If I call this article my third installment in a trilogy on abandoned campuses, I guess that implies that I’m done with the subject for a while. And I am. But after exploring old campuses in small cities (or perhaps “big towns” is the better term) in Nebraska and South Dakota, it’s time to take a turn to a much more densely populated setting: an abandoned campus in metro New York City.
Upsala College, in the city of East Orange, New Jersey—the suburb immediately to the east of Newark—closed in 1995. Like Dana College, it owes its origins to Scandinavian Evangelical Lutherans: the Swedish-based Augustana Synod, instead of the Danish Lutherans that built Dana. Founded in 1893 in Brooklyn with the intention of providing a sound liberal arts education to Swedish-American immigrants, it quickly moved first to the Borough of Kenilworth, about eight miles to the southwest of Newark. Its enrollment grew steadily, accommodating foreign-born students of non-Swedish origin as well as African Americans. Among New Jersey colleges, Upsala was the first to grant a four-year degree to a woman. Then, by the mid-1920s, the Trustees purchased a larger tract in East Orange, more ideally suited for a college that at that point taught over 300 students.
At that point in time, East Orange was surging in population, establishing itself as a middle and upper-middle reprieve from the high-density residential patterns of nearby Newark. In its new home, Upsala College continued to flourish through the mid-century, retaining a reputation as a highly selective liberal arts college with a diversifying student body—far less dependent on Swedish immigrants than its early days. The school enrolled nearly 1,400 at its peak in the 1960s.
East Orange and Upsala experienced a reversal of fortune in 1967, in the aftermath of the Newark Riots—one of the worst and highest profile of many riots that took place in the latter half of that decade. An already mounting exodus of middle-class from Newark suddenly burgeoned after the riots, with neighboring East Orange absorbing much of the Newark Diaspora. In the process, East Orange suffered as well. Middle-class whites fled the city, as blacks from the troubled streets of Newark escaped to what they no doubt hoped was a more welcoming, safer environment. Unfortunately, by the mid-1970s, East Orange’s reputation largely echoed that of Newark as a predominantly dangerous place. Not surprisingly, Upsala College suffered grievously as a result. Enrollment plunged, as its previous middle-class student demographic avoided a city with the reputation for crime. The college’s response was to change its academic mission to better synchronize with the demographics of its surrounding neighborhoods, which translated to a school that overwhelmingly attracted first-generation college students, largely either African-American or international students from the developing world. The shift failed to stem the decline, and by the late 1970s, enrollment had dropped by half.
In 1978, Wallace Wirths, a retired executive of the Westinghouse Corporation, made a stopgap philanthropic gesture: the donation of a 229-acre farm in the rural township of Wantage, close to the New York state border. The leadership at Upsala wrung their hands over this generous offer, holding some graduate classes in makeshift barns on the site. Ultimately the trustees chose not to build at Wantage, instead remaining committed to location in East Orange, despite the ever-worsening socioeconomic conditions there.
Fortunes did not improve. Not only did Upsala’s enrollment drop below 500, but the academic standards shifted to adapt to a student body that came from much more disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s possible that prejudicial attitudes from former Upsala supporters may have exacerbated the situation, since most evidence suggested that the mostly white alumni and major donors impugned the board of trustees’ decision to shun the Wantage offer and to continue plunging resources into enrolling non-white students, many of whom the school accepted under lower qualifications. The students often were not academically prepared for the Upsala mission and failed to complete their schooling. The school began to bleed over $1 million annually.
A final effort in the early 1990s almost seemed to rescue the floundering school. Hiring a new president in 1992 spawned a major fundraising campaign that brought in $5 million and doubled the enrollment. The trustees approved expenditures on considerable improvements of the buildings and campus. By 1994, some estimates suggest that Upsala may have boasted a greater number of students than ever before. The school focused its energies on additional training for students with particularly low SAT scores. But the stimulus came at a lethal cost: the school’s formerly rigorous academic standards. And it radically outspent its capacity, even with the renewed enrollment. From what I can tell, a mid-1990s review of Upsala’s accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, coupled with the revelation of a $12.5 million debt, sealed the school’s fate. The Association withheld its decision until 200 seniors could graduate on May 14, 1995. Then it withdrew accreditation. And the ninth president of Upsala—a different individual than the one who initiated the school’s brief revival just a few years earlier—oversaw the dissolution of the school’s assets. Auctions of the college’s prized artwork and historical documents helped raise about $900,000, a far cry from the eight-figure debts.
Thus, Upsala College closed, leaving a blighted space in a city that was already suffering its fair share of residential vacancy. And that’s where this article’s exploration begins.Approaching the campus from the south, it’s easy to tell that the adjacent Doddtown neighborhood was prestigious at one point in time. The trees are mature, the front yards generally seem well-maintained, the lawns are certainly much more expansive than one would typically expect to encounter in Newark. It looks like the sort of neighborhood one would expect adjacent to a college campus. But a premier neighborhood shouldn’t have homes like this:Obviously vacant and neglected. The fact is, Doddtown is probably among the strongest and most stable neighborhoods in East Orange, but it apparently wasn’t enough to attract many prospective students to Upsala during the rapid decline of the 1970s.
Upsala’s campus essentially stretched across about 40 acres, bisected by Prospect Street.The east side of the campus has fared well. The East Orange School District purchased the property almost immediately after the college’s closure for $4 million, then used the buildings and grounds to host a relocated East Orange Campus High School. One of the most prominent buildings is visible from Prospect Street.Looks good. And it’s clearly identifiable under its new role.But that’s a mighty tall fence out front.The powerful wrought-iron gate clearly hints at the crime problems the surrounding area continued to face. Incidentally, it’s a much taller fence than the one at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp that I referenced a few weeks ago. Two decades after Upsala’s closure, crime remains a serious concern in East Orange.
But it’s interesting nonetheless to see how this school, with an enrollment of approximately 1,600 students (about the same as Upsala at its peak), has adapted so much of the campus for different academic purposes, most of it clearly branded through the tall fence.A more contemporary building nearby looks like 1960s-era construction, probably from Upsala’s final days as a successful, financially solvent enterprise. I suspect this might have been the student union.Either the School District demolished many of the other buildings from Upsala’s East Campus, or it retained what used to be the school’s athletic fields.Surprisingly, the back entrance, from Clinton Street, was completely open on a Sunday afternoon.The Ballard Gymnasium survives.The typical American public high school does not split its instructional efforts across multiple buildings, but this may help endow East Orange High School with a more college-prep physicality, creating a more manageable method of working with the large student body by splitting pedagogy into smaller structural units. (I’m really guessing here, because I can’t quite discern the advantage of this approach, other than it was available cheap real estate.) But it hasn’t necessarily spawned any revitalization in the surrounding neighborhood. Though some of the homes fronting the old east Upsala campus are in good repair, others are not, and still others appear completely abandoned. The homes in the photo below directly face the athletic fields that once belonged to Upsala’s grounds.
The portion of Upsala campus west of Prospect Street suffered a direr fate. After determining that its development plan would only involve the eastern campus, the School District sold the remaining western half of the campus to the City of East Orange for $1. Despite much effort marketing the property, it did not attract a buyer—at least not one that had the financials to pass all the tests through a two-year approval process. According to the bankruptcy court trustee, each month it cost $50,000 to maintain, secure and service utilities to the Upsala property. But after the School District bought the eastern half, it was difficult to justify even the reduced expenses for upkeep on the remaining western half of the campus. The City could not afford it. Before long, the buildings went neglected; they suffered vandalism and looting. One fell prey to arson. (Numerous online photo collections chronicle the west campus in an advanced state of blight.) Finally, a decade later, the Alpert and Alpert Development Group agreed to redevelop the site, demolishing the buildings and replacing it with The Woodlands at Upsala, a mix of single-family houses and townhomes.
Today, the western half of Upsala College looks like this:Notice the street sign.Upsala Court. Most of the new homes feature three or four bedrooms, and it appears that, ten years after the redevelopment announcement, the majority of the neighborhood is complete.The developers attempted to integrate the street grid with the surrounding area, so, despite the fact that the homes are obviously newer, the transition is reasonably subtle. Reasonably.The old Doddtown housing that faced the Upsala Campus offers a different streetscape, and the pedestrian connectivity isn’t always as consistent as it could be.And much of the time, the older housing is simply obvious because it’s in much poorer condition.
Considering the reputation that much of East Orange suffers these days, it may come as a bit of a surprise that The Woodlands at Upsala would offer market-rate housing. After all, the City has suffered decades of disinvestment. But the estimated asking price for single-family homes at the Upsala site is around $400,000—well above the national average for single-family detached housing, but only half the typical price for homes in the area. Less than two miles from Doddtown, affluence prevails, so a 2,000-square-foot home at $400K is quite a bargain.
Upsala College’s fate is hardly all that distinctive, and, in hindsight, it demonstrates the capacity for a non-profit institution’s persistent mismanagement to sew the seeds for its own demise. Plenty of schools have operated in declining neighborhoods and continued to thrive. Others, particularly the larger and most prestigious, have successfully galvanized a revitalization of their surrounding communities. Upsala lacked the resources to stimulate such a turnaround, and it seems to have wrung its hands over the costly prospect of a complete relocation. By adapting itself to East Orange’s decline, it declined in tandem. As is the case with Dana and Yankton, the most ardent alums will offer the best opportunity for extending Upsala’s legacy into the future. And, in hindsight, the school serves as an example of what not to do when faced with socioeconomic change at your front door.
Life after Upsala may serve as a lesson for future liberal arts colleges, which, I suspect, will face profound challenges in the decades ahead. The cohort born during the peak of the Great Recession (a time when the US birthrate was at an all-time low) will eventually reach college age, only to find that some schools couldn’t handle the dip in enrollment. Hopefully most colleges will anticipate this shift in demand and avoid the fate of Dana, Yankton or Upsala. Because, as Upsala proves, the odds of a single buyer finding a use for an entire college campus are slim. It is almost inevitable that subsequent transactions will subdivide the grounds, leaving some parts in a mothballed limbo that will eventually face the wrecking ball. Otherwise, the only prospect that might preserve the buildings is another institutional use. Or turn all the grassy areas into parking lots. We never can get enough parking.
Special acknowledgement to Chris Henry for pointing out to me the existence of the remaining buildings from the Upsala College campus.