Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Ellarslie Mansion — home to the Trenton City Museum — has a rich architectural story, as well as a connection to Princeton. The Italianate villa was built as a summer residence by the architect John Notman, who also designed Prospect House on the Princeton University campus. The City of Trenton opened the first museum here in 1889, and over the years it was a restaurant, ice cream parlor, and monkey house before reopening as a museum in the 1970s. So it is a most suitable setting for the current exhibition, “The Built Environment: Design for Life,” on view through Sunday, May 3.

The goal for the exhibit, says co-curator Elise Mannella, is to educate the eye. “As a community, if we are aware of the possibilities, we can ask our local political leaders to strive higher. We selected architectural examples because of the way they chose to solve a problem.”

The exhibition, which consists of photographs, architectural designs, and illustrations, is divided into three sections: Design for climate and how architecture fits with climate patterns, adaptive re-use of older buildings, and contemporary architecture.

Much of the contemporary architecture is from the Princeton University campus — Mannella says the university is like Grounds For Sculpture for architecture, with examples of leading architects of the day — Frank Gehry’s Peter B. Lewis Library, Rafael Vinoly’s Carl Icahn Laboratory, I.M. Pei’s Spelman Halls, Robert Venturi’s Wu Hall, Minoru Yamasaki’s Robertson Hall, Robert A. M. Stern’s Center for Jewish Life, and so many others. Just up Route 1 in South Brunswick is Michael Graves’ Miele headquarters, with its “exuberant use of materials.” Corporations and universities are like the Medicis of our day, she says, commissioning great works of architecture.

Mannella is among the group of Trenton residents working toward the revitalization of the capital city through the arts. Originally from Cherry Hill, Mannella settled in the Boston area after earning an MFA from Tufts — she is a sculptor — but returned in 2003 to oversee the care of her elderly parents, a retired Navy and RCA engineer who was a pioneer in environmental cleanup and a nurse practitioner who ran the Rutgers-Camden Student Health Clinic. After getting involved with Art All Night as an Artworks board member, she joined the exhibitions committee at Ellarslie in 2012.

“I came up with the architectural idea after spending 30 years in Boston and seeing the role colleges and universities play in the revitalization of historic architecture,” she says. “When I was a freshman, Boston was struggling after the 1960s — there had been a lot of arson, and it looked like Trenton. The first project to turn the city around was Quincy Market — turning a former meat market into a dining and shopping destination. That kicked off other projects.”

Mannella represents Mercer County on the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. “I see the possibilities. I’ve been in terrible places, and I don’t think it’s so terrible here.” DVRPC’s main function is to channel federal transportation money to eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey towns along the river, says Mannella. “We’re involved in climate change, smart growth planning, and giving money for bicycle studies. We’re trying to promote less car and more other forms of transportation.

“I see in Trenton and the surrounding inner city suburbs development choices we need to be aware of,” she continues. “We included in the show a parking garage — this is a pet peeve. Most are ugly concrete structures. But we show one at Princeton University that pays attention to detail, and I’d like us to be thinking about that.” The North Garage has grates for ivy to grow along, encasing the building in live plant material. “It’s an example of how something functional can be visually stimulating.”

Another pet peeve is the standardization of architecture. Robbinsville Town Center looks just like Plainsboro Town Center as well as others around the county, she says.

“In Trenton, when we do new construction, we’re not that adventurous. I’d like to see more diversity in architecture.” Mannella cites research presented to the planning commission showing how younger people prefer urban centers because of the experiences an individual can have on the street. “In suburbs, if everything is made the same, it gets too bland. Interesting architecture adds to quality of life, adding beauty and enjoyment.”

On view in the adaptive reuse section is the Roebling complex, where the Brooklyn Bridge and many other structures made of wire rope were first conceived. It is the home of the annual Art All Night, and plans for a science museum in the complex were aborted during the peak of the financial crisis. Mannella hopes that it will accommodate mixed uses. “One of the things I’ve learned on the planning commission is that manufacturing is still present, though on a smaller scale. There’s a danger if we convert formerly industrial spaces to housing. It makes it harder for industry to flourish and provide jobs and economic diversity to a community.”

She cites the former Congoleum factory in nearby Hamilton. “It’s one of the few buildings left in the city with a railroad spur. Is it wise to make it housing? I don’t know, but we need to ask the question.”

Mannella preaches the “do no harm” approach to architectural renewal — don’t tear down the building and destroy the character of the street.

One conundrum is Trenton High School, an interesting old building with a clock tower. The architectural firm Clarke Caton Hintz advocated for adaptive reuse. But students and their families want, and deserve, a brand new building just like the other high schools in the county. Mannella, who believes in reuse, points out that the preservationists are white people who do not have children at Trenton High School.

“Long-time Trentonians don’t have exposure to the possibilities of what you can do,” says Mannella. “We don’t make good use of the research that can help us. People comment that Princeton University can afford to build shiny new buildings. OK, but let’s look at how they’ve solved problems. How can we take the idea and transfer it to our city? We can look to New York City and see how the Highline solved a problem. How can we use that here?”

For example: Trenton needs a new library. Why not look at the Peter B. Lewis Library and its integration of different tasks with a sculptural approach? Or the Carl Icahn Laboratory, with spaces where people can gather. “Companies like Google are trying to create spaces to foster interaction — the university is also trying to foster team work,” says Mannella.

When Mannella first got the idea for this exhibit, she went to the architect J. Robert Hillier. Hillier studied under Jean Labatut, the founder of Princeton University’s architecture department, and worked on Labatut’s design for Stuart Country Day School in Princeton, Labatut’s only design completed in the U.S. Hillier also carved a totem holding the chapel roof.

“Labatut is the link between modern and post-modern architecture,” says Mannella. “He rejected some of the tenets of the Bauhaus, such as form follows function.” At Stuart, Labatut sought a 20th-century architecture that would turn visitors’ attention to their bodies to discover their incarnated soul, according to the exhibit label. Also on view is Hillier’s design for the Princeton Public Library.

The exhibit would be incomplete without the iconic Louis Kahn Bathhouse. “It was sad and forlorn until Susan Solomon did her thesis and brought it to the city’s attention,” Mannella says. A cruciform design that brings architectural historians from around the world to visit and study, it was listed on the National Register in 1984.

This simple concrete structure is one of Kahn’s earliest public buildings, and the one in which the renowned architect found his voice. It was here that he first articulated his notion of served and servant spaces: Servant spaces make the building work, such as stairs, entryway, and bathrooms, and served spaces are those that actually get utilized, such as the dressing rooms and the clothing storage.

This exhibit helps to identify buildings you pass everyday yet know little about. For example, the building on Route 571 in East Windsor that’s somewhat tucked back, yet looks a bit like the Pompidou Centre in Paris — it actually was designed by one of the team who designed the Pompidou Centre. Richard Rogers, who worked with Renzo Piano on the Pompidou, designed the PATcentre Building for PA Technology. The building had to express PA Technology’s commitment to innovative technical research and be visible from a distance, according to the wall label. “All systems are outside, and the inside is a flex space,” says Mannella of the building that was recently bought by a pharma tech.

While serving on the DVRPC public task force, she learned that political leaders have to be sensitive to detail. She points to details that create interesting interplay of shadow and lighting, but are often eliminated in cost-cutting.

“Planners say, ‘we hear you, you’re preaching to the choir.’ How do we get to the final decision makers? We hope this exhibit gets to them.”

The Built Environment: Design for Life, Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Tuesdays through Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sundays 1 to 4 p.m. Through Sunday, May 3. Free. 609-989-1191 or www.ellarslie.org.

Accompanying the exhibit are programs and tours led by design professionals:

Adaptive Re-use of Buildings: New Uses for Old Spaces, presented by Trenton-based HHG Partners’ David Henderson, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission representative Christine Art, and Philadelphia-based Partners for Sacred Spaces’ Joshua Castano. Sunday, April 19, 2 p.m.

Tour of the Louis Kahn Trenton Bathhouse and 1867 Sanctuary church, Ewing, led by Princeton-based architect and historic renovation expert Michael Mills. Saturday, April 25, 1 p.m.

Design for Climate, with Princeton University School of Architecture’s Forrest Meggers and a speaker from the DVRPC Office of Environmental Planning. Sunday, April 26, 2 p.m.

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