History for Sale: The Story of 111 Washington, The Old Paterson Police Headquarters

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.

Police Station Front

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.

111 Washington Street from book

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.


Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved. For permission to reproduce contact MissOPaterson@aol.com

About Eileen Opromollo

Eileen is a veteran-educator, published historian and digital content-creator, with an MA History and MFA in Creative and Professional Writing. Her coursework at New York University and William Paterson University has inspired and honed her skills as a researcher, editor, writer, and critical and creative thinking. Her career experience has merited her expert communications and management expertise, and an aptitude for distilling information into clear, concise summaries and presentations. Her passion and practice have earned her academic and professional accolades, including the NYU Founder's Day Scholar Award, Phi Alpha Theta membership, and the NJ Governor Teacher Recognition Teach of the Year Award. Eileen is, above all, a storyteller and ardent fan of the human spirit. Her self-proclaimed best accomplishments are those of her students.
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24 Responses to History for Sale: The Story of 111 Washington, The Old Paterson Police Headquarters

  1. Steve Sandor says:

    What a great and sad story. I really appreciated how your descriptions breathed life back into the building even if for a moment, “grand sergeant’s desk and dispatch, made either from cherry or mahogany wood, with a brass railing wrapped around it’s front and side.”

    I wonder were the causes of all the fires ever discovered? Were they “accidents” attempting to route the police out or just bad luck? How representative do you find this building of the “loss” in historical terms that Paterson has gone through?

  2. MissO says:

    Thank you, Steve.
    I don’t know much about the cause of the second fire (1979). However, the Great Fire of 1903 started in the trolley sheds a few blocks away from the police station. I will most likely be covering part of the fire story in an upcoming blog, but I will say that the fire ripped through the heart of downtown, destroying the brand new City Hall, reaching all the way to St Joseph’s Cathedral, about a mile away.

  3. milly says:

    I can’t even begin to count the number of times I have looked at that building and wondered why it stood silent. The boarded windows hid what is inside, leaving my imagination to run wild. The questions, so long unanswered, are now fodder for new scenarios. Miss O, this article is amazing!
    I loved the imagery and the infusion of your personal history with that of Paterson’s. I look forward to more.

  4. Maribeth says:

    What a great read! I’ve passed the building before and it’s nice to finally know the history!

  5. Alyson says:

    Miss O,

    I never knew the history behind that building. Thank you for teaching me something today! Your personal connection to the story added a new life to the building I will now stare at with admiration when I pass it.

  6. Cousin C says:

    Love this blog ,can’t wait to read the next .you had me right back in the early 1900 s with Belgium block roads and model Ts..

    You are such an amazing writer ,love you

  7. digenion says:

    Where did you get your photos? I like the Paterson’s City Hall photo. Did you interview your grandfather?

  8. Anna g says:

    Miss O,

    Def caught my attention with this. Awesome info on the history of that building. Passing by it, i never put much thought into what it once was. (Actually twice was) I’m not much of a blog reader but keep “re-writing” history and you may just make one out of me. Nice work!

  9. Ruth Ann says:

    Miss O,
    What a captivating story. It was a great way to tell the people of this city the history and how important it is. Paterson has a lot of history behind it and you definitely brought it out in this story. Put a smile on my face to read and again the picture was crystal clear, I was able to visualize as if I was there. Would love to read more of your work, you truly are talented and gifted!

  10. gaffneykyle says:

    It’s fantastic that you were really able to bring this building to life. It’s tough to think that so many other landmarks around the country have compelling stories such as this and yet they might never be told.

  11. aceinthesun says:

    Very interesting article about the History of Paterson! Great execution of the building’s past. Do you think it should be bought by the city and preserved as a Historical Landmark?

  12. Don says:

    Nice job on this. I’m retired PPD and retired PFDA and was there for the fire in 1980. This was a very good story on a valued piece of Paterson History.

    • MissO says:

      Thank you, Don.
      It means a lot coming from someone who was there.
      You probably knew my Grandfather, Mario Opromollo.

  13. Patricia Kirwin Henderson says:

    A great story that few would ever know about so thank you for this story of such an historic building. I wonder if you have any info on the old Paterson Armory..the 5th regiment national guard? Another great landmark with a lot of history.

  14. Lisa R Brown says:

    This is a very good History Lesson. This is just one of our great landmarks our students in Paterson should know about.

  15. Kathy K. says:

    What an interesting and personal story of one of the beautiful building in Paterson.. I am someone who always looks and appreciate the architecture of Paterson. It is wonderful learning about the history. Thanks and great job.

  16. Dot Taylor Beyrouthy says:

    Very interesting story. If the city does not own the building, who does?

  17. Joe Valicenti says:

    I am always interesed in the history of Paterson. When you talk to “older Patersonians” they literally glow with pride for the old city. I wish I was more familiar with Paterson in my youth so I could have experienced those things you so aptly described. Great visuals.

  18. Joanne says:

    It is such a beautiful building–the detail and the symbols are never seen in contemporary architecture. I hope that whoever buys the building restores it–maybe it could become the Paterson Museum and Art Gallery, or a performing arts center for Paterson’s teens and other residents. Joanne

  19. Frank. V says:

    Mario Opromollo, what a guy, one of the best that I had the honor to work with. I was lucky to have been inside that building for the first 10 years of my career with the PPD. It was a beautiful building then, with all of the elaborate wood work. the main desk and the stairs going up to the upper floors.

    • MissO says:

      Frank, I can’t thank you enough for your kind words about my grandfather. We miss him dearly. Thank you for sharing your memory about the interior of the building, as well. I want people to be able to appreciate how beautiful it was.
      I hope all is well with you.

  20. Magda Ludena says:

    Ms. O
    It is very interesting to know the history of the city of Paterson. Personally I see every day from Monday to Friday the building located at 111 Washington Street, but I had never imagined that this building had a great story. Whenever I’ve seen this building as an old building, but thanks to your research, I know now that this is a historic building. thank you very much for this information that is educational not only for students but also for everyone in general

  21. Cliff says:

    Wonderful blog. You bring historical information to life. History becomes relevant when people are able to make connections. Kudos!’m

  22. Domenic Stell says:

    My father was a cop in Paterson also. I remember going to the old police station on Washington St. I was actually there the day the fire happened. Really good story about it.

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