“You are Here:” The Center of Colt’s City


Last week, we brought our students to see a movie at Paterson’s Center City Mall.  I arrived early, stopped at the café for a white chocolate mocha, stared out of the windows at the old Post Office on Ward and down Hamilton towards Grand at the old Passaic County Courthouse.  The morning traffic stopped and went, on wheels and on feet, but I stood, watched…and plotted.  I needed an angle.

With my latte in hand I walked out onto Ward and started towards Main, stepped out into the intersection, in between the traffic and stopped.  As it began to snow, I stared up at the mall and took my picture.  While onlookers grimaced, I simply smiled.  They looked at me like I was lost. They may have been at Main and Ward looking up at a mall, but I was standing at the top of Colt’s Hill, looking for his mansion.

Center City at Main and Ward intersection

Center City at Main and Ward intersection, March 2013. The groundskeeper’s home is believed to have been on the corner adjacent to the mall.

In February 2009, the Patersonian, Paterson’s now defunct newspaper, printed an article on the Center City Project.  The headlines read: “A Beacon of Light,” in reference to the illuminated dome that would sit atop the Center City Mall in the heart of Downtown Paterson, at the intersection of Main and Ward Streets.  The project itself was also at the heart of then Mayor Joey Torres’ Revitalization Plan, “the economic engine” meant to “generate hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars” for the struggling city.  Torres explained how the dome “was designed to be seen from far away and draw people to this new revitalized Paterson.” But he was not the first to recognize the potential of this historic locale. Just under two centuries prior to Center City Mall’s construction, the hill at this intersection caught the eye of another man of enlightened vision.

Known as Paterson’s prodigal son, and “the greatest of all Colts,” Roswell L. Colt, acquired great wealth in the shipping industry, was married in 1811 to Margaret Oliver, and became the head of the S.U.M. in 1814. He was the son of Peter Colt, a revolutionary war veteran and one of the founders of Paterson, NJ.  (You might recall Peter Colt from my earlier blog.) R.L. was so moved by the city that he wanted to make it the home for his growing family.  He chose this hill to erect a grand estate, at the center of the city, which would later be called Colt’s Hill.  But R.L. didn’t only buy the hill, he purchased all there was of Paterson, at the price of $150,000 and…his marriage.

R.L.’s wife was not too keen on the idea of living in Paterson, at least, not here.  The couple only recently moved from Connecticut to New York, and Margaret, daughter of one the wealthiest men in the country at the time, preferred to build the family home on Garret Mountain, as Lambert’s Castle, Belle Vista, had not yet been built.  R.L. was adamant about his decision and the couple soon separated. As Margaret moved to Paris with six of the couple’s fifteen children, R.L. had laborers move soil and plants from Garret Mountain to this sandy hill (clearly visible in the enlarged 1835 map below) and proceeded to build his estate.

Map of Paterson 1835 zoom

1835 Map of Paterson, enhanced. The Sandy Hill l is the circular, shaded image.
The original map can be seen from the embedded link.

The Colt Mansion was made from brown sandstone, and the sprawling estate on top if its now massive hill boasted hothouses, a lush landscape, as well as a separate home for the groundskeeper. For years R.L. entertained some of the most notable people in the country at his home on the hill, and basically controlled the city below from it. He pretty much drew and redrew the map of Paterson, buying property, naming the streets, and donating monies towards churches and schools.  He was truly the governor in all respects of the word.

R.L. called Paterson his home until his death in 1856.  As a testament to his prominence, nearly all of the factories and Downtown businesses closed down the day of his funeral and his procession included over 2,000 people…on foot.  R.L., his children and his extended family breathed life into Paterson.  They not only made it their home, they greatly influenced its development as the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution.

Though it is difficult to place the exact location of Colt’s mansion, it is safe to say that Colt’s Hill itself has proved central to the city’s progress.* The uninhabited mansion was razed in 1891 in order to further the growing city’s development.  The Passaic County Courthouse and Post Office were erected on what was then Hotel Street in 1898 and 1899, respectively, and Paterson proceeded to prosper around them.  Center City Mall now pulses at the heart of Downtown Paterson with the promise of a new generation of revitalization.  So the next time you visit Paterson, go shopping in our mall, grab a latte at the a.m. Café, look up at our glittering dome, meet Victor Cruz at a book signing at the Planet 301 Arcade, or see a show at the new Fabian 8; and when you look at the mall map, know “you are here,” at the top of Colt’s Hill in the center of our great city.

Colt Mansion from St. John's Cathedral

Colt Mansion from St. John’s Cathedral

*Note: Sources state the property was located at Main between Ward and Grand, facing Grand.  I approximated the location of the mansion as being at Center City based on the location of the sandy hill on the 1835 map, judging from the view provided by the above photograph taken from St. John’s Cathedral at Main & Grand, and based on the position of Smith Street in various maps from later years. However, based on later maps and a source describing the mansion as being on a small hill opposite the location of the old Passaic County Jail, it is more likely that the mansion sat closer to the Passaic County Courthouse. Regardless, the intent of the blog was to convey the importance of Colt’s Hill as the center of the city, as thought by original city planner, Pierre L’Enfant, now being a center for commerce and the seat of County government.

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

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17 Responses to “You are Here:” The Center of Colt’s City

  1. ryerson44 says:

    I love reading about the history of Paterson.
    It’s not often I hear any positive stories of my hometown. It’s always lovely to have someone remember it fondly. Especially when it comes from an honest place of love for a town that was once truly great. Thank you Miss O!

  2. Michele says:

    I read your blog before I went to lunch today and decided to take a walk to Center City. I had no idea of the history of that spot and its significance!

  3. Mindy Prosperi says:

    So, after giving birth to 15 of his children, do you think Margaret moved away from R.L. over his choice of location of his house or simply to get away from his bed????

  4. tk says:

    great article i also enjoyed the one on the old police station

  5. Colleen says:

    Ei, you bring the reader right back to the time that you are describing !!! Love it and you.xxoo

  6. Ruth Ann says:

    another amazing story… I never knew that spot housed a mansion? Thanks for schooling me it is awesome to hear all the great things that once were here in our town! Keep up the good work!!

  7. Loretta says:

    Enjoyed both your Blogs!!!! Bravo!!! Great writing & Great Reading!!

  8. Joe Valicenti says:

    Nice work “O” A joy to read.

  9. Patty S says:

    Love to read about the city I walk around in everyday… Great blog!

  10. Koch says:

    Loved it O! I did not know about The Colt Mansion – Interesting Read – Keep up the good work!

  11. Cliff says:

    Great Information. Well written.

  12. Ms. M says:

    Interesting blog about the city of Paterson and one of its early leaders. I liked the way that you tied in modern commerce to the original residence. Local history can be so interesting and lead to an appreciation of something that seemed mundane.

  13. Mrs. Fischer says:

    Great JOB!

  14. Joanne says:

    Really enjoy reading about what has been–gives me reason to believe greatness can return to Paterson, the once-thriving center of industry, which, I believe, is reinventing itself as a center for the arts.

  15. Ms. Hamilton says:

    I had no idea about this either and I pass by their often and have shopped in that area. This was an excellent post. Very well-written and informative.

  16. Steve Sandor says:

    Your voice clearly comes through in your writing. The conversational and informal style you utilize to bring the reader into the moment is very well done and sets up the transition to the “history lesson” seamlessly. I wonder how do you feel, as a member of the community, about the legacy of R.L. and whether his efforts ultimately left the city better or worse and what a mall being built in the shadow of the mansion site may say about his capitalist legacy?

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