Transforming a historic department store into an urban arts incubator

Case Study: Express Newark at Rutgers University—Newark

Newark has had its struggles. It has one of the largest shares of students in poverty. It has struggled with both housing value and housing costs. Yet the city is a part of a new movement in social impact—one that derives its value from the arts.

The Design Challenge

This is the 115-year old Hahne & Co. building in Newark, New Jersey:

The Hahne & Co. building occupies a substantial section of its city block, and in its heyday, it was a beloved department store. How could it be transformed to have a second heyday? Rutgers University — Newark allocated 50,000 square feet of the 500,000 square foot building as a distinctive, community-based educational program with an arts incubator, working with L+M Development Partners and KSS Architects. The design challenge? Designing to attract people to the space and weave them through the building.

Design Approach

The design team’s creative approach articulates Express Newark’s community centricity, architecturally expressing how visitors engage with different forms of artmaking. A custom, iconic staircase amplifies the common space and threads people through the program elements; geometrically distinctive wall-angles frame and catalyze spontaneous interactions.

Collaborating with local artists, graphic designers, and nonprofits, the design gives voice to the community — a mural materializes on the walls of the print shop, blurring the line between art and architecture. Natural wood textures contrast with metal detailing and exposed architectural elements, creating a malleable canvas for artistic expression.

The design team spent countless hours in exploratory meetings getting a sense of the Newark arts ecosystem and in detailed planning meetings with the users getting a sense of the program, then worked users through the design development and construction document phases answering questions, making adjustments, and refining the details and design. I can’t imagine a better experience with an architect who had a strong vision for the space, yet was skilled enough to sensitively weave the practical and aesthetic needs of the users into the final project.
- Anne Englot, Co-Director, Express Newark

What’s in the box? Express Newark features a community media center, portrait studio, design consortium, and print studio. Community partnerships are numerous, including charter schools, county and city colleges, boys and girls clubs, the city museum, and local professional artists. Open programs range from weekly Print Club sessions for print markers of all ages to rotating Art Break lessons that help visitors unwind, explore, and experiment with different forms of artmaking. Incorporating the work of local artists, Express Newark is a beacon of diversity and cultural enrichment, uniting people across ages, ethnicities, and occupations — utilizing the Arts as a common bond. Express Newark weaves people in and through the building to best manifest its mission of engaging community in the arts.

Design Outcome

What’s the impact? The design gives voice to the community, incorporating the work of local artists and establishing community spaces that provide the urban neighborhood access to and engagement with the arts.

We want people who walk past the building to feel included, to feel, ‘That place is for me.’
-Anne Englot, Co-Director, Express Newark

Thanks to the ecosystem of tenants, from local businesses to a new Whole Foods, to Express Newark, the adaptive reuse of the Hahne & Co. building has manifested in social change. It is a place where urban tenants work, learn, and play in parallel. And its success depends on its in-place approach to development—elevating existing communities, not pushing them out.

The adaptive reuse of the vacated Hahne & Co. department store provides Rutgers—and Newark—with a unique, mission-driven opportunity to strengthen its relationship with Newark’s citizenry and the State of New Jersey. This is a place of and for Newarkwhere people come together for shared creation, exhibition, and conversation to enhance the city’s vibrant urban core.

Express Newark’s impact has already been widely celebrated and recognized—it was awarded a Social Impact Award from AIA Pennsylvania’s 2017 Architectural Excellence Design Awards:

We can’t wait to see what’s next for Express Newark, Rutgers University—Newark, and the city’s vibrant arts community.


KSS Architects is a full-service architecture, planning & interior design firm in Princeton, NJ, and Philadelphia, PA. Since our founding in Princeton in 1983, KSS Architects has matured, growing in size, abilities, and ambitions. Our clients are leaders in the fields of business, industry, education, development, cultural and social impact.

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