Daniel J. Dowd of Barreto Dowd Landscape Architects in Howell, New Jersey was kind enough to take the time to speak with us about his landscape restoration work on the Historic Essex County Courthouse in Newark, New Jersey.
The Essex County Courthouse has held an important position within the historic downtown landscape of Newark, NJ since its completion in 1905. Now Farewell Mills and Gatsch, an architectural firm with a high degree of expertise in historic building restoration has worked with Barreto Dowd Landscape Architects, sub-consultants on the project, to help restore the Essex County Courts Complex. Dowd explains, "The complex is made up of a number of buildings, so we worked on a number of projects over the course of several years."
One part of the project that required Barreto Dowd's expertise in the area of historic restoration was the brickwork on the site of the historic courthouse. When the courthouse was first built, the bricks that were used were longer and narrower in size than the 4" x 8" bricks that are commonly used today. Dowd explains, "There was an older brick in a certain size and pattern, and all of that had to be removed, so we did it in the same exact paving pattern with the same exact dimension of the brick, being sensitive to the historic fabric and the materials used. One of the landings has steps going up to the one main fašade entrance, and there the brickwork repeated a basketweave panel, and then a herringbone panel with a border or band panel that was constant around each of these panels. We redid it exactly the way it was."
"There was a sally port in the building, where years ago prisoners would be driven in with an officer and escorted out of a vehicle. Underneath the stair area, the sally port was closed off to traffic but that was also reconstructed in the same brick. The company that makes the brick, Whitacre Greer, was able to come up with the exact dimensions of the older brick. Usually when you see a basketweave pattern, it's usually two bricks one way and then two bricks the other way making the pattern, but because of the size of these bricks, the pattern is three bricks and three bricks. It's kind of a minor detail but because they're skinnier and longer, in order to do a basketweave it's three and three, so we did it exactly as it was with the exact same dimension. It was not easy to find a manufacturer who could make the bricks the same dimension as the old bricks from when the courthouse was first built, but it's a company that's probably been around for a while. They might have even made the bricks that were there. Some of these companies have been in existence for a long time."
Barreto Dowd's conceptual plan for the project included removing 13th Street to allow the adjoining park to become part of the site, and to create a more attractive and pedestrian friendly setting. "We sold the idea to the County to remove that street because for so long the street was closed off to traffic and traffic seemed to move fine through that area without it. So we said it would be much nicer to just have the park connected to the courthouse site and no longer have a road running through it. So that was a major improvement and that concept was carried out as we did more work at the other phases of the complex across the street. After we took the street out in the next phase, we made it more into a pedestrian promenade with an allee of cherry trees."
Details, such as lighting fixtures, were carefully chosen so that they would be in character and appropriate with the period of the building.
One design decision that raised some controversy was a plan that called for the removal of a stand of Bradford Callery Pear trees from the front of the historic courthouse. According to historic photographs, the trees were not part of the original design. They were planted in the 1980's and grew to a size that blocked the view of the building and a statue of Abraham Lincoln designed by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who created Mount Rushmore. Dowd explains, "We had the trees removed and there was a big outcry about that, but we had in our plans that we were putting back a significantly greater number of trees than the ones that we took out. Then in that same area, we used a magnolia that wouldn't get so tall and conceal the fašade of the building so now this nice fašade is much more visible from the surrounding area. That also put more focus on the statue, which is considered to be the best likeness of Abraham Lincoln." Both the historic courthouse and Gutzon Borglum's "Seated Lincoln" are listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.
In the next phase, the entrance to the Veteran's Courthouse underwent quite a transition as well. Dowd explains, "The courthouse is a U-shaped building and the entrance is in the open part of the U. Before renovation you couldn't see any building entrance, you could just see part of this modern limestone building with windows. The entrance area was the piece that connects the modern building to the older building and the inside of the U-shape was almost all paved and you didn't have any sense of where you were going. Before renovation, the entrance to the courthouse was recessed into the building to the right, and as you would go to the right, you would go up a couple of stairs and then there were the doors to enter the building. What we did was when you entered the U, you come in on the existing grade somewhat because we raised half of that space. Then we put in very broad, wide steps and then filled that area with CU-Structural Soil, which was developed by Cornell University. There is about three feet of that material so that the big plaza is on the same elevation as the doors. So when you're walking into the courthouse now, you have a sense of entrance."
Dowd also changed the handicap access to the building. Instead of the ramp that was there, he explains, "We came along one side of the one building, or one leg of that U with just a very gradual walkway that doesn't even need a railing so there's no ramp but there's handicapped access because there's a walkway on grade into the courthouse."
"We planted very large trees in the granite plaza, which are called Japanese Zelkova. It's a good urban tree because it does well in pavement but it also has ascending branches meaning they go more up and out rather than just straight out. So it helps the visibility and it's not too heavy of a feeling when you're walking through it. The trees create shade now in the space, and some of the seating in this area is on large granite slabs so now there is a place where you can sit in the shade. We also have white flowering cherry trees in this area of the plaza."
"The CU-Structural Soil was developed for urban areas with trees and pavement because it will support the pavement but it also has ingredients that make it good for root development and for plant growth. There is irrigation and underground drainage if there's too much water so the plants get air and water and it looks pretty terrific with these big trees coming out of the granite paved plaza."
At the site of the historic courthouse there is also a bronze bust of Charles F. Cummings who was considered the official historian of Newark, NJ. Dowd was hired to locate where and how the statue would physically fit into the historic courthouse site. "We designed where it would go and how it fits into the landscape. We also did some planting with ever blooming day lilies and put the statue on a circular pad of concrete that steps down with circular steps into the landscape."
The courthouse is only one building that is part of a complex of government buildings that are attached to one-another. The historic courthouse was Barreto Dowd's first project there. When work on the courthouse was completed, Dowd was asked to work on other areas of the complex. "Some of the different officials and decision makers in the county were very happy with the way our work turned out, so they took us for a walk across the street to see the rest of the complex and asked us for a proposal. We were the prime consultant for designing new plazas at a portion of the remaining county complex, which we did."
"The buildings are kind of connected, but it's like four buildings in one, all in a one block area. Part of the work we did also included a more modern 1960's limestone building and then there was an older portion of the county complex that was constructed with a tan color brick. So we did a plaza in front of there that we were able again to come up with a brick that matched the color of the building and we used a lot more traditional detailing. In that area we have a fountain with an eagle. We used a lot of symbolic things in this site, like in the plaza going into the Veteran's Courthouse we have a lead justice statue by Kenneth Lynch & Sons. We chose lead because the color gray seemed to work with the color of the building."
"At the Veteran's Courthouse we did an entry plaza that was a more modern building in limestone, and we used different granites as a pavement and flagpoles and more contemporary type of seating. There are people who are jurors who use this area, so we provided a lot of seating. We also provided seating in a more garden like setting where a lawyer could sit with a client, a little bit off the beaten path and have a quiet conversation."
"Another area we did is The Rosa Parks Plaza. Before we were involved, that whole area fronted on a street and was very visible from the street, so we closed that whole area off with an evergreen hedge so it's more private. There we have the Japanese Pagoda tree as the main tree, which is another good urban tree. We put in wood benches with decorative cast iron end brackets, and a cast iron fountain. It's more old-fashioned with an eagle standing on the lip of the top bowl that the water comes from. This area was treated with more traditional detailing and character so it reflects the building that it's adjacent to."
After working on The Rosa Parks Plaza, Barreto Dowd was hired to do site and landscape improvements around a new parking garage designed by the architectural firm Comito and Associates. "This was our third project at the complex and we used an evergreen hedge again to screen the parking lot. The parking garage fronts on another street which has townhouses across from it, so we did a lot of generous landscaping there with very large evergreen trees mixed with some small flowering trees so that residents wouldn't be looking out their window at the parking garage. We also did a plaza in the front where they made a new entry into the building and we designed the plaza with the same granite that we used on the other side. This plaza is called the Brendan Byrne Plaza, in honor of the former governor. We used the same type of polished granite for seating in the front."
"On another street frontage we reorganized the parking so that we could get more green space along Martin Luther King Boulevard, which separates the historic courthouse from the rest of the complex. In that area, actually fronting right on the street, there is another plaza area that hasn't been given a name yet. It has a fountain and a lot of seating, and again the detail there is more traditional in relationship to the buildings there. There is the Hall of Records, which is also an older, more historic looking structure which has very wide broad granite steps going up to the entrance. On the other side of the street is the historic courthouse, so the character of the buildings is dictating how we designed what we're doing."
"The Essex County symbol is a lion, so at the entrance to the promenade we had custom granite piers with a limestone lion and a lioness made, which are at the entrance into this promenade. Those were from Classic Garden Ornaments, Ltd., and have a weathered vertigris color. The entrance to the promenade is about twelve feet wide so emergency vehicles can drive on it, and it comes to a circular area of brick pavement, a more generous, larger circle. We did something there called paver art where the bricks are cut into a design, which in this case is the county logo. Then we used different colored bricks to show the county logo in the middle of that circle. We repeated some of the detailing that we did from the historic courthouse where we changed from basketweave to herringbone."
One other detail that has not yet been installed in the court complex is a glass art mural designed by Dowd's daughter Kate, who is a glass artist with a group called Glass Roots. "The mural is to be placed on a low concrete wall that has recessed LED lighting that will shine down on the face of the twenty-something foot long concrete bench."
For their work on the Historic Essex County Courthouse, Barreto Dowd received an Historic Preservation Award from the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office for Extraordinary Rehabilitation and an Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects. The project also received a National Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
As an expert in historic landscape restoration, Dan Dowd shares his thoughts on the specialized niche of the industry. "What people I think don't realize is that site and landscape issues don't get considered like they should. People go so far out of their way when they're dealing with historic buildings. They're so respectful of how the buildings should be and what the materials are, but a lot of times very little thought is given to the site and landscape. There are actually even guidelines on historic site and landscape restoration. There are other firms out there who do it, but it's kind of a little bit specialized and I think a lot of people don't even think of it when they're doing something, especially if it's an important public buildings. They're thinking about the building, but not so much about the setting of the building and some of the hardscape or landscape features that are part of the historic fabric."
Barreto Dowd Architects has worked with Farewell Mills and Gatsch on other projects, including a plaza at the Statehouse in Trenton, NJ, and the exterior of City Hall in Newark, NJ. They have also worked with another firm that goes by the name of Historic Building Architects. Dowd explains, "There are different firms that have been using us because we're sensitive when it's a historic site and we know the right way to treat the site and landscape."