Great Falls State Park

Great Falls State Park

A staircase through a chasm in the rock facing the Great Falls will provide visitors with access to a restored ‘beachfront’ along the Passaic River.
All Images Courtesy Field Operations

Great Falls State Park
Designer: Field Operations
Paterson, New Jersey

The 77-foot waterfall along the Passaic River that lies at the heart of Paterson, New Jersey, is a spectacular enough attraction on its own, but the appeal of the Great Falls is deeper than its physical beauty. For more than 200 years, the power of the Falls, which is the second largest in volume after Niagara on this side of the Mississippi, gave rise to a rich industrial history going back to the country’s beginnings. It is this combination that led the Great Falls to be named a state park in 2004, and that many hope will help spur the revival of the faded industrial city of Paterson. The firm Field Operations won a national competition to develop a master plan for the park’s refurbishment, which will soon get underway with the $10 million budget for the first phase in hand.

The restored raceway with a new wetlands garden (above); a restored water wheel exhibit (center); the loop leading visitors through the park’s woodland areas (below).


The story begins in 1791, when Alexander Hamilton saw an opportunity to use power from the Great Falls to help free the country from its dependence on British manufacturing, and founded the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, which was in effect the first planned industrial city in America. By the mid-19th century, Paterson was the country’s largest producer of silk, and had dozens of mills, including one making Colt guns. By the mid-20th century, Paterson declined along with its industries, and what remains today is an extraordinary series of industrial ruins and raceways, and a working hydroelectric plant that produces 11,000 kilowatt hours an hour.

Field Operations’ plan is based on the idea of six outdoor rooms focused on a natural or historical feature of the park. These take the form of a series of interconnecting loops that surround the Great Falls area and include part of the historic district. “For the first phase, there is a wish list and then there is reality, so we focused on the area around the Great Falls itself,” said project architect Karen Tamir. “That loop is really the main armature for all of the later elements and phases.” Perhaps the most spectacular of these is a staircase that would descend through a chasm in the rock by the falls down to a restored “beach” on the river’s edge. Another follows the old raceways used to channel water that powered the mills, while another passes through the ruins of the American Textile Products mill and focuses on industrial archeology. Overall, though, “the design is quite modest,” said Tamir. “We are cleaning the site up, highlighting some of the wonderful things already there and providing better access to them.”

“The Great Falls is unique in that it is a cultural, industrial, and natural landmark,” said Jay Watson, deputy commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), the agency overseeing the Falls’ transformation into a major new park. The process began in earnest several years ago, when NJDEP asked the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s architecture school to work with the state’s Council on the Arts to conduct a competition to find a design team for the park. The school had been working closely with the city and local organizations for several years, and had established a strong network, which has been important because of the complicated nature of the project. The 7.5-acre park includes brownfield sites, historic landmarks, and a variety of different owners and stakeholders.


Six overlapping trails circle the 7.5-acre site, offering extraordinary new views of the Great Falls.

According to Watson, the DEP and Field Operations worked together to devise logical phases for construction. “The ATP site is particularly complicated because it includes brownfields, so there will have to be some remedial work and some archeological investigations too.” Tamir explained that some design decisions will have to wait until after that work is complete. “One question is how to incorporate the ruins, beyond the segments of wall and preserving the chimneys,” she said. “A few will accommodate program, like a museum in the old Colt Gun Mill, and we would love to include water in the raceways more regularly.”

Those elements may be several years in coming, but that doesn’t worry Watson too much: “Think of Liberty State Park in Jersey City, which has been a 40 year process!” he said. “This will build momentum though, as people see it and use it.”