Historic Ellarslie Mansion Seeks Support Under New Leadership

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

It’s home to the Trenton City Museum. It sits on about one hundred acres of public park designed by the iconic landscape architect of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted. And, just three years ago, its city funding was eliminated. Now, just three weeks into his term, Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson is stepping up.

“There is no funding currently,” says Jackson, “but it’s certainly my choice, and my administration, and my business administrator to re-establish a baseline of funding to support Ellarslie Museum.”

The museum houses art and artifacts that tell the story of the greater Trenton area.

“Trenton is a fascinating city, has a great history obviously going back to the Revolutionary War, but then it was a major industrial power house,” says Trenton Museum Society President Richard Willinger.

Willinger started by hiring new museum director Donna Carcaci Rhodes.

“We have some interesting samples from Roebling that we’ve had on display in the past. We have some beautiful samples from Lenox china. One of my favorite pieces is representative of the Reagan china during the Reagan administration,” says Rhodes. “All of these things are connected to the history of the country, this history of the city and also the history of manufacturing as well.”

The Italianate-villa-turned-museum was built as a summer home in 1848. The mansion was bought by the city in 1888 and has also been a restaurant, an ice cream parlor and a monkey house. The Ellarslie’s latest incarnation as the Trenton City Museum began in 1978, but funding was cut during former Mayor Tony Mack’s financial crisis.

“We lost the staff that we had and it’s important to have a museum director for a museum because they have the professional experience and training in order to maintain the collections,” says Willinger. Lack of staff also impeded the Museum Society’s ability to acquire pieces for exhibits. “They will not lend artifacts to a volunteer organization. You need to have a trained professional who knows all about security and about environmental conditions and maintenance of the artifacts,” he explains.

The Trenton Museum Society Board stepped in.

“The Museum Society is still raising the funds for a director,” Willinger says.

Even if financial support is still lacking, there’s moral support from patrons eager to preserve Trenton’s history.

“It just brings me back because I was raised in Trenton. We were brought up in Chambersburg,” says Elaine Cassel, a Hamilton resident. “I remember this when it was the monkey house…and it’s so nice to see things preserved and people remember things, and it brings happy memories back to me.”

With a new mayor and a new museum director at the helm, there’s hope financial support will follow.

“It’s important to have that level of history and preservation that they do for us and they do it at a high level,” says Jackson.

And it’s a bridge to connect Trenton’s historic stories to a new audience.