You don’t have to travel to Italy or Greece this summer to view examples of magnificent architecture. From stone railroad stations and steepled churches to Victorian houses and courthouses with Corinthian columns, Mercer County’s architecture tells the stories of its rich cultural heritage.
To help commemorate its 175th anniversary, the county, in partnership with Preservation New Jersey, is presenting a day-long symposium, Mercer by Architecture. Architects, historians, appreciators of history, and lovers of great buildings are invited to the event, Friday, August 9, on the campus of the Lawrenceville School — itself the site of significant buildings.
The symposium kicks off a weekend of Historic Sites in Mercer County. August 10 and 11, many of the historic buildings in the county will be open to the public. A brochure for the weekend will be available at participating sites and on the Mercer175 website: www.mercer175.org.
“There are almost 40 participating historic sites in every part of Mercer County that explore this area’s history from Colonial and Federalist times through the Greek Revival, industrial and modernist periods,” says Tricia Fagan, the county’s historic outreach specialist. “One of the oldest sites is the William Trent House. Visitors to Trenton can also see the Ellarslie Mansion in the middle of Cadwalader Park, the historic Old Barracks, and enjoy a special insiders’ tour of the New Jersey State House and Annex, as well as the Contemporary Victorian Museum across the street.”
“There are beautiful mansions and historic farmsteads including the Phillips House at Howell Living History Farm, the Robbins House in Robbinsville, Kuser Mansion in Hamilton, and the Schenck Farmstead in West Windsor,” continues Fagan. The historic Hopewell train station and some of the county’s oldest places of worship are also opening their doors, offering a chance to visit these places where many of the nation’s founders congregated and discussed the great issues at hand.”
Additional opportunities include a visit to the faculty room at Nassau Hall, the oldest building on the Princeton University campus, and a walking tour of the circle on the Lawrenceville School’s campus — one of 14 National Historic Landmarks in Mercer County. For lovers of modernism, the Trenton Bath House, the Princeton University Art Museum, and the New Jersey State Museum will have hours on both days.
Not only is Mercer County rich with historic structures like the colonnades at Princeton Battlefield Park, the Louis Kahn designed Bath House in Ewing, and state-of-the-art Princeton University buildings, such as Frank Gehry’s Lewis Science Library, but it has also been home to world-class architects, from Robert Geddes to Michael Graves. The day-long symposium will feature prominent historians and architects including Graves, Philip Hayden, J. Robert Hillier, and Michael Mills.
Mills, a partner at Mills + Schnoering Architects LLC (and formerly with Farewell Mills & Gatsch), has devoted more than 25 years to the preservation, restoration, and adaptive use of some of the region’s most significant historic structures, including the New Jersey State House and State House Annex, the Essex County Courthouse, and the Princeton University Graduate College and its landmark Cleveland Tower. A one-time chair of the advisory group of the AIA Historic Resources Committee, and a past president of Preservation New Jersey, he will discuss the New Jersey Capital Complex.
“The state house was one of the first public buildings I worked on in 1975,” says Mills. “I was assigned to figure out the original design of the assembly chamber so we could determine what the restoration should be.”
In 1981, when Mills was living in New York, he was called to study the legislative wing and returned to the Princeton area, moving to a preserved 1910 house — with chestnut and cypress door frames and columns — in Hopewell’s historic district. He continued working on the legislative renovation through the 1990s, followed by the State House Annex and the parking garage. The dome, part of the executive space, was done by another firm, Pokorny Associates, part of Governor Christie Whitman’s “Pennies for the State House” restoration project.
“The (New Jersey) State House is a collection of buildings from different periods, and is the second oldest state house in continuous use,” says Mills (the Maryland State House is older). “There are parts from the 1800s — the dome dates to the 1880s — through today.”
His passion for preservation evolved from an interest in history. Mills, who was born in Illinois and grew up in Virginia, Missouri, and Ohio, started out as a history major at Princeton University. From his father, a chemist, he developed an interest in engineering, math, and physics, and when he started taking architecture courses, his interests coalesced around old buildings. He still remembers a project he did for a high school Latin class that involved building an architectural model of the Pantheon in Rome out of clay and wood — it won a prize at the Toledo Art Museum.
“The Pantheon is still one of my favorite buildings,” says Mills, who, after earning his bachelor’s degree in architecture and urban planning, and completing a master’s degree in historic preservation at Columbia University, did postgraduate work at the International Center for Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome.
The Hopewell resident has returned to Italy for professional meetings, his honeymoon, and to visit his daughter while she spent her junior year in Florence, studying European art and architectural history. Mills has been brushing up on his Italian this summer, hoping to take his Rutgers class in cultural heritage and preservation studies to Milan for a one-week seminar.
There is certainly an Italian influence on the architecture of Mercer County, he says, from the neo-Classical court houses to the state house.
While a partner with Farewell Mills & Gatsch, Mills spent more than 10 years working on the restoration of the Louis Kahn Bath House in Ewing. Sometimes called the Trenton Bath House — though it is neither in Trenton nor, technically speaking, a bath house — the changing area for a pool was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Architectural historians come from all over the world to study its cruciform design.
Mills recalls a snowy morning when most of Mercer County was shut down. An Asian architecture student, who had flown to Philadelphia airport and then taken a train to West Trenton, walked to the Bath House in the snow. “He spoke little English, but he sat in on our meeting and got a tour — this happens all the time.”
This simple concrete structure is so significant, says Mills, because it is one of Kahn’s earliest public buildings and Kahn wrote, later, how he found his voice in this building. 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.
“The Bath House is a modest building for Kahn,” says Mills. “From there he went on to design Richards Medical Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, which won international awards.”
Even during the years it underwent restoration, the building never stopped operating as a pool house, says Mills. In 2006 the Jewish Community Center — hoping to move its facility to West Windsor — sold the Bath House to Ewing Township, which continues to operate it as a pool house. The day camp pavilions, also designed by Kahn, were part of the restoration project and also still in use.
The public building can bee seen from the parking lot. Although only pool members have access, researchers can seek permission to get inside.
Kate Nearpass Ogden, a professor of art history at Richard Stockton College, will discuss highlights of Mercer County architecture. With her students, she has created a website, Art and Architecture of New Jersey (www.artofnewjersey.net), that includes a sort of directory of New Jersey buildings. Her focus will be on Georgian, Italianate, French Second Empire, and Tudor architecture, from Lower Pyne on Princeton’s Nassau Street to I. M. Pei dormitories on the Princeton University campus.
Ogden’s office is in Richard Stockton College’s Arts & Sciences building designed by Michael Graves. Completed in 1996, its colors are somewhat tamer than some of Graves’ succeeding designs, such as the Miele building on Route 1 (2002) and New Jersey City University (2006). Ogden enjoys the geometry, the warm materials, and the human scale of the light-filled spaces.
“Mercer County has a lot of wonderful old buildings in a concentrated area,” says Ogden, a native of College Park, Maryland, who studied art history at Gettysburg College, earned her doctorate at Columbia University, and sits on the board of Preservation New Jersey. “Just Princeton University alone is an architectural wonderland. Preservation New Jersey is always looking to save buildings at risk in Trenton. There’s so much history — the houses go back so far. Princeton, Trenton, and Mercer County went along with the Greek Revival tradition that started in Philadelphia.”
Among some of the buildings Ogden will show:
Trent House. William Trent built his country estate at the falls of the Delaware River in 1719. It was a large, imposing brick structure, built in the newest fashion. An allee of English cherry trees led from the entrance down to the ferry landing. In 1720 Trent laid out a settlement, which he incorporated and named “Trenton.”
After extensive restoration, the Trent House opened as a museum in 1939. Today it is owned and operated by the City of Trenton, Department of Recreation, Natural Resources and Culture, Division of Culture, with the assistance of the Trent House Association. The William Trent House is listed on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places and was declared a National Landmark by the United States Congress.
Morven A National Historic Landmark and former New Jersey Governor’s Mansion, Morven was home to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and has played a role in the history of New Jersey and the nation for more than 250 years. Richard Stockton (1730-1781) built Morven in the 1750s on land granted to his grandfather by William Penn in 1701. After a fire in 1758, the home was rebuilt and christened Morven (“big mountain” in Gaelic) by Richard’s wife Annis Boudinot Stockton.
A comprehensive renovation of Morven began in 1999. Today, Morven Museum & Garden showcases the rich cultural heritage of the Garden State through regular exhibitions, educational programs and special events.
Kuser Mansion. Rudolph Kuser immigrated to the U.S. from Zurich, Switzerland, around the mid 1800s. With his wife Rosalie he bought and operated a large farm in Hamilton Township, along what is now Kuser Road. Across the road from this farm their son, Fred, built the Kuser Farm Mansion as a summer home.
The Fox Film Company, later to merge with 20th Century, was started with a $200,000 loan from Anthony R. Kuser, and family members went on to become major stockholders. Today visitors can enjoy a tour of the mansion and accompanying buildings.
Prospect House. Today a private dining club serving the faculty and staff at Princeton University, the Italianate Victorian mansion was built circa 1850 by American architect John Notman. It is one of the few university buildings not originally part of the campus.
Prospect House owes its name to the stone farmhouse first constructed on the site in the mid-18th century by Colonel George Morgan. The eastern view from that farmhouse prompted Colonel Morgan to name his estate “Prospect.” When Prospect was acquired in 1849 by John Potter, a wealthy merchant from Charleston, South Carolina, he replaced the colonial structure with the present mansion. In 1878 Robert L. and Alexander Stuart of New York bought the house and accompanying 35-acre estate and deeded it to Princeton University, known at that time as the College of New Jersey.
Beginning in 1879, the house served as a home for Princeton University’s presidents. James McCosh, its first resident, thought the house was the finest in the world for a college president and that its grounds were like Eden.
Ellarslie Mansion. Also designed by John Notman, the Italianate villa was built for Henry McCall Sr. of Philadelphia as a summer residence in 1848. Notman, known for designing the first Italianate building in America in Burlington, New Jersey, and the first Renaissance Revival building, the Athenaeum, in Philadelphia, was locally recognized for also designing the 1845 expansion of the New Jersey State House.
In 1888 the City of Trenton acquired the property and the surrounding 80 acres, which would become Cadwalader Park, designed by father of American landscape architecture Frederick Law Olmsted.
The City of Trenton opened the first museum here in 1889, closing several years later. Ellarslie, taken its name from the old English name for “the field of the elder trees,” has been a restaurant, ice cream parlor and monkey house. In 1971 renovations began to create the Trenton City Museum, opened in 1978. Ellarslie Mansion is included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Additional topics to be discussed at the August 9 symposium include: Princeton: America’s Campus — Architecture in History and Context (W. Barksdale Maynard); Vernacular Farmhouses and Kitchens, Hopewell Township, 1720 -1820 (Philip A. Hayden); Pattern Book Housing and the Influence of Agricultural Journals (Janet W. Foster); Architectural Issues in Housing Today (J. Robert Hillier); Response and Closing Thoughts (Michael Graves).
Mercer by Architecture Symposium, Clark Music Building, Lawrenceville School, Route 206, Lawrenceville, Friday, August 9, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. $20.50. For Saturday, August 10, and Sunday, August 11, tour events, go to www.mercer175.org. For general information contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 609-989-6418.