Standing high on a bluff overlooking Abbott Marsh is White City Mansion, 301 Harrison Ave., in Hamilton. Built as a farmhouse in 1820, the house reached its glory as the Casino Restaurant between 1907 and 1921, serving customers at the White City Amusement Park that surrounded it and in its heyday drew thousands.
Remnants of its past—a fountain in front and stonework at the entrance—remained near the condemned house when Suzy Abbott’s husband, Turner, saw the house on the internet and was intrigued by it.
In August 2009, the Abbotts, who were preparing to downsize from their 4-bedroom split-level on a 3/4-acre lot in Pennington to a townhouse in Ewing, decided to check out the majestic but unlivable house. When they arrived, the house was hidden behind trees, the driveway loop was mostly buried under ivy, and the garage had collapsed.
But when they walked in and saw the graceful arches and the two fireplaces in the living room, Abbott says, “It was immediate that we were supposed to be here.” And her first thought was “this is my home” even though this was “way not” what they planned.
Describing what she saw that day, Abbott says there was no power, no water, no heat, and it was raining paint off the ceilings and walls. There was also a puddle in the library, a kitchen that needed replacing, one toilet on the main floor, and no sink, and when the realtor opened the back door of the house, they saw that the whole back of the house had collapsed.
Their families were horrified, but Abbott, having experienced the pluses of the property, was undaunted. She had walked into the backyard, looked out from the bluff over the lake and marsh, and said, “You’re telling me this can be my backyard?” And she loved that all the second-floor bedrooms were 16-by-16, as she remembered that her antique Chinese marriage bed would not fit into one room at her Pennington home.
“In here, we have a king-size bed and furniture and a 10-by-12 Oriental rug, and nothing is touching each other,” Abbott says. “You don’t get that in a split level in Pennington and certainly not in a condo.”
The Abbotts got an estimate from a contractor of what it would cost to make the house livable—nothing extravagant—but when they put in an offer they found that another offer had already arrived, under contract.
“We should have put in a higher offer, but we kind of gave up,” she says.
That is, until that September, when the realtor called them in St. Thomas where they were vacationing and said, “You know that big, creepy house you were looking at—are you still interested? The other deal fell through.”
One reason the former owners had a hard time selling the house was the 2,000-gallon oil tank underground right next to the kitchen—which potential buyers were not allowed to inspect. If they had found it to be leaking, it would have cost millions to remediate, Abbott says. They found no leaks, but the oil bill was $1,200 a month, and the house was still cold, so four years ago they had the tank removed and switched to gas.
With the removal of the tank four years ago, the hole it left started filling with water that Abbott was worried would destroy the 200-year-old brick foundation of the house. Luckily, the township was able to trace the line from the house to the junction box in the middle of the yard and turn off the water.
After purchasing the house the Abbotts got to work immediately on renovations, which took nine months with five contractors working concurrently. Suzy Abbott headed up the painting, joined by friends and relatives, which required scraping, followed by two coats of Kilz primer to coat water stains, then two coats of paint. The contractors repaired plaster on walls and ceilings, updated the electrical systems, demoed the three-car garage, and saved the sunroom. They also had to reroof the now-6,500 square foot house.
“When we bought this house, we said, ‘Let’s try to keep it as close as we can to what it already is,’” Abbott says, although they did expand the second-floor bathroom into one of the bedrooms and put in a big soaking tub. But graceful touches of the past remain: the art deco fireplaces in the living room, probably from the 1920s; a medallion and chandelier in the dining room and the hall light; the kitchen floors, made of old Trenton tile; and very long, thin cedar closets on the bedroom floors.
As they took down the walls in the kitchen, which they drastically remodeled, they found another remnant of the past: “tons of chicken bones in the wall.” Abbott attributes the bones to a specialty food during the house’s amusement park days—chicken waffles.
They have also added back French doors that once led from the living room to the restaurant’s dining area on the porch. To retain the décor of the library, they had their carpenter pull down one wall, build a powder room behind it, then put back the wall.
As part of the History Weekend at the Abbott Marshlands, historian and Hamilton native Jim Colello Jr., author of “Let’s Go to the White City: A History of White City Amusement Park,” will be offering tours of White City Mansion, Saturday, April 27, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. Both tours are already filled.
Colello, who studied history at the former Parsons College in Iowa and earned a master’s in public administration at Rider University, grew up on Reed Avenue and remembers seeing the White City Mansion and the stone columns at the driveway’s entrance when he would visit a friend on McClellan Avenue.
He first met Suzy Abbott when he saw her crying on her front porch and asked her, “Is this yours?” Then, he told her, “I have some stories for you.”
Built in 1820, the original farmhouse and the 150 acres it sat on were sold in 1889 by Isaac DeCou to a developer, the Broad Street Land Association. When they tried to sell the house in 1898, no one was interested—likely because on the developers’ street plan Overlook House, as the mansion was then called, was surrounded by streets. So instead the developers transformed the house and its property into Spring Lake Park, creating a lake below the house, reached via a majestic set of stairs, to attract people to the park.
In 1906, Chicagoan C. H. Oberheide of White City Company came to Trenton looking for a place to build an amusement park, following a trend inspired by the 1893 Chicago World Exposition. Oberheide teamed up with Trenton businessmen to secure the lease on the old farm, and they built White City Park, to which “thousands of people flocked,” Colello says.
A trolley dropped visitors at the entrance to the amusement park, which existed from 1907 to 1922. It boasted a roller coaster, merry-go-round, miniature train, laughing gallery, shooting alley, “helter skelter” slide, and theatres where traveling acts would stay for a week and perform.
In 1917, Hildinger Amusement enterprises a new management company took over the lease and renamed the space Boiling Springs Park, named for the spring that fed the lake. In 1921, Hildinger opened a second, larger amusement park in Hamilton at Woodlawn Park, which became fully operational in 1922. The new park had more land, a larger rollercoaster, a large picnic area, sports fields, and off-street parking, which Colello said was key to its popularity. The new park “was the death knell for Boiling Springs,” which closed after its 1922 season. The amusement park at Woodlawn stayed in business until the 1930s.
Henrietta “Aunt Yetti” Episcopo managed the Casino Restaurant in White City Park from 1911 to 1922 and may have owned the building. Customers at the Casino Restaurant ate out on the sizable veranda, which then extended around the side of the house. Its only remnant is the sunroom in the back, which they ended up saving only after the carpenter uncovered windows along the outside wall.
In the late 1920s, the house suffered a fire, then in the 1930s the property moved into the hands of the La Macchia family and later their relatives, the Speciales. The Speciales told Abbott that their father brought an Italian craftsman over from Italy to do the arches and concrete work in the 1930s. At some point the roof was vaulted up to make room for a third floor.
Abbott and her husband graduated from Hopewell Valley Regional High School. Two days after graduation, she started working for Emon, which manufactured electric submeters. At the beginning she answered phones, but as the company grew she transitioned to managing the marketing, advertising, and graphic design, staying a total of 22 years. In 2010 Honeywell bought the company, and when they closed it down in 2014, Abbott says, “I realized I could draw, and I now do websites and marketing collateral.” She owns Creative Marketing Designs, which does work for nonprofits and small manufacturers, associations, and businesses. She and her husband also buy, sell, and collect antique glassware, which is displayed in cabinets downstairs.
Abbott’s father was a steelworker for 30 years at United Steel Products. Her mom stayed at home and raised four children.
Other events sponsored by Friends for the Abbott Marshlands (abbottmarshlands.org) during the history weekend include: on Saturday, April 27, a bird walk at Spring Lake in Roebling Park in Hamilton, 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., cohosted by the Washington Crossing Audubon Society, plus Charles Leck on the Audubon Society’s and C.C. Abbott’s importance to natural history; a bird walk at Spring Lake in Roebling Park, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; half-hour tours of oldest Mercer County house, the Watson House, guided by Daughters of the American Revolution,151 Westcott Ave. in Hamilton from 1-4 p.m. On Sunday, April 28, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m, explore tracks of Camden and Amboy Railroad with geologist Pierre Lacombe, while there will be Watson House tours offered from 1-4 p.m.
Recently, Abbott spotted seven swans flying by and a Carolina wren on the air conditioner outside her bedroom window. She also watches a bald eagle whose nest is in the marsh; a 40-pound beaver; white, blue, and green herons; and snakes and frogs.
“There’s more nature here than in Western New York,” she says.
After moving in they made new friends, and have had 850 children coming through on Halloween. “The house isn’t just the place we live; it is the place we enjoy being,” Abbott says—so much so that they ended up selling their vacation properties in New York State. Noting that she recently counted 11 deer, a fox, possums, and raccoons, she says, “We don’t need a [New York] black bear!”