“The task now is to find more ways to be relevant,” says Trenton Historical Society president Damon Tvaryanas as the organization celebrates its 100th anniversary of preserving and celebrating the city’s history.
Tvaryanas (pronounced “terry AHN iss”) is thinking beyond Trenton’s early Colonial, Anglo-Saxon history and talking about “other communities, including commuters to Trenton, and show them it’s their city too.”
Tvaryanas, a professional art and architecture historian in what he terms “the cultural resource industry,” adds that the THS is “making the biggest efforts it can towards introducing programs that will attract their interest.”
That includes the Saturday, November 23, anniversary gala and opening of the “Trenton Eclectic Exhibition” at the Trenton City Museum.
In a major research essay for the centennial, Tvaryanas has shown how Trenton’s leading citizens and newspaper editorialists had urged for the creation of an historical society at least as early as 1912. But it was not until March 20, 1919, that an organizational meeting was held by members of the “Princes of Caliph,” a social branch of the Knights of Malta (one of the ubiquitous early-20th-century fraternal organizations similar to today’s better-known Elks).
But like many such groups of that era, it was open only to men, as was noted a mere two days later in a letter of protest to the Trenton Evening Times that argued that “several ladies of Trenton … would pass a better examination in historical subjects” than some of the society’s male founders. Full membership for women was finally approved in 1946.
A landmark early effort of the society was a two-volume history of the city, published in 1929 during celebrations of Trenton’s sesquicentennial. The bicentennial of the United States in 1976 saw the society’s successful preservation, in partnership with the Trenton, Mercer, New Jersey, and federal governments of the Eagle Tavern on South Broad Street, built in 1756.
When the Trenton Historical Society was founded in 1919, the city was already the capital of New Jersey and county seat of Mercer. It was at its peak as an American manufacturing center and already home to a diverse population, with vital Italian, Polish, Irish, and African-American neighborhoods. In recent years historical societies like Trenton’s have recognized the tremendous scope of their cities’ social, ethnic, and industrial stories.
And like other historical societies, THS has translated this wider vision into a wider range of programs and events. Among the most tangibly beneficial to Trenton is its grant program to enable historic preservation. Owners of historically significant buildings who wish to preserve them and, especially, to restore these structures’ exteriors to period appearance, may apply for funding.
Its most recent application can be found at www.trentonhistory.org/restore-trenton-historic-property-rehabilitation-grant-program.
Indeed, preservation was very much a motivation for the Trenton Historical Society’s premiere annual fundraiser, known as “The Wrecking Ball.” As the name suggests, it was instituted to raise monies for preservation efforts and stop the wrecking ball equipment used in building demolition.
While Tvaryanas, 49, is dedicated to Trenton history, he was born in Brooklyn to parents who worked as graphic artists and had met while studying at the Pratt Institute. They did some advertising and a great deal of illustrations for guides and manuals. (Tvaryanas’ father produced work for clients ranging from the U.S. Army to then-prominent Bell Laboratories in Holmdel.)
Early on the family moved to New Jersey, and Tvaryanas grew up in Jackson. “I was always very interested in what had happened around me in the past,” he says. “What old [building] foundations in the woods were; what a map showed.”
He had an attraction to archaeology but says he didn’t realize there were archaeology jobs available. He graduated in 1991 from New York University with a degree in art and architectural history and then earned a master’s in historical preservation from the University of Pennsylvania in 1993.
Tvaryanas worked from 1996 to 2000 at Hunter Research, the Trenton-based historical archeology and preservation firm (see the December, 2017, Trenton Downtowner). He joined Richard Grubb Associates, another preservation research firm, in Cranbury, leaving last year to undertake private consulting.
He joined the board of the Trenton Historical Society some 10 years ago while he was working at Hunter Research. By the time he was offered the executive position, about three years ago, he had changed jobs and moved to Westampton Township in Burlington County.
“I asked the board, do you really want someone who doesn’t currently live or work in the city? And they said, ‘Yes, this is the kind of inclusion beyond the immediate borders of Trenton that we want to develop.’”
Although the saving of Eagle Tavern and the grants program have been notable successes for the Trenton Historical Society, it has had a few failures despite its most persistent efforts. Among these was the attempt to save the monumental Trenton High School building on Chambers Street.
But there are successes, almost on a weekly basis. Less obvious than a restored building facade — but equally important — is the expertise that Trenton Historical Society members bring, almost every week, to issues of new construction.
For example, says Tvaryanas, “We get tons of notifications about cell tower work.” For the volunteer organization, the four or five letters received monthly asking if the society has any concerns — and the replies they necessitate — represent about that weight. Usually it’s about cellular antennas being added to an existing structure. Occasionally it involves “someone wanting to put up a 75-foot tower on an historic property when it’s just inappropriate to do so.”
But, Tvaryanas says, the society is hopeful of playing a positive role in important future preservation activities. A notable example is sure to be the eventual reconstruction or entire replacement of the South Broad Street Bridge over the Assunpink Creek by Mill Hill Park.
This was famously the site of the Second Battle of Trenton on January 2, 1777, when Washington’s troops thwarted the intensive effort of the fearsome British grenadier shock troops to capture the bridge. That bridge is long gone, but segments remain of a span that is not much newer.
“There’s an early 19th-century bridge in the central core of the existing bridge,” Tvaryanas says. “The Assunpink flooded frequently, and there are a lot of old newspaper references to the bridge being washed away. It’s unclear when the bridge was repaired or when it was totally replaced. But we do know the core, the center lane, of [today’s] bridge is a very early bridge.”
As the Trenton Historical Society moves forward it is celebrating by attempting to involve the city’s diverse populations as well as members from neighboring communities who have professional and/or family ties to Trenton.
The November 23 gala and the Trenton City Museum’s “Trenton Eclectic” exhibit, featuring seldom-seen art, artifacts, documents, ephemera, and maps from the span of Trenton’s 350 plus years, are just a few of its ongoing events.
“The Trenton Historical Society is a great, long-lived institution,” Tvaryanas says, adding that its efforts “are all about strengthening the community as a whole.”
For more information and upcoming events: trentonhistory.org or www.facebook.com/Trenton-Historical-Society-255066127033.