A building is a work of art without a signature. Occasionally, a structure designed by a big-name architect will gain recognition, but most of the human-made landscape in which we live is created by people whose names have been lost to history.
Trenton’s Ellarslie Museum is rescuing some of this forgotten history by dedicating an exhibit to one of those anonymous designers.
The recently museum opened its exhibit on FVHD Architects, a Ewing-based firm that has built so many of the public buildings in Mercer County that not even the firm itself knows exactly how many of its creations are still standing. “Changing Face/Changing Place” is on view through January 13, 2019.
Architecture historian Jennifer Leynes spent years combing through old newspaper archives and historical records to find hundreds of examples of FVHD’s work in recognition of its 100th anniversary.
FVHD’s work includes the now-abandoned Mercer Hospital in Trenton, Waterfront Park, town halls throughout Mercer County, and, Leynes says, “more schools buildings in the surrounding area than you can count.”
When it was founded in 1918 the company was called Fowler and Seaman. It has changed names dozens of times over the years, which has complicated efforts to dig up information on it. For its first 50 years the three principal architects remained the same. Percey Fowler died in the late 1930s, and afterwards Albert Micklewright and Samuel Mountford ran it until their retirements in the late 1960s.
“That’s a pretty long period of time where they were really active and engaged,” Leynes says.
Soon after its establishment, FVHD began to work on large public buildings, usually in well established architectural styles. “I don’t know that they were blazing new ground, but they certainly were building good quality buildings and a huge amount of them have stood the test of time,” she says. “Some are gone, but an awful lot of them are still around.”
For example, on Parkway Avenue in Ewing, you can see the new Parkway School, a functional FVHD-designed building, constructed on the site of the old Parkway School, which had also been built by FVHD.
The now-demolished GM plant was also designed by them, as is the still-standing main administration building of the state Department of Transportation. Ewing High School, a single-story brick building whose lone decorative flourish is a simple clocktower, is typical of utilitarian schools constructed as Trenton’s suburbs expanded after World War II.
Ewing’s old municipal building (now on the TCNJ campus on Pennington Road) as well as the new municipal building on Jake Garzio Drive were two more FVHD jobs.
Though the company was not known for pushing the envelope with wild designs, some of its buildings stand out more than others. A group of schools in Trenton it designed in the 1930s — including Hedgepath Williams School, Stokes School, and Washington School — are examples of the art modern style.
One of Leynes’ favorites is a church on South Broad Street in Hamilton, near Independence Plaza. Built in 1947 as the Trenton Adventist Church at the corner of South Broad and Lillian, it’s now known as Light of the Word Church.
FVHD also built Trinity Cathedral and other buildings for the archdiocese of Trenton in the first half of the 20th century.
“They were well known and incredibly profitable,” Leynes says. “They have a wide ranging and very long list of buildings.”
Because FVHD no longer has records going back to 1918, Leynes says that there may be others that she was unable to locate. Unlike public buildings, that could be found in newspaper archives, private homes that may have been constructed by FVHD are harder to track down.
Leynes believes FVHD had a large influence on the city because it was active during the city’s industrial heyday of the early to mid-20th century. “I think it was a good time to be an architect in Trenton in those early years for sure,” she says. “There was enough work to keep a lot of people busy, and the industrial power of the city at that point certainly drove a lot of it.”
FVHD managed to stay afloat through the Great Depression even though building ground to a halt. Mountford was personally involved in the restoration of the historic Trent House during that time. The programs of the New Deal in the late 1930s eventually provided more work, and the postwar suburban boom kept FVHD building schools and public buildings in the suburbs.
Leynes grew up outside of Columbia, South Carolina, where her father is an accountant and her mother an office manager. She lived here until she went to graduate school at the University of Georgia. She moved to Trenton 20 years ago along with her husband, a TCNJ professor. She worked as a consultant for the first 17 years in the area, but did a lot of historical research on the side. She is a member of the Trenton Historical Society and serves on the Trenton Landmarks Commission.
She particularly enjoys researching buildings.
“Most people don’t even think about who’s behind the buildings. To me it’s an interesting avenue of research. It’s interesting to know who was behind the buildings that we know and love that form the built environment that we live in,” Leynes says.