Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Preserving the Past: Newark's Liz Del Tufo

Preserving the Past: Newark's Liz Del Tufo
Written by Connie McNamara

If Newark, New Jersey, had an ambassador of good will, there’s no doubt who it would be. Liz Del Tufo has been called many things: activist, historian, resident, hostess. But “ambassador” seems most fitting because for years she has been spreading the word about the bright spots of the third oldest major city in the United States. She begins to sound like a cheerleader. And, indeed, she was a cheerleader back in the 1940s at Montclair High School. Those skills have been an asset throughout her life, particularly when the topic is her adopted hometown. In 1960, she married and moved to Newark and has been an advocate for the city ever since.

Liz Del Tufo. Image provided by author.
Liz and her husband Ray, an Essex County judge and former United States attorney, built a home in the historic Forest Hill section of the city. After his death in 1970, she chose to stay in a changing and riot-scarred city and joined in efforts to preserve and promote its rich history.

“At one time Newark manufactured everything from A to Z, literally from asbestos to zippers,” boasts Del Tufo. It is also home to the largest container shipping terminal on the East Coast. Its airport is one of the busiest in the nation. But that isn’t all. The city had historic and beautiful structures. “Things were getting knocked down, bulldozed, burned down,” she remembers. “You really felt that we were losing our history.” So in 1974 she and a group of activists founded the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee. They sought protection of historic sites by having them placed on state and national registers.

Two years later with the assistance of the Newark Museum she began Newark Tours. “She had an unyielding desire to bring people back to Newark,” says Byron Clark of The Newark Convention and Visitors Center. “She was doing this back in the 70s when the city was in distress,” he continues. And she still is doing this through her tours and her speaking engagements for various civic groups in and around the city. Which is one of the reasons that on May 11 the Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau’s (GNCVB) honored Del Tufo with the Tourism Trailblazer Lifetime Achievement Award for her outstanding service in Newark tourism. About a decade ago New Jersey Institute of Technology awarded her an honorary doctoral degree for her efforts in protecting Newark’s properties.

Liz Del Tufo. Image provided by author.
Branching out in 1980, Del Tufo became the first director of cultural affairs for Essex County. Shortly after that, she founded the Newark Arts Council. Then a half dozen years later she was appointed the first executive director of the Newark Boys Chorus School, holding the post until 2000. “I did everything at the school except teach,” she good-naturedly offers. These positions enabled her to help expand the arts and empower Newark artists.

In 1990 she was a founding member and later appointed the first chairwoman of the Newark Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission, a post she held for sixteen years. Now as trustee and president, she has been instrumental in saving from demolition numerous historic sites. “I’m not against progress by any means, but these structures should be revitalized, not torn down. They are part of Newark’s history,” she explains. In fact, 70 buildings and five neighborhoods have been nominated to the National and  State Register of Historic Places under her auspices.

Take, for example, the Hahne’s department store on Broad Street. The building opened in 1911, and the store ran successfully until the 1970s when the city itself was undergoing radical changes. Finally it closed in 1987. Because it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the structure could not be torn down. All improvements had to be approved by both the Newark Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission and the N. J. State Historic Preservation Office. Today it is home to a sophisticated mix of commercial, residential and cultural tenants. Likewise, The First National State Bank, built in 1910, is now the charming Indigo Boutique Hotel, and the art deco NJ Bell Telephone Company on Broad Street is being adaptively reused as residences. All of these developers are taking advantage of the tax credits that being listed as registered landmarks brings them.

On her tours of Newark, Del Tufo touts facts that even those who live in this city aren’t aware of. For instance, she is proud that today more than 40,000 students attend college in Newark--more than attend college in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Colleges were invited to put down roots in the 1970s to revitalize the city.

Pride knows no boundaries when she speaks of writer and Newark native Philip Roth, who died at 85 on May 22, 2018. “He loved this city, and he never forgot it,” she told Star-Ledger columnist Mark DiIonno recently. It is so much a part of everything he wrote. Her one regret is that he never won a Nobel Prize. However, the plaque that the landmarks committee put on his boyhood home back in 2005 will have to suffice. When it was unveiled, Roth himself said “Today, Newark is my Stockholm, and that plaque is my prize.”

Standing in front of the Newark Boys Chorus School with a group: The Old Guard of Newark.
Liz Del Tufo is the fifth from the right (blonde hair with white pants). Image provided by author.
Del Tufo still lives in the house that she and her husband built many years ago. She is only a few blocks away from Branch Brook Park, where she frequently walks her dogs. “Did you know that Branch Brook Park is the oldest county park in the United States or that is has the most diverse collection of cherry blossom trees in the nation?” she questions. It was designed by the Olmsted brothers and patterned after Central Park (planned by their father Frederick Law Olmsted) with its winding roads and its shape like a bowl so it would be sheltered form the noise of the outside world. “Most people in Newark don’t have country estates and many don’t have backyards, so Branch Brook serves as their area for outdoor activities.” She goes on: “Do you realize that Sacred Heart Cathedral is the fifth largest cathedral in North America?” And on: “And that the Newark Museum has the largest collection of  Tibetan art in the western hemisphere?”

So much to see and do in Newark and a wealth of history as well. Like the “energizer bunny,” octogenarian Liz Del Tufo isn’t slowing down. She has worked miracles in saving various landmarks in her city and encourages others to “come to Newark and be surprised.”

About the Author
A lifelong resident of New Jersey, Connie McNamara has lived in Mountainside since 1974. She graduated from Douglass College and earned an MA in English from Seton Hall University. She taught high school English for more than thirty years, during which time she served as advisor to the school newspaper, which won numerous awards from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. A stint at Newsweek magazine interrupted her career in the educational arena. Later, as assistant editor at New Jersey Savvy Living, she renewed her calling to the communications field. Since then, she has been a freelance writer. Connie is the author of A History of Mountainside: It Was Only Yesterday, published in 2010 by The History Press.

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