How the Newark community rallied together to save its train station

Co-Managing News Editor

As university students gathered on benches and stairs awaiting their train home, 9-year-old Jackson Lawrence set up his new birthday gift for use just outside the Newark History Museum: a tripod and video camera to capture trains as they pass.

Jackson and his mother Robin Lawrence, a Newark resident of 20 years, are regulars at the Newark History Museum, which shares a location with the Newark Passenger Train Station.

“Jackson and I are both old souls, so we like history,” Lawrence said, listing the museums and train stations they frequent. “With the digital age and the constant demand of entertainment, some people forget about what got you there.”

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Built in 1877, the Newark Passenger Railroad Station was strictly that until 1981, when it became the Newark History Museum as well. Having few renovations and minimal fixes throughout its life, the City of Newark found that the building was due for $700,000 worth of repairs in August 2022.

Without proper funds allocated for refurbishment, the city prepared to sell. However, when the Newark Historical Society – the group responsible for museum upkeep – learned about the plans to sell through a newspaper article, they launched a rescue mission: the “Save the Train Station!” initiative.

“We have always known that the building needed to be repaired in some way,” Newark Historical Society President Kaitlyn Tanis said. “But with that being said, we didn’t know that the city was having these conversations without us originally.”

Tanis went on to express that there could have been a better solution to keep the building if the Historical Society had been brought into the discussion sooner. Instead, the plan was, “We don’t have the money, so it’s either you raise it, or we sell it,” according to Tanis.

The society’s initiative gained traction quickly as the community jumped to action.

Longtime Newark residents, university faculty, members of the Historical Society and representatives of Preservation Delaware wrote letters advocating for funding from the state. 

They, and anonymous others, sent in donations ranging from $10 to $5,000, according to Tanis. Together, those involved raised $25,000 by April – just eight months later..

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“For a very itty-bitty historical society that is totally volunteer-run, I was really proud that the community came out and supported us in the way that they did,” Tanis said. “We didn’t have a particular donor who reached out. It literally was just a ton of people contributing.”

The money that was not gathered through donations was allocated by the state in its annual infrastructure bill – the Bond Bill  – due to the amount of advocacy groups vying for more money.

“If there’s a building where people would say, ‘That’s an iconic building that is part of the fabric of Newark as I know and understand and appreciate it,’ that would be the building I would expect people to rally around,” Michael Emmons, assistant director of the Center for Historic Architecture (CHAD), said.

Emmons, one of those who sent a letter, felt strongly that putting the station’s future at risk “would be a mistake.” As a board member at Preservation Delaware, he explained that the building which now houses the museum is a “rare survival” of Gothic Revival architecture.

As he said this, he pointed out the building’s decorative brickwork, Lancet-style windows, steeply pitched roof and awning over the railroad tracks.

The structure also falls under the “Historic buildings” designation of Newark’s Code of Ordinances. The list includes 36 sites in Newark that have additional regulations when it comes to alteration in order to “safeguard and prevent further loss of the city’s architectural heritage.”

The Green Mansion on Main Street also qualifies as a historic building and is registered on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2022, it was the subject of much controversy when a majority was demolished to make way for a seven-story hotel.

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The recent modernization and growth of Newark – which puts older sites at risk for change – is one of the reasons so many community members felt strongly about the Newark station and the history museum within, said Emmons.

The university opened its first high-rise on Star Campus in 2018, and construction continues to expand across the 272-acre facility. However, the newest addition to campus will be one along East Delaware Avenue. “Building X,” a four-story laboratory and science classroom space, is slated for completion in fall 2024.

“It’s important that we are developing and bringing in new businesses and bringing in new attractions for students, but it’s also important to still hold a piece of history here so that we’re preserving that for future generations,” Tanis said.

Tanis expressed that the town might not have “had such a strong reaction” without a university nearby to provide support for the cause. While grateful for the “large student involvement” and aid of departments such as CHAD, she feels that the administration can do more.

“I think the university in general definitely has a bigger role to play in terms of historic preservation of buildings in Newark and the surrounding community,” Tanis said, recalling that the university often only intervenes if the matter is on their own soil.

Emily Passera, a class of 2016 alum, no longer lives in Newark but returns often to visit friends, walk around and see what has changed in the place she once called home.

To her, the preservation of the museum is important not only to the fabric of Newark’s community. It also plays an important role for those university students who are just passing through, she said.

“There is that very transient nature with college students only here for four years,” Passera said during her visit to the museum. “There’s a lot of change, but it’s an anchor to a community when you have a building that’s held by a historic society.”