Fred Branch, authority of town’s history, dies at 93

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
In an undated photo, Fred Branch works on a model of the Bloomfield Cemetery gatehouse. Branch died on Sunday leaving the work unfinished.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Frederick Branch, architectural model-maker, foremost Bloomfield historian, and life-member of the Historical Society of Bloomfield, died at his Forest Drive home Sunday, Nov. 4. He was 93.

A graduate of Bloomfield High School, Class of 1943, Branch was born Aug. 26, 1925. He lived in Kearny until 1927 when his family moved to the Bloomfield home where he would reside his entire life.

His start as a model-maker was propitious. Branch said he was taking a class in the craft when the instructor looked at his final classroom project, the model of a living room, and told him, “That will get you a job.”

Branch took the model to the Jersey City studio of Theodore Conrad and was hired. According to The New York Times, the model-making studio of Conrad was where “many modern landmarks assumed their earliest three-dimensional form.”

Among these landmarks was the gravesite of President John Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery. For that project, Branch was responsible for modeling Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, which overlooks the gravesite. Conrad told him that within the depiction, he was most proud of the work done on the Lee Memorial. Branch worked for Conrad from 1959 to 1970.

In 1970, he began working for the Bloomfield Public Library as head of its audio/visual department. He coordinated the restoration of the Little Theatre, located in the basement of the Children’s Library. He is responsible for the plaster designs that decorate the theater, a craft he learned from an uncle, Philip Mullenthaler, who decorated NYC movie houses, including the Roxy Theatre, and in Bloomfield, the Royal Theatre. Branch left the library in 1985.

He also worked for the Newark Museum as a restorer. His model of the Ballantine House is exhibited where the two buildings are joined by a passageway.

As a member of the historical society, Branch was the editor the newsletter, “The New Town Crier.” Famously, at least within the society, in a fit of pique he quit as editor by publishing his resignation. A plaque has been proposed by the society board, dedicated in his honor, to hang in the museum.

Branch also co-authored two books, “Bloomfield,” and “Bloomfield Revisited,” for the Arcadia Press “Images of America” series. For the first, he worked with Jean Kuras and Mark Sceurman; for the follow-up, with Kuras.

Kuras, the current president of the historical society, recalled Branch this week in a telephone interview. She had arrived at his home shortly after he died.

“He loved Bloomfield,” she said. “What he knew, he knew from his heart as well as his mind. That makes a difference.”

She also recalled one time when Newsletter Editor Branch wanted a color photograph in the publication. In order to do that, the picture had to be printed separately, cut out, and then hot-glued into 80 newsletters. The work was done on Branch’s dining room table. Heating the glue kept setting off the fire alarm and fumes kept the both of them leaving the house for fresh air.

“It was agony,” Kuras laughed. “But it was a beautiful newsletter.”
Bloomfield Councilman Rich Rockwell, a Bloomfield historian himself, said in an email that Branch taught him much of what he knows about township history.

“I was always impressed with his encyclopedic memory for names and dates,” Rockwell said. “Often when a history question comes up among colleagues, after some research through the index of old newsletters, we usually discover Fred wrote an article about it.”

Branch also was instrumental in locating the unmarked grave in Bloomfield Cemetery of Alexander Jackson Davis, an eminent 19th century architect.

That discovery helped have the cemetery designated an historic site. Branch will be interred there, in the family plot, in a private service.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct an error. Branch’s home street was originally incorrect.