By Ron Shapella
There is a large house at the outset of East State Street in Trenton where the state office buildings thin out and real estate begins to earn its “vacant lot” designation.
It may seem an unlikely outpost for a revival of the fine and performing arts, but 540 East State Street is earning its place among the many ardent ventures in and around the city that draw on Trenton’s cultural past as inspiration for the future.
The Trenton Conservatory Mansion is a large house that first took that name when the Juilliard-trained pianist William J. O’Toole purchased the property in 1920, installed 14 pianos upstairs and downstairs, and made it a destination for musicians, writers, and artists wishing to pursue one of the muses.
Today those muses have taken the form of Jacqui and Sterick Ivey, who grew up in Trenton during the era when city schoolchildren could expect to receive the formative training they would need before going on to study music and art in college.
Jacqui Ivey grew up in the neighborhood near Mercer Hospital. Her father is retired from the Trenton Water Works, where he repaired water meters for a living. Her mother served as president of the Trenton school board for a time and has worked for several nonprofits over the years, most recently for ECHO Inc. (Energetic Citizens Helping Others) in Ewing and Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare. She was also at one time a gospel music deejay on WIMG in the Trenton area.
Before music, Jacqui says she was always athletic and played neighborhood basketball against her future husband before ever getting to know him. Sterick attended Trenton High School and Princeton Day School.
After graduating from Trenton High School in 1987, she (then Jacqui Dent) attended Northfield-Mt. Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts. She was there for year and injured herself playing basketball. She rehabbed after enrolling at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where she became an intercollegiate track star, achieving all-America status. During a reunion dinner at the college last year, she was honored as “perhaps the greatest female track and field student-athlete in Oxy’s storied history.” She still holds school records in four track events.
After returning home, she did tutoring work in math, science, history, and reading for ages pre-Kindergarten to adult. She started working at the YMCA in Trenton in 2001 and reacquainted with Sterrick. In 2005, they purchased the conservatory building, where she had taken music lessons and performed recitals as a young girl.
For young musicians back in the day, the mansion held mysteries behind closed doors to rooms where students were not allowed, Jacqui says. Those mysteries have all been resolved, since as the owner she was able to explore all the areas that were once off limits.
Jacqui stayed with the Y until 2013. The Iveys paid to restore the mansion and supplied the elbow grease. All that work has revealed the kind of wood-grain treasures homesteaders’ dream of when they are looking at old buildings. The foyer opens into a spacious ballroom area where students from another day once gave recitals and where community events take place today. Inside the front door is the kind of tile work that once made Trenton famous.
Counting the basement, there are four levels to the building, four studios and six bathrooms.
While no longer a competitive track star, Jacqui still has a lot of energy, which she divides between the Conservatory and two daughters, Makenzie, 10, and Peyton, 7. Both are involved in the arts and athletics. The Ivey family lives in Lawrence Township.
The concerns about Trenton remain close. After mentioning Peyton’s interest in electric guitar, Jacqui says, “Their school provides music. But in Trenton they took music and the arts out, and we wanted to make sure the arts and music were here for anyone who wanted the opportunity.”
At one time, things were different at Trenton High School, she says. “Everything was intact: band, color guard.” The demise of the Trenton High marching band is something that many grads of a certain age mourn openly. That includes musicians who graduated from or taught at Trenton High School and now teach at the conservatory.
“Unfortunately our kids are not given that creative outlet,” Jacqui says. “Research has shown how impactful that is for all ages. We hear that story over and over again, about what musicians would be doing if music hadn’t kept them off the streets. Our goal is to keep the arts alive and well in Trenton and to keep the artists performing and teaching here in Trenton.
“We’re here to supplement,” she says. “I’m very excited. We’ve reached out to the schools and they’re very interested in working with us. I believe Trenton is on the upswing in returning that to the schools.”
The Conservatory Mansion has nonprofit status, and programs are being planned under the name COMPAS, Conservatory of Music and Performing Arts Society. Jacqui says they are looking for sponsors and corporate grantors.
The mansion already has a roster of musicians teaching and performing at various events. Clifford Adams, the Trenton native and trombonist for the international pop-funk group Kool and the Gang, is involved, as is Tommy Gryce, the saxophonist and educator who holds a music academy every weekend at the mansion. Local educator and Geraldine R. Dodge poet Doc Long is holding weekly poetry classes.
“This place transforms in so many ways for so many different events,” she says. The rooms upstairs are practice space and there is a recording studio. “When I walked in they had kids behind the camera and hosting a show. It was phenomenal,” she says. “I think it’s something that everyone should be able to experience.”
She is making connections with established organizations in the area, including the College of New Jersey’s filmmaking program. But sometimes connections with the past require a moment to sink in. “We just had a visitor last week,” Jacqui says, “who donated sheet music. He said he took lessons here in the 1950s, and his grandmother took lessons here from Mr. O’Toole.”
The Conservatory Mansion, 540 East State Street, Trenton, Saturday, November 1, 2nd Artburst-in-Autumn collaborative event featuring multi-genre artists and musicians from the Greater Trenton and Greater Philadelphia areas, 5 to 10 p.m., $15 (includes food).
Saturday, November 8, JuJu Crossing: World Music & Art Fete (in collaboration with Art All Day); Noon to 5 p.m. Live Painting, Drumming, Dancespora Performance; 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Community Artist Reception (with DJ), free (donations welcome). Admission: free to the public (donations welcome).
For more information about programs and rentals, call 609-858-2279 or go to www.theconservatorymansion.com.