The Bloomfield Avenue that might have been — sleek, modern, totally different
by TALIA WIENER
For Montclair Local
In 2005, architect Ira Smith of SmithMaran Architecture + Interiors LLC was a member of the Montclair Historic Preservation Commission. He was approached by someone within the organization who asked that he take a look at something — a long, narrow, wooden box adorned with a thick layer of dust.
Smith, who has a strong interest in town planning and architectural history, obliged. Inside the box were 37 glass slides and one piece of paper that read: “Teague Report 1946: Unified Storefronts Bloomfield Ave.” The slides each featured two images. On the bottom, a photograph of a block of storefronts on Bloomfield Avenue and on the top, a rendering of that same block architecturally reimagined.
Smith assumed the slides must have been part of a town initiative and decided to do more research. More than 15 years after first opening the mystery box, Smith presented his findings on April 1 as part of the Montclair History Center’s biweekly virtual presentation series “History at Home.”
He shared what he has discovered about the slides, their origins, and how they remain relevant today.
“What you’re about to see is no April Fool’s joke,” Smith said at the beginning of the evening. “It’s a repository of images that gives us a fascinating visual record particular to Montclair that few people know about.”
The slides were created by “Dean of Industrial Design” Water Teague and his firm, offering up a then-modern take on 1940s Bloomfield Avenue. Smith described Teague’s plans for the street as homogenous and retail-focused. Blocks that housed buildings of varying stories were flattened out, creating a uniform appearance. There also seemed to be a move toward privatization of public property, with fire and police headquarters turned into a department store.
This desire for modernization was a direct result of currents of the time, Smith said.
Post World War II, he said, returning soldiers were faced with a question: Do we want to be part of the old world or the new world that it seems we have brought into existence?
“Today we would call [older cities] charming and eclectic and vintage,” said Smith. “But at that time, it was seen as the old world in a negative way.”
Smith began to compile what he described as “historical breadcrumbs” that helped him to better understand Teague and his vision for Montclair. The Montclair History Center received a number of drawings that Smith would later realize were the underline drawings for the reimagined renderings on the slides.
He also reached out to Teague’s firm, still in existence today, and gained access to documents related to Teague’s work in Montclair.
Teague specialized in designing the modern, carrying his work as an illustrator into a career in advertising, then product and storefront design. He is perhaps most well known for his redesign of the Kodak Brownie camera, but also worked with Dove, Ford and other prominent brands.
An article in Montclair Times from July 1948 described the night Teague showed his plans to the community, hoping to convince Montclair residents that he could transform Bloomfield Avenue “from the present hodgepodge to a superlative modern shopping district.” Comments from community members showed full support, even an almost reverential appreciation for his interest in helping the city remain relevant, the article said.
But despite the excitement around Teague’s plans, Bloomfield Avenue did not receive a full redesign. Smith hypothesized as to why this was, pointing out how a Montclair-based member of Teague’s team, Carl D. Schlachter, was killed in a plane crash in 1950, possibly hindering the firm’s interest in the project. The funding for the plans and the possible implementation also remains unknown.
But Smith argues that the slides and detailed vision created by Teague, Schlachter, and the firm offer up an invaluable source for Montclair moving forward. He pointed out a few selective transformations that have occurred along Bloomfield Avenue, embracing the character of Teague’s designs. He also spoke about how he considers the plans in his own work helping to redesign Montclair.
“We sometimes think the town we inherit is how it has always been,” said Smith. “In truth, it’s always been evolving.”
Smith’s presentation can be viewed in full on the Montclair History Center’s YouTube channel.