Working for Smart Growth:
More Livable Places and Open Spaces


Murphy Varnish Works

Project Name: Murphy Varnish Works

Community-focused restoration of an abandoned historic icon creating new housing and retail; a catalyst for neighborhood redevelopment and improvement.

Primary Partner Team: Golden Towers Corp.; Studio for Urban Architecture & Design (SUAD); City of Newark (Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission)


Murphy Varnish Works
New Life for a Historic Treasure and a Neighborhood

“This area has changed completely from the time we started fixing this building. The neighbors are very happy. This is a special project. I’m lucky to have the chance to put my hands on this building. I don’t think I’m going to have another chance like this in my life…the history of the building, the way the building is, the construction of the building…you don’t find a building like that today.”—Golden Towers Corporation President Javier Meleiro

Located in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, Murphy Varnish Works is a 19th century architectural gem listed on the state and national Register of Historic Places. Originally part of a complex spanning numerous blocks, the imposing structure was built by The Murphy Varnish Works company, famous for its varnishes and employing hundreds of Newark residents at the turn of the twentieth century. 

The Murphy Varnish Works founder Franklin Murphy was an astute businessman who had served in the Civil War and was known for his progressive and compassionate treatment of workers, and for the generous benefits he provided to his employees. Murphy later served in the New Jersey State Legislature and became the state’s 31st governor. Making his own contribution to smart growth in New Jersey, Murphy was the creator of the Essex County park system. 

When the varnish company closed in the 1950s, a chemical storage facility took over the space and left it environmentally contaminated. The rest of the complex was demolished, leaving one   building vacant and neglected for close to 40 years. Over time, the beautifully detailed industrial warehouse became a neighborhood eyesore and local crime spot. 

Javier Meleiro, president of Newark construction company Golden Towers Corp., passed by the abandoned structure every day for years. Originally a mason, Mr. Meleiro fell in love with the building’s high quality construction and unique architectural features, including large round windows built for light and ventilation for workers, and brick walls that are 36 inches thick. Mr. Meleiro purchased the building and began its transformation in 2015, including the environmental remediation. Many local contractors were involved in the building’s restoration.

Today the building is a mixed-use readapted structure housing 46 apartments and retail space, maintaining its historic industrial architecture and character. The building includes 13 to 30-foot high ceilings with a large amount of natural light and a lobby featuring a 700 pound elevator wheel displayed between two massive columns. Due to the building’s configuration, each residential unit is unique in size and layout. Amenities for residents include a green lawn courtyard with 3,000 square feet of porous coverage for use by residents.The building’s original smokestack was preserved and has been incorporated into the courtyard, with two grills and a gazebo surrounding its base. Within the building there is a common gaming and socializing room with an exterior terrace, and private meeting rooms. Far ahead of its time, the original Murphy Varnish Works complex housed an on-site gymnasium for employees and the readapted building houses one again. Located in an area prone to street flooding, Murphy Varnish Works retains its stormwater on site with its own system resting beneath on-site basement parking, decreasing the burden on the City of Newark’s already overwhelmed combined storm and sewer system. 

Murphy Varnish Works is within walking distance to Newark Penn Station, local restaurants, and retail shops in a neighborhood once devoted to industry that has become more and more residential over the past decade, making it prime for redevelopment. The community has been thrilled with the building’s restoration, which has spurred additional redevelopment and development in the neighborhood. Thanks to the vision and determination of Mr. Meleiro and the team he assembled, Murphy Varnish Works is an incredible success story of the restoration and redevelopment of an abandoned historic building to its original architectural brilliance and beyond. This is a shining tribute to two men, Franklin Murphy and Javier Meleiro, who have invested so much in the city of Newark. 

See all 2020 Smart Growth Awards

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