This article was originally published in the August 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
Of two noteworthy exhibitions currently on view in Trenton, the New Jersey Arts Annual Special Edition on view at the New Jersey State Museum highlights the works of New Jersey artists chosen for their excellence in drawing, photography, sculpture, painting, ceramics, glass, metal, wood, and mixed media.
The exhibition also celebrates the 50th anniversary of the New Jersey State Council (NJSCA) on the Arts. In its half century more than 1,300 artists, craftspeople, or folk arts apprentices have received funds or participated in exhibitions sponsored by the NJSCA.
Walking through the first-floor gallery, a viewer feels a sense of pride in our state and its commitment to the arts, from the industrial landscapes by northern New Jersey painters Tim Daly, Robert Birmelin, and Valeri Larko (amber skies over ribbons of highway, mountains of rusted refuse, towers of oil refineries) to Mel Leipzig’s first two panels of what will eventually be a five-panel painting.
The Trenton-based Leipzig, often called New Jersey’s greatest living painter, takes us into the offices of the State Arts Council (located on State Street) in “Homage to the Arts of New Jersey” (2017). The painting reminds us that our state has been home to the likes of Paul Robeson, Walt Whitman, Meryl Streep, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Amiri Baraka, and Pablo Medina. Among the papers on the desks are a program for Princeton’s McCarter Theater and other documents bearing the names of the state’s museums.
We also see works on the walls of these offices by New Jersey artists Ben Shahn, Winslow Homer (he summered on the Jersey Shore), and Jacob Lawrence (born in Atlantic City). Behind the desk sits senior program officer of arts education Robin Middleman, and in the corner of one desk is a reproduction of Leipzig’s own painting of artist Bernarda Bryson Shahn.
New Jersey Arts Annual Special Edition, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Through Sunday, August 13, Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Suggested admission $5. 609-292-6464 or state.nj.us/state/museum.
Meanwhile, there is a special reason to visit the exhibition in Cadwalader Park this summer. There Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum, is offering “Cadwalader Park: An Olmsted Vision,” an ambitious exhibition exploring the 109.5-acre park’s historic past and current importance. It is on view through September 17.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An Olmsted Vision, Trenton City Museum, 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 ellarslie.org.
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.