The Legendary Philanthropies of Newark's Louis Bamberger

by Nat Bodian

(Please click on images to enlarge.)

In all of Newark's history, no citizen of the city ever showed more generosity than the founder of the former downtown Newark department store bearing his name, Louis Bamberger.

Born in Baltimore in 1855, he came to Newark in 1892 and purchased the bankrupt firm of Hill & Craig at 147 Market Street, operating it as L. Bamberger & Co.

In 1912, he built a new store which occupied a full city block and turned it into one of America's greatest and highest-grossing department stores, providing employment at its peak for 2,800 men and women.

Although he sold the business to R. H. Macy & Co. in 1929, he remained with his beloved institution as President until his death.

List of His Contributions

He never married, and, as he accumulated his millions, he established a record of gifts and charitable contributions so great that in 1934, The Newark Museum published a book title "Louis Bamberger: A Record of His Benefactions to His Community and His Country."

The book was published on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the incorporation of The Newark Museum, of which Louis Bamberger was one of the incorporators in 1909 along with John Cotton Dana, and others

The book, assembled by Arthur Frederick Egner, is available for inspection in the Newark Public Library. Its ID number is: ACV-8494.

Long Activity with Museum

Louis Bamberger had been active with the Museum since its incorporation, and on February 16, 1926, the Newark Museum, which since its founding occupied the upper levels of the Newark Public Library, moved into its own beautiful brass-doored limestone building costing $700,000, and fully funded by Bamberger.

Bamberger had announced the gift in 1923 and had engaged the noted Chicago architect Jervis Hunt to design it. Bamberger had also been a donor to the Newark Public Library and was listed as one of its patrons.

The building of The Newark Museum's first home of its own required the razing of an old frame mansion that had been the home of Marcus Ward, governor of New Jersey in 1856, and a leading Newark humanitarian.

Both Ward and his wife were descendents of original Newark settlers.

To help the Newark Museum off to a good start in its own building, Bamberger gave the Museum many art, archeological, and scientific objects from his own personal collection.

Historic Society Broadway Building

Another Newark institution that Bamberger personally funded was the New Jersey Historical Society. In 1931, he donated a new structure for the Historical Society at 230 Broadway, enabling the Society to expand from a smaller downtown Newark location.

In addition to the new building, Bamberger was one of the Historical Society's greatest benefactors. Among his contributions was his extensive autograph collection of some 250 historic items. Among them was a full set of autographs of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.*(see bottom of page)

Interest in Other Newark Causes

Among his other Newark nonsectarian benefactions, Bamberger was one of the most generous contributors to Newark's Community Chest. He was also involved in numerous other Newark causes, but his innately shy and retiring nature oftimes prevented them from becoming widely known.

His Cultural Funding

Music was a strong interest of Bamberger and he endowed music festivals and scholarships for young people.

He owned radio station WOR since its founding in his store in 1922 and funded numerous programs devoted to home and cultural interests. In the 1920s, in the early days of radio when most homes did not yet own radios, he was responsible for placing radio received sets in Newark public schools, where school children could hear some of the cultural programs he funded for their benefit.

Monmouth Street School, which I attended in the 1920s received one of those radios. I recall as a student sitting in the school's makeshift auditorium with students fro other classes to hear the regularly scheduled radio broadcasts of Walter Damrosch, former conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Symphony and composer, to hear his music appreciation programs. It was before we had the first radio in our home, and few others in this neighborhood could afford radios either.

There was also the Bamberger Music Scholarships, which provided the students of Newark's high schools with an incentive for earnest effort and development of character.

His Role in the Jewish Community

Bamberger was also considered the leading Jew of Newark's large Jewish population. At the outset of World War II it was about 60,000. He and his sister, Caroline Fuld, were both active members of the Temple B'nai Jeshurun on High Street.

The department store owner was also involved with Newark's YM-YWHA movement. The 'Y' movement in Newark was the center of Newark's Jewish social and cultural life in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

When the 'Y' held a fund-raising drive for a new YM-YWHA building on May 5, 1920 at the Newark Armory, Bamberger started off the $500,000 drive with a personal contribution of $25,000. His brother-in-law and business partner, Felix Fuld, also was a substantial contributor and the three-story Georgian brick building was opened in 1924 at 652 High Street, with its auditorium named "Fuld Hall."

With his brother-in-law and partner, Bamberger also contributed generously, but usually anonymously, to virtually every Jewish Community Center erected in New Jersey.

Major Donor to New Beth Israel Hospital

In 1928 Bamberger was a major donor to another Newark Jewish institution -- the Beth Israel Hospital, originally opening at High and West Kinney Streets to afford a place of practice for Newark's Jewish doctors who were turned away at other hospitals.

The High Street facility had grown from 21 beds to 84 beds and was bursting at the seams, and after a successful fund-raising effort to which Bamberger was a major donor, the $3.5 million 500-bed facility was opened at Lyons Avenue and Osborne Terrace.

The hospital has since grown and become a world-renowned medical facility whose 12-story original Spanish-style building continues to dominate the South Newark skyline.

Gifts to Some Other Jewish Organizations

While his moneyed gifts were not always a matter of public record, these are some of the Jewish organizations that benefited from Bamberger's largess: The Jewish Theological Seminary ... the American Jewish Relief Committee ... the Palestine Foundation Fund ... the Emergency Committee on Jewish Refugees ... the Jewish Children's Home ... the United Jewish Appeal ... the American Jewish Committee.

How He Dealt with Leadership Offers

In 1930, Bamberger was offered the presidency of the High Street 'Y' building. He declined the offer stating he didn't want to be on the front line and that instead if they found someone else he would contribute $25,000 a year for two years toward their salary.

Bamberger, despite his great wealth, was modest and reserved and not inclined to public speaking or leadership roles in the various charities that he supported. Whatever leadership roles he did accept were usually as "Honorary President."

A 1930s vote among readers of the Newark Evening News brought recognition to Bamberger when he was voted "One of Newark's Leading Citizens."

Largess to His Employees

Louis Bamberger considered the 2,800 employees of his store as his extended family, and he was adored by the majority of them. They would look out for him when he arrived at the store mornings, entering through the Washington Street entrance.

His usual attire: A homburg to match his light or dark attire, and striding jauntily swinging a gold-tipped walking stick.

He called his employees co-workers, and in the late 1920s had established in his store an extension of Rutgers University through which his employees could take courses in many subjects.

Other features Louis Bamberger provided for his co-workers were a library, a fully-equipped health department, a social service department, and a cafeteria. There was also a Bamberger Music Club for co-workers, and members of the Club were given season tickets for symphony concerts.

When he sold the store to R. H. Macy in 1929, his final consideration for his veteran co-workers was a gift of $1 million, divided among 236 employees "for their long and faithful service."

His Greatest Gift

Perhaps Bamberger's greatest philanthropy was the gift, jointly with his widowed sister, Caroline Bamberger Fuld, of $5 million ($50 million in today's dollars) for the creation and establishment of The Institute for Advance Study in Princeton.

It was founded as an independent private institute where intellectual inquiry could be carried out through fundamental research and intellectual inquiry across a broad range of fields, under favorable circumstances.

Funded in 1930, it helped create a haven for many leading European scientists fleeing Hitler's Nazi tyrannies.

Albert Einstein was among the first to join the staff of the Institute and was a permanent faculty member. The institute has since become the home to more than a dozen Nobel Prize winners either as faculty or members.

Newark's Reaction to His Death

When Louis Bamberger died in his sleep in March 19441, all of Newark went into mourning.

As a tribute to this notable Newark citizen, all Newark flags were at half mast for three days. Newark City Hall was decorated in mourning colors at the direction of Mayor Vincent J. Murphy.

The store which he had founded, now owned by R. H. Macy & Co., closed for one day, and its display windows on Market Street carried photographs of the store's deceased founder.

Perhaps the greatest quality of Louis Bamberger, as one of Newark's wealthiest citizens, was his philosophy of distributing the bulk of his wealth while he was still living.

Louis Bamberger was 88 years old when he died.

After-Death Benefactions

His benefactions continued after his death. Among the bequests in his will, Louis Bamberger left an additional one million dollars to the Institute for Advance Study, and works of art for the Newark Museum.

*From Maureen O'Rourke (Reference Associate New Jersey Historical Society):

The New Jersey Historical Society no longer has the full set of autographs of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. They do have wonderful manuscript groups from him:

The Autograph Collection, MG 11

Shippen Family Papers, MG 375

East Jersey Quitrents Accounts Books, MG 217

Goble Shoe Manufacturers, MG 106

Philip Kearny, Civil War General, MG 15

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