There is a special reason to visit Trenton’s Cadwalader Park this summer. Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum, is launching “Cadwalader Park: An Olmsted Vision,” an ambitious exhibition exploring the 109.5-acre park’s historic past and current importance. It’s on view through September 17, with a free opening reception Saturday, July 15, from 6 to 9 p.m.
The largest park in Trenton, Cadwalader is beloved by those who recall pony rides, picnics, concerts, the balloon man, animal paddocks, and the days when the mansion was the monkey house. It is a reminder that Trenton, in its heyday, was a center of innovation, entrepreneurship, and skilled employment.
“An Olmsted Vision” is also timely, as a $2.4 million project is underway to restore and upgrade Cadwalader Park, with funding from the Department of Environmental Protection ($1.2 million as a Green Acres Program grant, $1.1 million as an interest-free loan) and the City of Trenton ($120,000). Plans include improved pathways and trails, with handicapped access; recreation and playground area and equipment upgrades; picnic grove relocation and upgrade; and more modern amenities.
“This is the only park in the state designed by (Frederick Law) Olmsted,” says Cadwalader Park Alliance’s Randy Baum, also a landscape architect with Brownfield Redevelopment Solutions and former landscape architect for the City of Trenton. “Though the park has suffered through several decades of funding cutbacks, it still retains many of the landscape and spatial qualities present in the original plan. Our goal was to restore the physical and ecological infrastructure of the park, including its trees, streams, woodlands, and ponds.” Other parks with the Olmsted name incorporated his approach but were designed by his company and partners.
The exhibition and project provide a good time to recall the importance of Olmsted — widely known as the designer of New York City’s Central Park and considered the father of American landscape architecture — and the park and its history.
Using information gleaned from the Trenton Historical Society, Trenton Public Library, and elsewhere, Trenton City Museum board members served as the curators and used most of the mansion to bring the park indoors. The second floor galleries use vintage and contemporary photos, park memorabilia, concepts from the 2000 plan for the restoration of Cadwalader Park, and more to share an overview of Olmsted’s life and work and a history of the park. The first floor galleries display works of art specific to the park, contributed by contemporary artists and on loan from private collections.
Olmsted, born in 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut, never completed college. But he studied surveying, engineering, chemistry, and farming, and dabbled in such careers as scientific farmer, merchant seaman, newspaper correspondent, and author. He toured the parks and private estates of Europe, publishing books on his travels. Through his writing, he opposed slavery and argued for abolition.
By the time he began his work in landscape architecture, he was putting into practice a belief that the public realm should be a place to retreat from the stress of urban life — a public open space accessible to all.
In 1857 he became superintendent of New York City’s Central Park and, along with architect Calvert Vaux, won the design competition for the park the following year. He spent the next seven years as the primary administrator in charge of the construction of Central Park. Olmsted’s success in park making led to his renowned career designing and creating some of the nation’s most important urban parks, from Boston and Buffalo to Milwaukee and San Francisco.
Incidentally Vaux and Olmsted were influenced by the prominent American 19th-century landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing, who created plans for the grounds for the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. Vaux was also contracted to redesign Trenton’s Riverview Cemetery during an 1887 expansion.
By the time Olmsted began designing Cadwalader Park in 1890, he had been planning parks in America’s leading cities for more than 30 years, and Trenton’s is considered his last great urban park.
The park takes its name from the land’s originally owner, Dr. Thomas Cadwalader, a prominent Quaker physician who moved from Philadelphia to Trenton in 1743 and served as its burgess (a magistrate or mayor). It was sold off in various parcels after 1776, and in 1841 wealthy Philadelphia merchant Henry McCall bought a parcel that included most of the current park. McCall wanted a summer home and hired noted Scottish-born Philadelphia architect John Notman to build the Italianate villa, called Ellarslie — a name reminiscent of the home of Scottish “Brave Heart” hero William Wallace. Princeton University’s Prospect House was also designed in the same style by Notman.
The City of Trenton acquired the property in 1888, and the mansion was converted into space for a natural history museum and a refectory. Citizens began to donate small animals and birds to the park, establishing a menagerie.
The park owes its existence to Edmund Hill, a baker, real estate developer, newspaper publisher, and advocate of public parks. He also engaged Olmsted’s firm in 1890. His plan for Cadwalader Park included a system of drives and walks by which the scenery of the park could be enjoyed, with Ellarslie as a central element.
Construction of the park, with Olmsted’s guidance, began soon after he received the commission. But, as usual, politics got in the way. In 1892 a new city administration opposed to expenditures for parks came into power and Olmsted’s involvement ceased. It was during this time that the deer paddock was constructed (against Olmsted’s wishes) on the western side of the park, a statue of George Washington was placed in the park (later moved to Mill Hill Park), a statue of John Roebling was commissioned and erected, and a bear cage and tall rustic observatory were built.
As with plans for Central Park, Olmsted’s plans for Cadwalader relied on the creation of long views across open, rolling meadows that contrasted with more densely planted park edges. Over the years tree plantings in Cadwalader have closed many of the long vistas and open meadow effects envisioned by the Olmsted design. Clusters of trees have effectively blocked natural high points, such as the Overlook, that might otherwise provide a prospect for views.
The canopy in Cadwalader Park includes maples, oaks, tulip poplars, American beech, and more recent plantings of spruce. A decline of native trees was paralleled by an increase in Norway spruces and London plane trees — the Norway spruce is neither a shade tree nor one originally recommended by Olmsted.
Beyond Olmsted, who died in 1903, the park took on a shape of its own. An original gazebo built for concerts was replaced in 1913 with a more substantial traditional band shell structure. It served as the all-purpose stage for weekly concerts and countless events and ceremonies in the park. The band shell burned down in 1967 during an unintentionally spectacular production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Over the years, the mansion has been a restaurant, an aviary, a speakeasy, and an ice cream parlor. The lower floors of Ellarslie were converted into a monkey house in a Works Project Administration project in 1936. The construction of the large pond in the northwest corner of the park was also a WPA project.
The park remained popular with city residents after World War II, but by the 1970s lack of maintenance had caused the park to deteriorate. In 1971 the city began a project to convert Ellarslie from a monkey house to the Trenton City Museum. Ellarslie and Cadwalader Park were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and the museum opened in 1978.
The park also had a human face. Every Sunday for 20 years a man stood at the Parkside Avenue entrance, rain or shine, selling helium-filled balloons on a stick. Mendel Abramowicz — aka the Balloon Man — and his brothers had a Trenton novelty business selling balloons and small toys at carnivals. They also took turns at the park on Sundays. After his brothers’ deaths, Mendel carried on the tradition. When the City Council passed an ordinance banning non-motorized vendors in 1983, the understanding was: the balloon man stays.
Another human face is Trenton City Museum and Trenton Historical Society board member Karl Flesch. Retired from IT work for the State of New Jersey, he grew up on a farm in Yardville, where he got his fill of animals, but came to Cadwalader Park for the rides. He remembers the strong smell of the monkey house in the early 1960s. “The monkeys were kept in cages that extended from the indoors to the veranda, where they could be viewed.”
Passionate about the history and future of Trenton, Flesch says there are a lot of good things in Trenton that many people don’t know about, such as the park. “I wish that more people would come and see that residents still love and make use of the park. It needs lots of restoration, and I hope more money comes in for future generations to enjoy it.”
Trenton City Museum, Ellarslie Mansion, Cadwalader Park, Parkside and Stuyvesant avenues, Trenton. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 3 p.m. Pay what you will admission. 609-989-1191 or www.ellarslie.org.
Some ways to start enjoying the exhibition include a Friday, July 14, VIP opening cocktail reception from 6 to 8 p.m. with a talk by former Central Park administrator E. Timothy Marshall on the Olmsted and Vaux vision and Central Park today, $25.
A free public opening will be held on Saturday, July 15, 6 to 9 p.m., followed on Sunday, July 16, with a jazz supper with legendary area jazz singer and pianist Barbara Trent, $50.
On Sunday, September 10, there will be a lecture by Glenn R. Modica, author of “Cadwalader Heights,” on the history of an Olmsted neighborhood.
On Saturday, September 16, there will be a plein air painting event throughout the park and the adjacent Olmsted-designed Cadwalader Heights neighborhood, coinciding with the Cadwalader Heights House Tour. More details coming.