On a recent summer afternoon, a line of cars was parked in Cadwalader Park, just outside Ellarslie. The flowering garden was well tended, exuding the subtle scent of insecticidal soap. A twisted wood pergola led the way to the front entrance, and several patches on the 19th century Italianate villa that houses the Trenton City Museum showed signs of repairs.
New life is breathing into the 36-year-old museum, where the latest director, Donna Carcaci Rhodes, came on board in June. An exhibit, “Trenton Then & Now: Contemporary Views” — part of the celebration of New Jersey’s 350th anniversary and a magnificent anthem to the city — is a draw.
The exhibit is separated into rooms of then and now, the “then” paintings, from the museum’s collection, in the Thomas Malloy Gallery. Named by Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer as Trenton’s artist laureate in 2001, Malloy was a chronicler of the capital city, as well as a founder of the Trenton Artists Workshop Association and a leader in establishing the Trenton City Museum. He died in 2008 at the age of 95.
Taking center stage in the eponymous gallery is Malloy’s 1981 painting, “A Historic Place” — the name deriving from a sign on a red brick facade, exposed through a vacant adjacent lot. Cars are lined up on busy Broad Street, a nicely dressed family is about the cross the street, and in the distance we see the State House dome, water towers, church spires, the Battle Monument, and other Trenton landmarks. It is a reminder of how beautiful a city Trenton is.
Malloy also painted Ellarslie Mansion in 1981, three years after it opened as a museum. So many artists have painted this exquisite building, the works could easily comprise an entire exhibit. Another is Robert Sakson’s 1984 rendering, under the cover of snow — you just want to get out your Flexible Flyer and sled down the hill.
Alongside historic views of Trenton’s red brick factories, warehouses, smoke stacks, bridges, and locks are ink drawings and etchings of the capital city’s Italianate, Beaux Arts, and Greek Revival architecture. A lithograph from the end of the 19th century shows cottages designed for Park Row. A color photograph of the Battle Monument by long-time Times of Trenton photographer/editor Michael Mancuso helps to understand how these historic structures fit in the skyline today.
I am not a Trenton native, nor have I ever lived in the city, but am a frequent visitor and a devotee of its architecture, history, and cultural life. I do not recognize all the buildings in these paintings — such as the RKO Lincoln, in a watercolor by Robert Sakson, with its Flemish-influenced facade — but seeing these paintings, in a place like Ellarslie, enables a greater understanding of the city where the Brooklyn Bridge was conceived.
George Bradshaw’s “Coalport, Trenton,” from 1885, helps us see buildings that today seem anachronistic but once were the backbone of the city. Another etching by Bradshaw from 1932 is titled “Trenton Fair” — the racetrack at the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds is now the sculpture pad at Grounds For Sculpture.
Kate Graves paints flowing watercolors of the city’s crumbling derelict buildings, such as the Roebling Complex, with its air handlers — like little smokestacks — at top. “The Roebling Complex is a potent site and metaphor for the social history of Trenton,” she writes. “I believe in the power of. transforming the detritus of past culture into something new and sustaining for the future.”
Another name associated with watercolor renderings of Trenton’s historic edifices is Marge Chavooshian, who here painted (in 1980) a house with seven gables, operating as Prospect Food Market.
Trenton is a city of contrasts, from iron pours at Art All Night — evoking the city’s industrial past — to scenes of the Delaware River and the bridges that span it, re-enactments of Washington crossing the Delaware to the iconic “Trenton Makes The World Takes” bridge, lit up at night. Writes photographer Brendan Connors: “It is an anachronism. Everything has already been taken and not much is being manufactured. Trenton’s been bled dry.”
Artist’s views of the Trenton Makes Bridge could also constitute a full exhibit. Here we see the bridge during last winter’s “Great Thaw” by photographer Paul Wesley. Officially named the Lower Trenton Bridge, it’s again depicted in a large watercolor by Marina V. Ahun, showing the steel trusses over brick supports with its huge neon red letters under a twinkling night sky.
Former Trenton Police Officer William Osterman also looks at the city at night, also examining the river during last winter’s thaw, with the War Memorial, State House, and other buildings lining the distant sky.
Among Trenton’s messy history is a famous case of racial discrimination. “The Trenton Six” were falsely accused of the murder of a 73-year-old junkyard owner — two were found guilty by an all-white jury. Albert Einstein, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Dubois, and the NAACP came to their aid. Artist Holly Williams depicts how her father, 16 at the time, narrowly escaped being one of the accused because of a change of plan that night. He was able to live a good life, start a family, and, at 83, live to tell about this injustice, recounts his daughter.
David Robinson — it’s his pergola under which you walk when traversing the front path to Ellarslie — has here a sculpture made from wood patterns from Scudder Foundry. “Scudder Foundry patterns represent the hard detailed work performed by highly skilled wood workers and foundry workers from 1886 to the 1950s,” he writes. The iron pour arts collective AbOminOg operates out of the former Scudder Foundry, part of the Roebling Complex.
Nature finds its way into the hardest most impervious surfaces in an industrial city. In Craig Shofed’s “Corner,” multicolored ivy takes over a brick building on a sunny autumn day. Shofed describes it as a war, nature battling industry. “It is in nature’s reclamation that I find my art,” he writes.
Joe Kazimierczyk finds the great outdoors surrounding the city, with railroad bridges crossing the D&R Canal, and reflections of trees. But much of Trenton’s life takes place indoors, and Thomas Kelly shows us the lighter side of domestic life. He looks at “girls with big hair on small porches,” nosy neighbors, and the oasis-like backyards of row houses. “These streets are where giants walked, built, danced, ate, loved, and fought,” he writes. “We do need to look back to go forward. Will we measure up to our historical giants? If we roll up our sleeves like Trenton past, I believe we can.”
One of those rolling up her sleeves is the aforementioned new director. Employed part time by the Trenton Museum Society, Rhodes was previously historic site director/curator at the Pearl S. Buck National Historic Landmark Home in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. During her eight-year tenure there, she oversaw conservation and restoration of the site.
A native and resident of Holland, Pennsylvania, she first came to Ellarslie as a child with her parents, an officer in the Pennsylvania State Police and a hairstylist and homemaker. “They were big park people,” she says. “I remember the amusements here.” Her husband, who grew up in Yardley, recalls when Ellarslie was a monkey house.
Rhodes says she made the move because everything she envisioned for Pearl S. Buck International house had come to fruition. “I’ve had an enchanted vision of Ellarslie from childhood — its windows and balconies and the lovely grounds.” Prior to heading up the Buck house, she had worked for the Art Institute of Philadelphia and Art Review, and gave talks on architecture and textiles in 11 countries. With a bachelor’s degree in art history and a master’s in historic preservation from Art Institute International in Sweden, she has worked in public relations, gallery design, and scholarship.
“Another thing that drew me here was the incredible commitment of the board members,” says Rhodes. During the six months when there was no director, board members “stepped in to keep the place operating. They would man the gift shop, working events and programming.”
Rhodes’ vision for Ellarslie includes expanding what is being done with existing funding, with hope that the city will step up its contributions. Rhodes is grateful for the role the city plays in the maintenance of the grounds and the building (although the aforementioned flower garden is a pet project of the Museum Society). The city owns the building, and the Museum Society owns the collection and operates the museum.
A typical day for Rhodes is attending meetings with all her committees. There are grant deadlines, phone calls with bus tour organizations and school groups, a meeting with the African American Cultural Alliance on collaborating on an event in Cadwalader Park. Her biggest goal ahead is to increase funding, grants, and sponsorships. She also wants to increase visibility through tour groups. Compared to the Buck house, a historic site that was a static exhibition, she sees the rotating exhibitions as a big draw for attracting new visitors. “When people come and see what we have, they will return.” And the more people come to enjoy the museum, the more word of mouth will spread. “Our programming reaches a demographically diverse audience, both young and mature.”
Rhodes says she has always believed in creating immortality through art and through history. “Reading ancient love poems of the Nile, people can relate to it today.”
If a magical genie could grant her one wish, what would it be? “To have sufficient funding to allow the people of Trenton and beyond to really enjoy and know the museum and its collection.”
Rhodes is assisted by James Strobel, a docent also employed by the Museum Society, who has helped keep the museum operating since long-time director Brian Hill’s position was eliminated by convicted Trenton Mayor Tony Mack.
“Ellarslie is a wonderful jewel. I have a lot of faith and commitment that this organization will expand. The thing I’m so impressed with is how many people have come forward and said, ‘What can we do to help.’ They’ve read about the problems Trenton faces, and see Ellarslie as a way of making a difference,” says Rhodes.
Trenton Then & Now: Contemporary Views, on view through Sunday, September 14, at Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum. Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. 609-989-1191 or www.ellarslie.org.