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Frank Cambria, American Roma Garden

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About the Artist/Site

For 28 years, Frank Cambria covered the 12-by-15-foot lawn in front of his Paterson, New Jersey, home with handmade patriotic signs, fountains, brightly colored statues of saints, cherubs, and historical figures. According Cambria, his American Roma Garden was a salute to the world’s greatest achievements: democracy, painting, sculpture, music, and religion. The garden was also his visual autobiography, for those five “great things” shaped his life.

Born in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Italian immigrant parents, Frank Cambria was a devoted Catholic, and was proud of both his ethnic heritage and his American citizenship. When he was nine years old, his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he studied music, mastering the trombone, valve baritone, and acoustic guitar. Before serving in the United States Army Infantry Band during World War I, he played trumpet for a traveling carnival and performed concerts locally.

When his service ended, he returned to Chicago and resumed his career as a performer. He developed his own 24-string, triple-necked version of the Hawaiian steel guitar and formed a traveling ensemble. After the group’s 1932 performance in Paterson, Cambria decided to settle there and married. He took on work as a shoe repairman when music gigs were scarce and later opened his own repair shop. In the 1950s and 1960s, he used the back of his store as his art workshop, creating there the patriotic signs and sculptures he later installed on his property.

The inauguration of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic U.S. president, inspired the formerly staunch Republican to sculpt a bust of the Democratic leader. Several additional portraits followed, along with a bust of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. 

Well into his eighties, Cambria continued to add to the garden, and to play trombone during Italian feasts. Then his health began to fail.  In 1988, at the age of 92, he moved to a nursing home and his family sold his house.  Although the new owners said they had admired and wanted to keep the American Roma Garden, they claimed insurance providers would not offer home coverage unless the yard was cleared. Workers knocked down the statues for cartage.

~Holly Metz

SPACES Archive Holdings

1 folder: images

Map and site information

Not Exact Address
Paterson, New Jersey, United States
Latitude/Longitude: 40.914949 / -74.179588

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