Trenton, N.J.: One for the history buffs
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 8:08 PM
The William Trent House sits on a walled-in patch of green in New Jersey's capital. All around the 1719 domicile of the man after whom Trenton is named are the trappings of state bureaucracy: namely large, boxy, official-looking buildings. From the wrong angle, the casual observer might miss it entirely.
The same could easily be said of the city itself, located in the I-95 corridor between the bright stars of Philadelphia and New York. Though less historic than the former and less dazzling than the latter, Trenton appealed to my desire to be unpredictable. If most people whizzed by the city along the well-beaten path of the New Jersey Turnpike, I would deliberately get off it.
"We're the state capital," Trent House guide Alla Nedoresow said, taking a bit of friendly umbrage when I told her why I was in town. "It's hardly off the beaten path."
Back in the early 18th century, at least, the area was remote enough for Trent, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, to build his summer home there near the banks of the Delaware River. And though it's dwarfed by its modern-day neighbors, at the time the home reflected its owner's "ostentatious nature," Nedoresow said. Further stroking his ego, he named the settlement he laid out "Trent-towne," which eventually evolved into the current moniker.
With large and numerous windows, 14-foot ceilings and a gorgeous wide staircase, the brick home no doubt would have impressed visitors. All the bling in the colonies, however, couldn't save Trent's relatives from a tabloid-worthy feud after he died without leaving a will. His second wife took his son by his first wife to court to get her piece of the family pie. She won enough to force her stepson to sell the house so that he could pay her off. After that, the stately brick mansion went through a series of owners and tenants, including several governors, before being donated to the city in 1929.
Farther north stands a slightly younger landmark of local history, the Old Barracks Museum. I hopped my way over puddles of melting snow for a tour. Inside I found costumed interpreters Bob Butera and Asher Lurie, who seemed genuinely delighted to have a visitor. As was the case with all of my tours in Trenton, I had the guides to myself.
Butera started by taking me outside to a sunny spot on one of the walkways overlooking the courtyard. There he set the scene: It's the late 1750s. Local residents are sick of housing dirty, scurvy-plagued British soldiers in their homes during the French and Indian War. The colony votes to build quarters for the troops in "the most cheap, expeditious and convenient manner." (Some things never change.)
Apparently, the soldiers are so vile - or their superiors so stuck up - that the officers refuse to bunk with them. Thus are born the officers' quarters, in a Georgian-style structure on the north side of the barracks.
As Butera took me through the two very different parts of the barracks, I decided that the admission fee had been worth it, not only for the site, but also for his theatrical presentation. He was something like a cross between a Catskills comedian and David McCullough, throwing in spot-on Scottish and English accents for good measure.
In the soldiers' room, we sat down at the game table, where Butera flipped over the checkerboard to reveal a Revolutionary War-era map. Using a stack of cards for illustration, he treated me to a riveting account of George Washington's surprise Dec. 26, 1776, victory in Trenton against Hessian troops.
Washington later made further use of the barracks to house his troops as they recuperated from the smallpox inoculation he insisted upon. I learned that and many other uncomfortable facts from Lurie, whose straightforward, deadpan explanations of 18th-century medical treatments and devices made me squirm.
Leaving the barracks, I couldn't miss the statehouse looming next door. Portions of it date to 1792, according to the guide who took me around the next morning. She also shared the claim that the building is the second-oldest statehouse in continuous use, after the one in Annapolis. (Sorry, Richmond; that little interruption called the Civil War disqualifies you.)
I marveled at the spectacular rotunda, with its eagle railing, stained-glass windows and a dome that glows an appetizing shade of orange sherbet when illuminated. The highlight, however, was a delicate porcelain sculpture depicting four of New Jersey's symbols: the state tree (red oak), insect (honeybee), flower (purple violet) and bird (eastern goldfinch).
I was intrigued to learn that Trenton was once a ceramics-manufacturing powerhouse, so I headed over to the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, an 1848 Italianate mansion surrounded by a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Spread through several rooms is a diverse collection including Lenox china made for the White House, porcelain glove molds and "sanitary ware" (wash basins, sinks, etc.) made in Trenton and the region.
It was only fitting that on my way out of town, I drove under a bridge emblazoned with the city's famous early-20th-century slogan: "Trenton Makes, The World Takes." I was certainly taking some fascinating Trenton-made history home with me.