ARTWORKS, Trenton’s visual arts center, connects community, culture and creativity through the arts.
Founded in 1964 to offer professional support for artists, our predecessor organization, the Princeton Art Association, was located in that community until 1988 when it moved to Trenton and became known as ARTWORKS. During the 1990s and early 2000s, we offered exhibitions of regional artists in the main gallery; the program “Learning through Art,” developed by the Guggenheim Museum and funded by the Dodge Foundation was a partnership with Trenton Public Schools; portfolio preparation for Trenton Central High School art students; as well as a range of adult, children, and family visual arts programs.
Since 2007 there has been a stronger emphasis on Trenton residents and a commitment as an art center and catalyst for community interaction. The same year saw the birth of “Art All Night,” a twenty-four hour visual and performing arts festival that has become the premier public visual arts event in the region. Artworks' art exhibitions, education programs, and our remarkable Public Art Program (which includes Art All Night and Art All Day and Art Making Day), provide a community-building bridge between the city and its surrounding suburbs, offering creative outlets and programs for residents as well as attracting people into the city for diverse and uniformly positive arts events. We believe that art is transformational to communities, and the changes that access to culture and creativity provide through the programs Artworks offers are critical to the Greater Trenton and Mercer County community.
Trenton’s visual arts center, Artworks, celebrates its 25th year in Trenton this year having opened to the public in September, 1988. The former Sears warehouse was acquired by the City for a visual arts center in the mid-1980’s to complement the City’s performing arts venue, the Mill Hill Playhouse. Its conversion into an arts center, with a large gallery, workshop/classroom areas, and artist studio space, won an Adaptive Re-Use Award from the New Jersey Chapter of the American Planning Association in 1989.
From Warehouse to Arts Center: A Brief History
After the Sears store on Stockton Street closed in the late 1970’s, Trenton’s Director of Housing and Development Tom Ogren had his eye on the former Sears warehouse building as being especially well suited for an arts center. Its location was easily accessible from Rt. 1 and adjacent to the City’s best known example of urban revitalization, the Mill Hill area. More importantly, there was ample nearby parking and the building offered many features ideal for an arts center with an inviting ambiance and a sizeable amount of wide open interior space.
With Mayor Arthur Holland’s support of the project, negotiations to acquire the warehouse building were initiated in the mid-1980’s with the new owner of the Sears property which included the former Sears store, the warehouse and the adjacent parking lot. The owner had planned to demolish the warehouse to expand the adjacent parking lot since he had arranged with the state to lease the former Sears building for State offices and needed additional parking. To satisfy the owner’s desire for more parking and avoid having to pay for the warehouse building, the owner was offered a small adjacent parking area the City owned in exchange for the deed to the warehouse building. The offer was accepted and the warehouse building was saved.
The next hurdle to overcome was securing funding to transform the building into an arts center. The City took the first step by allocating $150,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds toward the estimated $300,000 cost of renovation work. The State of New Jersey was targeted as the next potential funding source. A request to help find additional funds went out to then State Senator Gerald Stockman who often attended early morning weekly meetings with Mayor Holland and his top aides. Through Senator Stockman’s efforts, a $150,000 grant for the arts center was included as a line item in an upcoming appropriations bill. After the bill was passed by the legislature, the Governor’s office (which could have had the Governor line item veto the grant) allowed the grant to remain in the appropriations bill signed by the Governor after being satisfied by the City that the project was worthwhile.
The basic layout of the arts center was proposed by then Trenton resident Mary Yess, Executive Director of the Princeton Art Association (later known as Artworks) and David Orban. Based on the proposed layout, plans and specifications for the arts center were prepared by the architectural firm of Clarke, Caton and Hintz. Upon completion of renovation work in 1988, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held in late September of that year for the opening of Artworks (which leased the building from the City of Trenton). The event was attended by some 400 people with several State officials, including the State Treasurer, the Secretary of State, and State Senator Stockman, in attendance.
Tom Ogren, former Director, Department of Housing and Development, 1978-1990.
Artworks. Say the name and it will invariably spark a heated discussion over a local developer’s proposed plan to convert this building in the Mill Hill Historic District from artist studios to residential lofts. Rising from this controversy has emerged one of Trenton’s urban myths. The Artworks building, a one-story brick building on Everett Alley, west of Stockton Street, widely known and promoted as a “19th Century Trenton Trolley Barn,” is actually an early 20th century garage.
By the 1890s, a small industrial and commercial pocket had formed in the area bounded by Broad and Front Streets, Assunpink Creek and the D&R Canal (now Route 1). Lime kilns, coal yards, a match factory, and two livery businesses operated here. One livery, Thomas S. Everett’s “Exchange and Sales Stables,” was located mid-block between Stockton and Montgomery Streets. The other, on the site of the Artworks building, stood W.S. Cadwallader’s “Livery and Boarding Stables.”
The Cadwallader enterprise-operated by Lewis A. Marshall into the 20th century- consisted of an interconnected complex of one- and two-story brick and frame buildings. These carriage houses, sheds and stables would have sheltered wagons, carriages, buggies, perhaps even horse cars and omnibuses. But not trolleys.
In June 1919, the New Jersey State Highway Department, the forerunner of NJDOT, purchased the property and demolished all the buildings on the site. Not long after, the Department probably erected the present building on the site. The existing building first appears on a 1927 insurance map of the city.
Formed two years earlier, the Highway Department became the beneficiary of the federal government’s surplus military vehicles and equipment left over from World War I. To house most of these vehicles the Department constructed a large garage at “Fernwood” near the intersection of Lower Ferry Road and Parkway Avenue, the present headquarters of NJDOT.
Off Everett Alley, the Department erected this utilitarian one-story brick building with stepped parapet. The original garage bay and most of the windows and doors have since been removed and filled in. But the unassuming exterior belies the unexpected splendor of the interior. The vast, raw and open space, about 60 feet wide by 150 feet deep, has exposed brick walls, a soaring 25-foot high ceiling supported by a series of steel roof trusses, and a nearly full-length monitor roof with skylight that floods the entire space with natural light.
Up to 90 vehicles could be housed in the garage: cars and trucks by Packard, Hudson and Chalmers, ditch diggers, concrete mixers, graders, loaders, just about everything on four wheels. Everything, that is, except trolleys.
By 1950 the Highway Department no longer owned the garage. At some point the property was transferred to the State Department of Defense and used as an adjunct to the Armory building on State Street. In 1965, the Department of Defense sold the building to Sears, Roebuck & Co., whose retail store was on Stockton Street (now the site of the DMV building) and who used the building as a warehouse. Only three years earlier Sears had razed several nineteenth century buildings on the west side of Stockton Street for a parking lot now used by DMV.
The demolition was consistent with the city’s “Mercer-Jackson Urban Renewal Project,” a 22- acre redevelopment area that essentially encompassed all of the Mill Hill Historic District. In the planning stages since 1956, the Mercer-Jackson project proposed “the elimination of obsolete buildings” in the area, about 90 residences and businesses. A 1966 plan for the area erased the garage in favor of an open space recreation area. In a Modern moment of 1960s exuberance, Mayor Arthur Holland, himself a Mill Hill resident, hailed the project for “the urban renewal minded” and envisioned an area “that will become one of the most up-to-date in the city.”
Mill Hill residents reacted sharply to the plan. Joined in a common cause, they formed the Project Area Committee-the genesis of the Old Mill Hill Society- and worked aggressively toward alternative solutions that focused on rehabilitation, and coordinated with enlightened public officials to find appropriate accommodations for anyone displaced.
Remarkably, the garage was spared. And in 1979 the city renovated the building before finally acquiring it 1986. Since 1988, Artworks has operated art classes, studios and exhibit space in the building.
Glenn R. Modica is a member of the Trenton Historical Society’s Preservation Committee, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to preserving and revitalizing the city’s historic buildings and neighborhoods and promoting the Capital City’s illustrious past. To find out more, visit www.trentonhistory .org