Talking about Jewish Paterson

Talking about Jewish Paterson

Museum Foundation to hear architectural historian’s assessment of the city

The large, imposing building on the right is Barnert Temple.
The large, imposing building on the right is Barnert Temple.

The Paterson Museum Foundation will hold the next in a series of virtual lectures on the history of the city on Tuesday, March 22. The speaker is Richard Polton — Patersonian by birth, historian by inclination, and president of the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey.

Mr. Polton will talk about the history of the city and how its architecture reflects the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the people who built it.

His interest in architecture in general, and in the architecture of Paterson in particular, is informed by his profession — he’s a real estate consultant and advisor. He holds a master’s degree in city planning from MIT and develops properties in the local area.

That interest is augmented by a fascination with his own family’s history and the Paterson in which he grew up. All four of his grandparents lived in Paterson — his mother’s family emigrated from Lodz and his father’s family from Lithuania. His parents, Harold and Kathleen Polton, were born in Paterson, and he went to Eastside High School in the city.

Now Mr. Polton lives in Glen Ridge; he says that he’s never lived more than eight miles from the city of his birth.

A congregation stands at a bar mitzvah service at the Barnert Temple in 1962.

Though Mr. Polton often speaks on the history of Jewish Paterson, he will concentrate this talk on the architecture of what is sometimes called Silk City, and how it developed from the mid 19th to the early 20th century. “It’s that time when Paterson really grew,” Mr. Polton said. “There wasn’t much of a city before that, and there haven’t been a whole lot of changes since then, architecturally speaking.” Buildings that were standing in 1905 either still stand today, or were torn down and replaced by nothing. Therefore, “to understand the city as it is today means understanding what happened during that period. Paterson today is a living laboratory of late 19th, early 20th century architecture.”

Paterson, which was born just after the American revolution, came by its reputation as an industrial city naturally. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton and his Society for Useful Manufactures championed the city’s founding, and named it for William Paterson, the New Jersey senator and governor who was among the signers of the Constitution.

The society knew that the new country needed an industrial base if it were not to be reliant on foreign industry. Early on, Paterson became an important locomotive manufacturer, second only to the Baldwin Factory in Philadelphia.

In the 1850s and 1860s, before the great immigration that took place at the end of the 19th century, Paterson developed a nascent Jewish population. Many of them were silk manufacturers. It’s odd to think of Paterson as having an “Our Crowd” kind of Jewish population, but it did. Some of the Victorian-era houses that Mr. Polton will talk about were built by those German Jews.

Soon, Paterson became a destination for the Jewish silk weavers of Eastern Europe and Russia who wanted to escape the pogroms and move somewhere where they could earn a living at their trade.

The Ellenbogen family lived here,
in this big house on Broadway; Mangold Ellenbogen owned a successful shirtmaking factory.

“It was during the years between 1890 and 1920 that the real wave of Jewish immigration came to Paterson,” Mr. Polton said. “There’s a strong connection between Paterson and the textile cities in Poland and Russia at that time, notably Lodz and Bialystok.”

One of the most prominent of the Jewish silk manufacturers was Nathan Barnert, who emigrated from Poznan, in what is now Poland but was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1849. “He was a model citizen, mayor of the city — elected twice — philanthropist, and real estate developer,” Mr. Polton said. “He made his money manufacturing uniforms for the Union side during the Civil War, and he built mills and leased them out to industrialists of all kinds of backgrounds.”

In his overview of the residential parts of Paterson, Mr. Polton intends to talk about the Barnert home, which was built during the period he will highlight. He also will talk about Barnert Temple, which stood in the heart of downtown Paterson, and was an example of typical Victorian architecture. “Unfortunately, the temple was demolished,” he said. “There’s a White Castle there now. It breaks my heart.”

If you walk along the streets of the city today, you will see remnants of Jewish Paterson in some of the buildings, although they are no longer owned by Jewish organizations. The YMHA has been converted to a special needs school, the Norman Weir School. Barnert Hospital, famous in the area for so many years, has been demolished and replaced by a building that houses a health care clinic.

Temple Emanuel stands vacant.

Mr. Polton’s talk is free of charge. For Zoom information, email For more information on the Jewish Historical Society, go to

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