Every morning and at least three times a day, I walk down Washington Street, near the center of Downtown Paterson. It’s a narrow, one-way street beset by what seems an endless row of towering buildings, akin to an alleyway one might find in New York City. Directly across from the entrance to my school stands a structure; majestic not in terms of size, but architectural beauty, adorned with arches, regal lion heads, and two grand, green lanterns on either side of its now boarded up entrance. This is the old police station, where my grandfather used to work.
The police station is often a topic of conversation around our dinner table; we joke about how much the lanterns might cost and how nicely they would accent our home. For obvious reasons, the structure is important to our family history. My mother and father recall visiting my grandfather there, remarking about the grand sergeant’s desk and dispatch, made either from cherry or mahogany wood, with a brass railing wrapped around it’s front and side. It stood at least four feet high and maybe eight long, or so my father seems to recall. But what he did not know, is perhaps what most Patersonians don’t realize…the interesting story behind Paterson Police Headquarters, at 111 Washington Street, Paterson, NJ.
Founded in 1792, Paterson did not always have a police force. Until 1866, the city was content with a city marshal, alderman, a constable for each of its five wards, and a small group of “police” who would patrol Main Street from 7-10pm, to keep “loungers” off of the corners. That year, a series of burglaries moved the city to establish a police force, so on August 1, 1866, ten men began active duty at a salary of $500/year. The police caught the burglars, who were not Patersonians, and one of the patrolmen responsible for their capture would later become the police chief at the turn of the century, during the Great Fire of 1902.
In 1869, the aldermen purchased the old residence of Peter Colt, a contemporary of Alexander Hamilton, and one of Paterson’s co-founders. The Colt residence became the home of the Paterson Police, as well as its City Hall, until 1902 when the current City Hall was built. The residence itself was built in 1814 out of the brown stone taken from the Society’s Mill. It was originally a two-story structure with a large lawn that stretched all the way out to Main Street. When the aldermen cut down this hill they actually added a first floor to the building and created Washington Street.
During the next century, the Paterson Police shielded its city from crime, only to fall victim to fire…not once, but twice. Two February blazes, seventy-eight years apart, almost exactly to the day, would destroy the historic building. The Great Fire of February 9, 1902, just shortly after midnight, began in the trolley sheds not far from 111 Washington Street. The blazes quickly engulfed almost all of downtown, including the headquarters and the brand new City Hall. The structure was rebuilt and stood until February 8, 1980, when a general-alarm fire broke out, gutting the interior, and displacing the Paterson Police, who would never again return to the historic site.
Following the 1980 fire, the Paterson Police station was moved to the old Central High School/Martin Luther King location on Hamilton Street, adjacent to the old courthouse, while a new complex was erected on Broadway, around the corner from the old site. The Paterson Public Safety Complex, also known as the Frank X. Graves Public Safety Complex after one of the city’s mayors, (who was also my grandfather’s best man, and to whom my grandfather also wrote a parking ticket) has housed the Paterson Police ever since 1980.
As for 111 Washington, the building stands vacant. It is not owned by the city. Its windows are boarded up and the regal lanterns now frame the “for sale” sign that hangs at its once grand entrance. Its ornate façade is weathered and hides a damaged interior as well as a forgotten story. People walk by and don’t even raise their eyes to it. Almost two centuries later, it has become an overlooked symbol of Paterson’s past; a piece of history for sale.
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