Some two-and-a-half centuries ago, George Washington and the Continental Army made history with celebrated victories at Trenton.
Now, 100 years after its founding, the Trenton Historical Society is continuing to preserve and celebrate the city’s history. And it is renewing efforts to be engaged in a place and time much different from that of its beginnings in March, 1919.
“People then were focused on the early colonial, Anglo-Saxon history of Trenton,” says THS president Damon Tvaryanas. “The task now is to find more ways to be relevant to other communities, including commuters to Trenton, and show them it’s their city, too.”
Tvaryanas (pronounced “terry AHN iss”), a professional art and architecture historian in what he terms “the cultural resource industry,” adds that the society is “making the biggest efforts it can towards introducing programs that will attract their interest.”
In a major research essay for the centennial, Tvaryanas has documented that leading Trenton citizens and newspaper editorialists had urged the creation of an historical society at least as early as 1912. But it was not until March 20, 1919, that an organizational meeting was held by members of the “Princes of Caliph,” a social branch of the Knights of Malta (one of the ubiquitous early-20th-century fraternal organizations similar to today’s better-known Elks).
But like many such groups of that era, it was open only to men, as was noted a mere two days later in a letter of protest to the Trenton Evening Times that argued that “several ladies of Trenton … would pass a better examination in historical subjects” than some of the society’s male founders. Full membership for women was finally approved in 1946.
A landmark early effort of the society was a two-volume history of the city, published in 1929 during celebrations of Trenton’s sesquicentennial. The bicentennial of the United States in 1976 saw the society’s successful preservation, in partnership with the Trenton, Mercer, New Jersey, and Federal governments of the Eagle Tavern on South Broad Street, built in 1756.
When the Trenton Historical Society was founded in 1919, the city was already the capital of New Jersey and county seat of Mercer. It was at its peak as an American manufacturing center and already home to a diverse population, with vital Italian, Polish, Irish, and African-American neighborhoods. In recent years historical societies like Trenton’s have recognized the tremendous scope of their cities’ social, ethnic, and industrial stories.
And like other historical societies, THS has translated this wider vision into a wider range of programs and events. Among the most tangibly beneficial to Trenton is its grant program to enable historic preservation. Owners of historically significant buildings who wish to preserve them and, especially, to restore these structures’ exteriors to period appearance, may apply for funding.
The 2018 preservation grants have been dispersed and, Tvaryanas says, the guidelines for 2019 will soon be posted on the society’s website, www.trentonhistory.org.
Indeed, preservation was very much a motivation for the Trenton Historical Society’s premiere annual fundraiser, known as “The Wrecking Ball.” As the name suggests, it was instituted to raise monies for preservation efforts and stop the wrecking ball equipment used in building demolition.
Wrecking Ball 2019 will be held in November at a location to be determined, but the event will celebrate the society’s centennial and, specifically, an exhibit opening that month at the city museum in the Ellarslie mansion in Cadwalader Park that will feature objects drawn from numerous local collections.
Trenton Historical Society president Tvaryanas, 49, was born in Brooklyn to parents who worked as graphic artists and had met while studying at the Pratt Institute. They did some advertising and a great deal of illustrations for guides and manuals. (Tvaryanas’ father produced work for clients ranging from the U.S. Army to then-prominent Bell Laboratories in Holmdel.)
Early on the family moved to New Jersey, and Tvaryanas grew up in Jackson. “I was always very interested in what had happened around me in the past,” he says. “What old [building] foundations in the woods were; what a map showed.”
He had an attraction to archaeology but says he didn’t realize there were archaeology jobs available. He graduated in 1991 from New York University with a degree in art and architectural history, and then earned a master’s in historical preservation from the University of Pennsylvania in 1993.
Tvaryanas worked from 1996 to 2000 at Hunter Research, the Trenton-based historical archeology and preservation firm (see the December, 2017, issue of the Trenton Downtowner, a sister paper to U.S. 1). He joined Richard Grubb Associates, another preservation research firm, in Cranbury, leaving last year to undertake private consulting.
He joined the board of the Trenton Historical Society some 10 years ago while he was working at Hunter Research. By the time he was offered the executive position, about three years ago, he had changed jobs and moved to Westampton Township in Burlington County.
“I asked the board, Do you really want someone who doesn’t currently live or work in the city? And they said, ‘Yes, this is the kind of inclusion beyond the immediate borders of Trenton that we want to develop.’”
Although the saving of Eagle Tavern and the grants program have been notable successes for the Trenton Historical Society, it has had a few failures despite its most persistent efforts. Among these was the attempt to save the monumental Trenton High School building on Chambers Street. To Tvaryanas, the experience reflects the realities of old and new Trenton.
Opened in 1932, the new structure replaced previous high schools at Chestnut and Hamilton avenues (1900) and on Mercer Street (1874). The immense Colonial Revival-style building was, Tvaryanas says, “one of the most expensive high schools ever constructed in the United States. They went to every effort to use the best materials and construction.” It was declared “an ornament to the city” and “one of the show places of Trenton.” Sadly, this show place fell on hard times, victimized by decades of deferred or totally unenacted maintenance. (For more information on Trenton High’s history: www.trentonhistory.org/Events/TCHS.html)
Tvaryanas concedes that this monumental but dilapidated structure, demolished in 2016, did not fully speak to the values, priorities, and aspirations of today’s Trenton communities.
But there are successes, almost on a weekly basis. Less obvious than a restored building facade — but equally important — is the expertise that Trenton Historical Society members bring, almost every week, to issues of new construction.
For example, says Tvaryanas, “We get tons of notifications about cell tower work.” For the volunteer organization, the four or five letters received monthly asking if the society has any concerns — and the replies they necessitate — represent about that weight. Usually it’s about cellular antennas being added to an existing structure. Occasionally, it involves “someone wanting to put up a 75-foot tower on an historic property when it’s just inappropriate to do so.”
But, Tvaryanas says, the society is hopeful of playing a positive role in important future preservation activities. A notable example is sure to be the eventual reconstruction or entire replacement of the South Broad Street Bridge over the Assunpink Creek by Mill Hill Park.
This was famously the site of the Second Battle of Trenton on January 2, 1777, when Washington’s troops thwarted the intensive effort of the fearsome British grenadier shock troops to capture the bridge. That bridge is long gone, but segments remain of a span that is not much newer.
“There’s an early 19th-century bridge in the central core of the existing bridge,” Tvaryanas says. “The Assunpink flooded frequently, and there are a lot of old newspaper references to the bridge being washed away. It’s unclear when the bridge was repaired or when it was totally replaced. But we do know the core, the center lane, of [today’s] bridge is a very early bridge.”
Today’s bridge, which carries Route 206 over the Assunpink, is currently bearing traffic safely, but it will soon need replacement, which raises major historic preservation issues. “No one has come up with the financing and the plan to fully move forward yet,” he says.
As the Trenton Historical Society moves forward into its second century, how will it celebrate its centennial? In large part by involving new members who fully represent the city’s diverse populations, as well as members from neighboring communities who have professional and/or family ties to Trenton.
And there will be a bounty of events to attract them. Although exact dates are being finalized as of this writing, Tvaryanas says that there will be a major offering of guided tours led by experts in their subjects. Much of this effort, he says, is being aimed at commuters to Trenton, to enable them to see the city as a destination not just for work but also for culture and entertainment in the evenings and on weekends.
The next major event is on Friday, April 26, when Pierre Lacombe, a retired United States Geological Survey geologist, leads a “Geological Walking Tour of Downtown Trenton.” It starts at 5:30 p.m. and meets at 16 South Warren Street, at the site of the Hunterdon County Court House and Prison Walls.
Other events in planning include a May talk on “The Story of Trenton’s Millham Neighborhood”; a June 8 talk on the “The Creation of Mill Hill Park,” held in conjunction with the annual Mill Hill Garden Tour weekend; a July talk on the Navy Jet Propulsion and General Motors sites; a September presentation by archaeology researcher Richard Hunter on “Trenton’s Other Canal — the Trenton Water Power”; a Roebling Complex Walking Tour led by historian and researcher Clifford Zink; “Riverview Cemetery Veterans Day Ceremony “ with war re-enactor Algernon Ward and THS board member Jerome Harcar; an anniversary gala on Saturday, November 23; and a December exhibition, “100 Years,” at the Trenton City Museum.
Details will be posted on the Trenton Historical Society website — itself a focus of work during the centennial. Its original website contains so much by way of archival photos and information that moving it is proving prohibitively expensive. So the current solution is a link on the new home page.
“The Trenton Historical Society is a great, long-lived institution,” Tvaryanas says, adding that its efforts “are all about strengthening the community as a whole.”
For more information and upcoming events: www.trentonhistory.org or www.facebook.com/Trenton-Historical-Society-255066127033