Fifty years ago, Hamilton Township had a population that was 75% as large as the City of Trenton, one town over. Yet where Trenton had four hospitals for its 104,000 residents, Hamilton’s 79,709 people had none.

Around that time, some members of the Trenton General Hospital board of directors looked around and seeing that there was a lot of competition for patients in the city, and no competition out in Mercer County’s largest suburb.

Long-time Hamilton mayor Maurice Perilli with Trenton General Hospital administrator Harry Gerard and hospital board chair Lester Robbins on the site of the future Hamilton Hospital, circa 1970. (Photo courtesy of RWJ University Hospital Hamilton).

One such board member was Maurice Perilli, the Hamilton committeeman who often served as mayor in those days. Perilli had a vision for a new hospital in Hamilton alongside a large community park.

Over time, he won the rest of the board, and in time, the idea to move Trenton General out of the city became a reality. The renamed Hamilton Hospital opened its doors on Klockner Road in 1971.

At the hospital’s dedication ceremony in 1971, following its move from Trenton, James R. Cowan, then the New Jersey Commissioner of Health, proclaimed: “You have a beautiful building; now you have to build a hospital.”

In the decades since, the hospital has seen considerable growth. Today it sits as a regional medical complex, an important part of the RWJBarnabas Health system. RWJ University Hospital Hamilton will be celebrating its 50 years serving the local community with a variety of commorative events and programs.

“Being a part of the Hamilton community means even more to us today than it did 50 years ago, says Richard Freeman, president and chief executive officer of the hospital. “We never lose sight of our role as a community hospital. But over the years, with the support of our community, we’ve grown to provide services that before, only large city hospitals would provide. Today, at RWJUH Hamilton, you can count on getting the care you need, close to home.”

The hospital today is a regional destination for cancer care, neurosciences, orthopedics and bariatrics, always looking to meet the health and wellness needs of the community.

Trenton General Hospital opened in 1941 on South Clinton Avenue. “Here we were in the 40’s, we were a newbie, we were the smallest and the newest, but the board was extremely visionary and agile,” says Diane Grillo, vice president of health promotion at RWJUH. “In the 60’s they started looking around for a new location, and Maury Perilli was on that board. He started pushing the board in the 60’s. He said, ‘Residents of Trenton are moving out to the suburbs, we need to move with them.’”

Some of the board was hesitant, but Perilli did not give up. He knew that there were plans to build a lake off Klockner Road, on the site occupied today by Evergreen at Hamilton.

Perilli, Grillo says, had the vision to get the lake moved to where it is today — and the political will to make it happen. He put forth the idea of putting Hamilton Hospital on one side of the lake and a community park — now Veterans Park — on the other. That idea took shape, and the park, the lake and hospital all became reality within a decade.

“Can you imagine today, someone saying, ‘I’m moving the lake?’” Grillo says.

In 1985, Lakeview Child Center opened its first facilities on the hospital campus, to provide childcare services for hospital employees. Today, still affiliated with RWJ, it has locations throughout Mercer County, and is open to the entire community.

In 1994, Hamilton Hospital became part of the Robert Wood Johnson Network and System, changing its name for the first time. The new name was Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton.

“Well before there were regular mergers and acquisitions in the industry, the board decided we were going to merge with RWJ,” Grillo says. “Nowadays all you hear about is mergers and acquisitions, but in 1994 that was such forward thinking.”

Left: an artist’s rendering of Hamilton Hospital, pre-construction.

In 1995, RWJ opened the its Outpatient Services Building, providing outpatient testing and treatment, including a same-day surgery center. A year later, the hospital became an affiliate of The Cancer Institute of New Jersey, and would go on to open the Cancer Institute of New Jersey Hamilton outside the hospital walls in 2002.

The hospital also opened the Women and Infants Pavilion, home to the maternal child health program, in 1996. The maternity ward and inpatient obstetrics program was shuttered in 2015.

At the time, the hospital cited demographic shifts as a reason for the closure, noting that the number of women in the area over 45 had begun to outnumber those considered to be of childbearing age (ages 15-44), and that trend was expected to continue in the near future.

The hospital shifted some of its focus to an overall women’s health program, focused on gynecology and gynecologic oncology.

In 2001 and 2007, the hospital opened two expansions: its north tower, with its new emergency department and intensive and critical care areas, and the lakefront tower, which added 64 private patient rooms, medical/surgical units and and orthopedic units..

It also established the Grounds for Healing, in partnership with the internationally-recognized Grounds for Sculpture and The Sculpture Foundation to promote the healing of mind, body and spirit, in 2001.

In 2016, the hospital became a part of RWJBarnabas Health as a result of the merger between Robert Wood Johnson Health System and Barnabas Health.

“Everything has grown up around the hospital,” Grillo says. “All the major highways, the Interstates, the housing, the seniors — the hospital has become the foundation of everything else that grew up around us. I’m always thrilled that we’re such an integral part of this community and that people look up to us and trust us.”

RWJ University Hospital Hamilton’s front entrance today. (Photo courtesy of RWJ University Hospital Hamilton.)

Richard Freeman says the merger between Barnabas and RWJ has been beneficial to the hospital and, in turn, the community.

“I’ve bene part of this organization for seven years, and it’s been a great experience for me,” he says. “We really have moved the needle of the hospital in terms of its reputation and quality in the community.”

Freeman cites the “A” safety rating the hospital earned from the Leapfrog Group as an example of the positive growth for the hospital. “We were a Leapfrog “C” hospital. now we’re listed as one of the top community hospitals in the country,” he says.

Freeman says RWJ University Hospital Hamilton will continue to build on that success in the coming years. The hospital already has a Center for Neurosciences, in affiliation with the Global Neurosciences Institute. In three to five years, the hospital hopes to have a new purpose-built neurosciences building with all the technology and facilities it needs to deliver state-of-the-art neurological services.

Already in progress and set to be completed sooner is a new building for the hospital’s cardiology center.

“It’s all part of us having a bigger understanding of the needs of the community,” Grillo says. “A lot of those families who moved to Hamilton from Trenton 50 years ago are now seniors. A lot of the services that we’re looking to build are focused on that geriatric population.”

Along those lines, RWJ’s Better Health program, based in the Fitness and Wellness Center on Quakerbridge Road, provides additional services for those 65 and over. Expanded gerontology services are also available in the primary care building.

“Our plans are to really expand the geriatric services within the hospital. Geriatric services really go over all the service lines. Really thrilled to be able to offer advanced services for our senior population,” she says.

The coronavirus pandemic has, of course, presented huge challenges for RWJ and every hospital in the nation. But Freeman says he is proud of how his staff have weathered the storm.

“Covid has been with us now for about a year, and I will say that as a hospital, from a care and a testing standpoint, we have probably done the best in the state in protecting the community,” he says. “If you look at how many people we’ve treated, how many the staff have taken care of, it’s incredible and the community has really shown us appreciation for that.”

When Covid surged last March and April, Freeman says, the community was vocal in its support of the hospital community, recognizing health workers and calling them heroes. He points out that a year later, those heroes are still on the front lines battling Covid.

“It’s a testament to their commitment to the community that they’re still here doing that,” he says. “They’re very proud of what they do and very committed, but they’re also able to go home and not take it home with them…Our employees are resilient.

“It’s been 50 years of taking care of this community, and we’re looking forward to taking care of them for another 50,” Freeman says.

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The hospital is still planning its rollout of anniversary-related events, but some events are already on the calendar, including the following:

March 30: Doctors Day. The hospital will be dedicating a new Physician Wall of Honor for the 50th anniversary.

June 22: Community Impact Alliance luncheon.

Nov. 15: potential outside event and Hamilton History Wall dedication at the hospital. (Nov. 15, 1971 is the date that the hospital officially opened.)

Dec. 4: Anniversary celebration.

RWJUH Hamilton is also developing a new website that will allow community members to upload photos and memories of RWJUH Hamilton and contribute to a digital gallery of the hospital through the years.

The hospital also has plans to do “Throwback Thursdays” on social media, featuring memories uploaded by the community, as well as images from our archives.

So the hospital is asking area residents to join in the celebration of “50 Years, Together” by sharing photos, memorabilia, and memories on video, audio or in writing, to create a community scrapbook commemorating the institution’s five decades in Hamilton. To submit memories email Jessica Federman, director of public relations and marketing, at jessica.federman@rwjbh.org.