism, the trickle of Cuban immigration became a flood of Cuba’s middle and upper middle class. They quickly assimilated with American society helping revitalize the local business areas such as Bergenline Avenue. In addition, as the Cubans were mostly well-educated professionals, Cuban-Americans became very influential in the social and political landscape of the City.
Union City takes pride in all its houses of worship and the many religions they represent. Many of the churches are more than one hundred years old and are admired for their architectural beauty. The former Saint Michael’s Monastery Church, (today the Hudson Presbyterian Church), is perhaps the most notable. Its cornerstone was laid in 1869 and it was completed in 1875. The octagonal dome piercing the sky could be seen for many miles and once was the focal point for travelers on trains and ocean steamers.
Union City has also been home to many noted artists. William Ranney, Antonio Jacobsen, James Buttersworth, and Andrew Melrose all resided in the city. Interest in art and sculpture has not abated, as there are many talented artists living in Union City. In fact the city has been undergoing an artistic renaissance. Recently Mayor Brian P. Stack & the Board of Commissioners passed a resolution creating the Union City Artist Collective, a committee dedicated to promoting the arts. The “UC ART Sculpture” designed by artist Lucio Fernandez was dedicated in September 2009 on Bergenline Avenue between 30th and 31st Streets at the location of the Plaza of the Arts that held its ribbon-cutting ceremony in December 2010. September has been officially designated Celebrate Art Month in Union City with numerous exhibits and performances held throughout the City. The Union City Art Gallery At City Hall, under the direction of Art Curator Amado Mora, hosts a new art exhibit each month; and the Union City Museum of Art located in the William V. Musto Cultural Center is the gem of the Union City art scene.
Writers and poets have always found Union City to be a source of inspiration. These include Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. Merwin and the famous American author Pietro di Donato, author of “Christ in Concrete”. The city is the home of two Public Libraries to serve the needs of its many residents.
The performing arts have always been an integral part of Union City. The new Union City Performing Arts Center, a modern state-of-the-art 960-seat theatre, inaugurated in 2009, offers top-notch performances. The historic Park Theatre is world-famous for its annual production of the “Passion Play”, first performed in 1915. The equally renowned play “Veronica’s Veil” debuted in 1914 at the St. Joseph’s Parochial School Auditorium and played annually until 1999 when the school was rebuilt to become Veteran’s Memorial School. Theatres such as the Hudson, Lincoln, Capitol, and Roosevelt were well known. Vaudeville and burlesque were theatre staples in Union City, and stars such as Harry Houdini and Fred Astaire performed here. The performing arts still thrive in the City. The Grace Theatre Workshop, Inc. is dedicated to promoting theatre in Union City and new and exciting theatrical groups such as the Donovan Ensemble, The Union City Opera Company, and the TapOlé Dance Company are also making an impact. The City parks hold weekly performances of drama, comedy, and poetry during the summer months, as well as concerts of classical, jazz, rock, salsa and merengue music. Celia Cruz Park was dedicated in 2004 in honor of the legendary entertainer, and every spring notables from the entertainment industry are recognized there with a “star” in what has become Union City’s Walk of Fame.
Under the administration of Mayor Brian P. Stack and the Board of Commissioners the building of new parks and public plazas and the improvement of existing parks is a top priority. Firefighter’s Memorial Park was dedicated in August 2009 and has an Olympic sized swimming pool. Juan Pablo Duarte Park opened in 2004 on the site of the old Indian Pond Park. Its large wading pool and playgrounds make it a popular summertime stop for families, especially those with young children. War Memorial Plaza situated on 46th Street and Broadway is a beautiful area dedicated to all veterans. Liberty Plaza located at 30th Street and Palisade Avenue is dedicated to the victims of the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Both plazas offer residents open spaces for rest and contemplation.

Another top priority is the school system. The City and Board of Education put the children of Union City above all else. To better serve the educational needs of the community, its two high schools, Union Hill and Emerson, were consolidated into one. In 2009, on the property where Roosevelt Stadium once stood, the City opened the new Union City High School and Athletic Complex. It proudly features a football stadium built on an elevated section of the high school with views of the New York City skyline.
Union City is a city with a rich and interesting history and this brief overview is by no means a definitive one. To aid in the recording and preservation of the city’s history Mayor Brian P. Stack and the Board of Commissioners appointed a Historic Preservation Advisory Committee. Historical markers are being erected to honor note-worthy residents of the city. A History Museum along with a Fine Arts Museum and Concert Hall is housed in the former 15th Street Free Public Library, a Carnegie endowed building, itself more than one hundred years old. The statues that stand in the parks of Union City are works of art designed by famous sculptors. The architectural qualities of many buildings in Union City still exist although you may not recognize them at ground level. Sometimes all you have to do is look up to see the beauty that is the City of Union City and its people, the human monuments that continue to make the city prosper and grow.