If you’ve ever passed through Cadwalader Park, chances are you’ve run into the Ellarslie Mansion. This opulent Italianate villa is currently home to the Trenton City Museum, but the property has been in Trenton since long before the museum opened its doors. A true icon of Trenton, it is no wonder that visitors have flocked to this spot for decades. Today, let’s swing open the doors and stroll down memory lane as we uncover the history of the Ellarslie Mansion.
The Ellarslie Mansion was originally the home of Henry McCall, a well-to-do Philadelphian who served as a banker and a local industrial titan. The mansion’s location in Cadwalalder Park is no coincidence: McCall and the Cadwalader family were related! The Cadwalader family drew McCall’s attention to Trenton in the first place. Upon the death of Thomas Cadwalader, much of the family farm was broken up and sold as parcels. Henry McCall opted to purchase a piece, signaling the official start of the Ellarslie era!
In 1845, Henry McCall approached famed architect, John Notman, to inquire about building his estate. Notman was highly acclaimed and was most regarded for introducing the Italianate Villa to the United States. His work brought many of the stylistic flairs of Europe to wealthy homeowners in the US, providing a truly cutting-edge approach to 19th-century architecture. Ellarslie served as home to the McCalls for many years until he ultimately sold the house in 1888 to a New York stockbroker, George W. Farlee. Farlee utilized this property as a summer home, taking advantage of the vast property to raise his beloved Jersey cows.
Per Colonel Lewis Perrine, “Few Trenton swains and their sweethearts of the past forty years have not whispered words of love to each other while strolling in the somber and romantic shade of Lovers’ Lane, and there are few youngsters of the same period, now grown to manhood, who did not seek during their early days to hand down their names to fame by the questionable process of carving their initials on the trunks of the trees that line that pretty byway. Laid out straight as the crow flies from the Old Post Road to the feeder of the Delaware and Raritan Canal, and thence by a series of graceful curves but still bordered by growths of heavy shade trees, Lovers’ Lane was for many years the avenue leading to beautiful “Ellarslie,” the summer home of Henry McCall.”
In 1888, Farlee sold the property to the City of Trenton, who was actively seeking land for a park at the time of this transaction. The home was sold for $50,000 and added to the eventual plot for Cadwalwader Park. The City of Trenton purchased the adjoining property in the same year, and the plans for the park were officially underway. Over the years, the Ellarslie Mansion took on several forms, including an ice cream parlor, a natural history museum, and even a monkey enclosure for the Cadwalader Park Zoo! A storied building in every sense of the word, there’s no doubt that the Ellarslie Mansion has seen its fair share of excitement.
By the time the Trenton City Museum took possession of the Ellarslie Mansion in 1971, it was clear that the property had taken a bit of a beating over the years. Work quickly began on restoring the property, and in 1978, the museum was officially able to reopen its doors to the public. The museum, which is owned by the City of Trenton and run by the Trenton Museum Society, now serves as a beacon for our community’s rich history, culture, and life.
Today, all residents of Trenton are welcome to pass through the halls of Ellarslie and take in the sights and sounds of Trenton, both past and present. The Ellarslie Mansion has been an icon of the Trenton community for decades, rightly earning its reputation as one of the city’s favorite spots. And although there’s no way of knowing what the next century looks like for the Ellarslie Mansion, we do know that if the past has been any precedent, this historic property will continue to impact our community for generations.