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.
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.
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.
*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.
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