Cadwalader Heights, a Trenton neighborhood of 74 gracious homes just east of Cadwalader Park, shares something very important with New York’s Central Park — both were designed by master landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) more than a century ago. The neighborhood celebrates its 100th birthday with a house tour on Saturday, October 6.
Twenty-one houses in Cadwalader Heights will be open for the tour, called “100 Years of Timeless Design.” Area restaurants and florists will provide tastings and floral designs. Trolley transportation will be available between the houses and Ellarslie mansion, home of the Trenton City Museum, in Cadwalader Park. An exhibit about the history of the neighborhood will be on display there.
A few weeks ago, orange cones kept dog-walkers off newly planted grass along the curving sidewalks of Belmont Circle. Lawn signs throughout the neighborhood marked the presence of landscapers, painters, and home improvement contractors. Not all of the last-minute rush leading up to the big day, though, involved digging, planting, painting, and plastering. In a second-floor office in the neighborhood’s oldest house, historian Glenn Modica was at his computer, putting the finishing touches on “A History of Cadwalader Heights.”
The approximately 200-page book, published by Bucks Publishing and for sale during the tour, includes histories and photographs of every house in this architecturally diverse community. After Modica began researching he showed a dedicated team of neighborhood volunteers how to do title and directory searches at the Mercer County Clerk’s office and the Trenton Public Library’s Trentoniana Collection. These sleuths also photocopied obituaries and business directories, digging through the documents for months in an effort to find out who designed, who built, and who bought the Tudor Revival, Colonial Revival, and other style houses on this 31-acre tract originally named “Cadwalader Woodland.”
“It was a massive undertaking,” says Modica, who is principal senior historian with Richard Grubb & Associates, Inc., cultural resource consultants in Cranbury. “I wanted to do it for the centennial. It started with seven chapters and is now at nine. It kind of sets the record straight on a lot of myths and stories about the neighborhood.”
Modica’s own house on Belmont Circle has a tale of its own to tell. He and his wife, Natalie, an artist, bought the 1907 center hall Colonial three years ago after an exhaustive search of several towns and neighborhoods. “We were living in a 450-square-foot cottage on Hodge Road in Princeton,” says Natalie, “part of a big estate. We wanted to buy something with an art studio and a dry basement. We looked everywhere before we found this house. And we didn’t like it at first.”
It was the third floor that eventually “spoke” to Natalie. The original owner, it turns out, was a painter named Frank Forrest Frederick. He built a light-filled art studio for himself on the top floor. “That was it,” Natalie says. “When I saw the studio, I knew.”
But her husband, unaware of the home’s history, had yet to be convinced. “I just saw all these layers of paint and old carpeting,” he says. “It was too much. I didn’t want to take it on.”
The neighborhood’s charm and the home’s distinctions — 84 casement windows, some with original hardware; and six bedrooms including the studio — won him over. After moving in the Modicas began the arduous process of renovating. “It took us a year to get the Shopvac out of the foyer,” says Natalie. “We rebuilt the chimney. There was no heat when we first moved in. Slowly, we’re bringing the house back to what it once was.”
As he explored the neighborhood and got to know his neighbors Modica listened to stories about its origins. Being an historian, he decided to do some research and find out the truth behind the lore. And that led to a book. “A lot of neighbors said Cadwalader Heights was laid out by Olmsted, but nobody had proof. There was no smoking gun,” he says. “I started to put a history together.”
Olmstead, the great landscape designer of the late 19th century, did indeed lay plans for the neighborhood, Modica ascertained. He came to Trenton in 1890 at the invitation of Edmund C. Hill, a baker-turned-civic booster, to create Cadwalader Park. While collaborating on the park Hill got Olmsted to prepare plans for an adjacent residential enclave on steep, heavily wooded land.
“Olmsted had already done Central Park and the Biltmore (estate) in North Carolina when he came here,” says Modica, who examined Hill’s diaries at the Trentoniana Collection and Olmsted’s correspondence with Hill at the Library of Congress in Washington. Olmsted’s estate in Brookline, MA, where all of his archives are housed, sent computer disks with maps and other historic material.
“The diaries, from 1873 to 1930, described Hill’s meetings with Olmsted. He prepared the initial plan for the neighborhood, a 21-acre tract. He designed roads following the natural topography and keeping old trees,” Modica says.
Hill put the project on hold while he turned his attention to marketing Cadwalader Place, a nearby neighborhood now known as Berkeley Square. Olmsted died in 1903 and his two sons took over, supervising the completion of his original plan for Cadwalader Heights. Hill attached restrictive covenants to each house, which had to cost a minimum of $4,000. A newspaper ad from 1918 advertises the house that Modica believes is next door to his on Belmont Circle.
“We have a number of fine houses for sale, but this is a REAL WONDER,” the ad for W.M. Dickinson real estate reads, also mentioning its “open fire-place, private den adjoining, square dining room, roomy pantry, refrigerator room, kitchen and enclosed brick porch in rear, 5 bedrooms, 2 baths, hot water, heat, electric lights, best of oak floors.” No price is included in the ad but that same house has recently been appraised at nearly $500,000.
The exclusive enclave was home to Trenton’s industrial elite. Early residents included the heads of several of the city’s potteries, as well as local builders, the principal of Trenton High School, and the candy maker William Allfather. Banker Mary Roebling lived in Cadwalader Heights for a few years. The neighborhood has also been home to former New Jersey Governor Richard J. Hughes and Judge Philip Forman.
“It started out with industrialists and then became home to doctors and lawyers,” says Modica. “Now it’s artists, architects, and a lot of self-employed people. It’s very diverse. In the 1960s when it was pretty lousy in Trenton, the neighborhood hung together. They actively promoted and marketed the neighborhood. They advertised in the New York Times and sold to many New Yorkers. There were never any boarded-up homes here. It was never on the skids. It was always a close, social community.”
“A History of Cadwalader Heights” is geared not only to those familiar with Trenton and its history but to anyone with an interest in Olmsted and urban landscape design.
“People don’t know about this,” says Natalie. “People have written books about neighborhoods, but this is different.”
“Olmsted was the greatest landscape architect in this country,” her husband says. “There are very few neighborhoods in the United States laid out on his original plans. He consulted on about 40, and only about half a dozen were actually executed to his original designs.”
“100 Years of Timeless Design,” Saturday, October 6, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Cadwalader Heights, Trenton. House tour of 21 homes in Trenton’s historic Cadwalader Heights neighborhood, designed over a century ago by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park. $20 in advance; $25 the day of the tour. Half the proceeds go to support Habitat for Humanity of Trenton. www.cadwaladerheights.com or 609-647-3876.
A gala cocktail reception will be held Saturday, October 13, from 6 to 9 p.m., at Ellarslie, for current and prior residents of Cadwalader Heights and for friends of the neighborhood. Black tie optional. Register with Carolyn Stetson at 609-599-2439. $50.