If you’re a student at NJIT, chances are that the college brochure you were sent as a high school senior — which may have even encouraged you to apply — was covered in a glossy picture of Eberhardt Hall, the Gothic Victorian building on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Vaguely reminiscent of a certain fictional school for magic and looking out onto a manicured lawn, it’s no surprise that Eberhardt serves as the face of campus.
Eberhardt Hall is a stunning piece of architecture — it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the United States government’s list of places or structures that must be preserved for their historic or artistic value. Yet for most of its history, Eberhardt was not the Alumni Center that NJIT students know and keep a wary distance from. In fact, from 1857 to 1947 — nearly a hundred years — the building was better known as the Newark Orphan Asylum.
Built in 1857 by John Welch, a founding member of the American Institute for Architects, the Asylum was originally commissioned by a group of Protestant women in 1846 for orphaned children. The building was extremely well-equipped for the time, featuring luxuries such as gas lights, steam heat, hot and cold running water, and even safety features such as a fire extinguishing system and emergency exits. A south wing to the Asylum was built in 1874 and mimicked the style of the initial construction; all told, the building could house 110 children. It was built on High Street, better known today as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Although the lives of the youths and caretakers who resided there are hard to picture over 150 years later, the following details are available due to the diligent record-keeping of the Newark Public Library and the New Jersey Historical Society.
Children generally entered the Asylum between 2-10 years old and were released at the age of 12. If financially able, their relatives were required to pay a monthly fee of up to four dollars for the care provided. Relatives and friends were allowed to visit the Asylum on the first Friday of the month, but not on legal holidays unless they had acquired special permission. The orphans were not sent to public school, but rather schooled on the grounds of the institution. Although they were not provided specific manual or industrial training, the Asylum had summer quarters called the Mountainside Memorial Home where the orphans and staff would live for three to four months. Here, the children were expected to work and play.
“The change from the great, castle-like building in High Street to the modern home in the country was made last Wednesday,” proclaimed the Newark Sunday Call on June 17, 1906. “The little orphans are in for three or four months of perfect enjoyment.”
That summer, nearly 100 orphans made the trip to Westfield, the site of the country home. The older children — who were no more than 11 years old — had finished their education and were expected to contribute to the household. The older girls would help with the domestic responsibilities of the house and take care of the younger ones, while the boys were to be taught about trade and agriculture. The youngest children would continue their lessons during the summer.
However, the orphanage was no longer in use by 1947, and it was purchased by the Newark College of Engineering, NJIT’s former name. The building was renamed Eberhardt Hall after Frederick Eberhardt, a member of the College of Engineering’s Board of Trustees for 36 years. Its new incarnation as the Alumni Center began in the early 2000s with a restoration that won the 2006 Donald T. Dust Recognition Award from the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee.
After multiple semesters walking past it, Eberhardt Hall seems prosaic, especially sandwiched between other large buildings on the Rutgers-Newark campus and Fenster Hall. Therefore, it’s somewhat eerie to see photos of it from the 19th century, imposing and lonely. Eberhardt Hall has seen countless generations of students pass through and may well stand collecting history for centuries to come.