Perhaps you, like us, were intrigued by what DPW worker John Scheiner was doing aloft in the bucket truck outside the Senior Center the past few weeks. We saw that he had put a little wooden canopy over one of the Centre Avenue entry doors a few weeks earlier, but now he was at the town-owned building at the corner of Centre and Irving Place every workday! John made quite a sight “driving” the bucket truck on the sidewalks outside the building as he maneuvered to get the best possible angle to do his work. What that work turned out to be was removing the metal signboard that wrapped around the fascia of the building once known as “Pop Joe’s Rainbow Room” and replacing it with a more aesthetic covering. What John probably didn’t know as he jimmied the metal covering off the building was that he was uncovering a bit of town history when the words “JOES” and “BAR” were revealed to be underneath the metal, remnants of when it was Pop Joe’s.
Pop Joe’s was a popular restaurant and tavern at that location for many years. Obviously, when the town was renovating the building in 1985, the contractors just covered over the existing signs that looked to have been electrified. Later in the building’s long history, it became D’Artagnan’s, another restaurant/bar. The town bought the property in the mid-1980s with the intention of housing the fledgling “Senior Citizen Nutrition Program” there, in addition to providing a meeting place for the town’s three senior citizen clubs (yes, there were three clubs then!). The Nutrition Site was originally located at the Community Center, the old Copa Club at 145 Front Street, where it shared space with other community programs. (The Copa Club was originally the Plaza Playhouse for movies and other recreational activities for many years before the town purchased that building as well.) The late H. Roger Gilbert, town historian and councilman for many years, spearheaded the renovation of Pop Joe’s/D’Artagnan’s under the direction of Mayor Paul Amico. According to then town administrator Philip Kieffer at the grand opening of the Senior Center on February 6, 1986, it was Mayor Amico’s vision to turn the bar into the Senior Center, and Gilbert’s efforts that turned Amico’s vision into reality.
Over one hundred senior citizens attended the grand opening of the Center. Karyn Rosenbaum, who was the Director of Social Services, addressed them: “A lot of love went into this building and we hope you will love it, too. It was prepared for people [the seniors] whom we hold in high esteem.” Roger Gilbert explained in an interview with associate editor Louise Rittberg that appeared in the January 30, 1986 edition of the Home News, that the renovation of Pop Joe’s was done mainly with Community Development Block Grants. The town bought the property through condemnation proceedings for $324,000, and following its renovation, Gilbert conjectured that it was worth $750,000. (We wonder what it’s worth now in 2017 with real estate booming in Secaucus!) The former councilman noted that a grant of $100,000 paid for the bathrooms and exterior work alone. Gilbert also explained that some of the paneling, doors and crash bars from the old Lincoln Junior High School on County Avenue were taken from that building before it was demolished (to make way for senior housing) and used in the renovated Senior Center. “We had to watch our spending,” the councilman advised. Rosenbaum offered, “Everything was chosen to give the place a homey feeling so that the seniors will feel like they are eating in a dining room and not just a hall.” Dominick Papa was the director of the nutrition program, and he got a new glass enclosed office at the Center. In addition to the nutrition program and meeting space for the Sixty Plus Club, Secaucus Senior Citizens and Golden Age Club (the latter is the only club still in existence, and it still meets at the Senior Center), room in the Center was made for the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, the baby station, free child health clinic, and health screenings.
The senior nutrition program is now called Meals on Wheels. Meals can be delivered to shut-in seniors or seniors can come to the Center to eat and socialize with friends. 145 Front Street is still used as a Community and Recreation Center for residents young and old.
Apparently back in 1986 there was quite a debate among members of the town council over what to name the building. Phil Kieffer advised the council that a survey he made of other towns showed that they called buildings used for a similar purpose as Secaucus’s names such as “Nutrition Center” or “Senior Meeting Hall.” Some other names Kieffer came up with included “Chatsworth Exchange,” “The New Rainbow Room,” “The Center at Irving Place,” and “One on One Center” (a play on the building’s address, 101 Centre). Other names suggested by town officials were “The Homestead” and “Auld Acquaintance Hall.” Finally, the consensus of officials was to choose a name that reflected the purpose of the building, and somewhere along the line it became the prosaic “Senior Center,” and seniors still hold their Golden Age meetings there, eat their Meals on Wheels lunches, play cards and bingo, and socialize.
All the old historic signs have been removed and we assume placed in the huge dumpster that was on-site for weeks on Irving Place. John Scheiner, along with his colleagues Lou Minervini, and Louie Canavari, who efficiently cleaned up the debris on the sidewalk caused by the demolition, are still working at the site. We’ll have to do an update once the new fascia is in place. One thing we know for sure, with John and Lou on the job, it will look good!
While doing research for this article, we came across an ancient faded photo in our archives of a building from the early 1900s that bears a striking resemblance to 101 Centre Avenue, the Senior Center. The sign on the big plate glass window says “V. CORTESE, Groceries Delicatessen.” A signboard on the sidewalk advertises “Frost Kist Ice Cream, a Dessert of Perfection.” Another small sign hanging from the front corner of the building says “Carpenter Building Contractor,” but we can’t make out the name of the carpenter. Painted in the window on the Irving side is “White Rose Tea.” If this is, in fact, 101 Centre, that means long before Pop Joe’s, Mr. Cortese (and a carpenter!) called it home. If anyone can educate us and/or (dis)prove our theory, we’d be glad to hear from you!