Fun With Natalie

Natalie Featherston’s trompe l’oeil works are exhibited in galleries across the country, but Made You Look! The Art of Deception at Ellarslie, through April 19, is her first major show in New Jersey. There are trompe l’oeil works in Ms. Featherston’s signature style, including her series of children’s drawings, “Young Artist Shows Promise.” Also included will be pieces from her confectionary series “Just Desserts,” as well as several large virtuosic works that contrast with the traditional small easel genre of trompe l’oeil.

Here’s what I wrote about her in October 2007, when she and her husband organized a tour of their neighborhood, Cadwalader Heights, right near Cadwalader Park where the museum is located:

THIS time of the year, with the low-angled sun illuminating yellow and orange leaves, many neighborhoods seem like warm, inviting places. Yet some exude a charm that goes beyond seasonal beauty. It could be in the giant shadows cast from gnarly tree limbs, or an eclectic mix of architectural styles that take best advantage of sunlight and views. Certainly the spirit of the people who call the neighborhood home contributes to its character.

Whatever the mix, Frederick Law Olmsted knew how to achieve it, and Trenton’s Cadwalader Heights has it. The neighborhood surrounding Cadwalader Park – encompassing Ellarslie, the Trenton City Museum – is portrayed in A History of Cadwalader Heights by Glenn Modica.

Mr. Modica, a preservation consultant working as principal senior historian for Richard Grubb & Associates in Cranbury, lives in the oldest house in Cadwalader Heights with his wife, the artist Natalie Featherston, who edited the historical book. No strangers to restoration homes, the couple had lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side before moving to Princeton, where they rented a small cottage off Library Place for five years.

When Ms. Featherston and Mr. Modica found the house at 9 Belmont Circle three years ago, it didn’t take much to persuade them this was their home. In the days leading up to the tour, landscapers were busy pulling out old shrubbery to be replaced with new, and installing a stone path leading to the front door.

The house’s original owner, Frank Forrest Frederick, was director of the School of Industrial Arts, a forerunner to Mercer County Community College, as well as a landscape painter, so the entire third floor of the house served as his studio. This had immediate appeal to Ms. Featherston, who has worked as a decorative painter and had an exhibit opening in Santa Fe at press time. Her easel, a dress form, shelves lined with Brownie cameras, an old typewriter, pitchers of pens, and animals such as a rooster and a squirrel, fill one of the rooms she uses as a studio.

Here, she works on a series of trompe l’oeil dessert paintings. “I always work from life,” she says, and sets up still lifes with pastries from Acme or Shop Rite. “I wouldn’t necessarily eat them, because they are over-the-top with excess whipped cream and coconut oozing,” but their color and decadence make them suitable subject matter.

Ms. Featherston and Mr. Modica are the fourth owners of the house, and most of the work they had to do was cosmetic, as well as new electrical and HVAC systems and new stairways. For a former decorative painter like Ms. Featherson, nine rooms of wallpaper were a challenge and the paper had to be removed. “Now I’m an excellent plasterer,” she says of the work she has done herself. “Although I have no problem getting out the checkbook for the crown molding – there wasn’t a right angle in this house.”

Mr. Modica grew up in Forest Hills, N.Y., and first became familiar with the work of Frederick Law Olmsted in his design for Forest Hills Garden. Olmsted, along with partner Calvert Vaux, was the genius behind New York City’s Central Park and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Boston’s Arnold Arboretum, and many of the nation’s greatest parks and parkways. In 1890, Olmsted was brought to Trenton by Edmund C. Hill to create Cadwalader Park. Both the park and the neighborhood are Olmsted’s only designs in New Jersey.

“Olmsted transformed Cadwalader Park… into an oasis of sylvan beauty,” writes Mr. Modica. “The plan is signature Olmsted. Gracefully sweeping curves of the roads follow the natural topography of the land, revealing an ever-changing landscape intended to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. Generously sized half-acre building lots were set amid a canopy of mature red oaks, beeches and sycamores.”

Ellarslie, the Italianate villa at the center of the park, was built in 1848 as the summer residence for Henry McCall of Philadelphia. Designed by architect John Notman, who also designed an addition to the New Jersey State House, it has, over the years, served as everything from a restaurant and ice cream parlor to a monkey house. In 1978, it opened its doors as the Trenton City Museum.

Olmsted, considered the father of American landscape architecture, died in 1903, and so his sons, Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects, carried out the plans for Cadwalader Heights. “To maintain property values and architectural character, Hill included restrictive covenants in every deed,” writes Mr. Modica. “Homes had to be of a ‘rural or suburban style of architecture’ and cost no less than $4,000. In marketing Cadwalader Heights, Hill proclaimed it to be the city’s ‘most exclusive residential section’ with its ‘giant trees and healthful atmosphere’ and populated by ‘the best people in Trenton.'”

Only well-respected architects were enlisted for the project, such as John Phelps Pette, J. Osborne Hunt and William Klemann. They designed homes in styles ranging from cottages and Colonial Revival to Tudor Revival. The neighborhood attracted Trenton’s industrial elite, such as magnates of the city’s pottery industry: William Tams from Greenwood Pottery, Matthew Scammell from Scammell China, Mark Solon from Mercer Pottery and Paul Duryea of Cook Pottery.

Another notable resident was Mary Roebling, who married the grandson of Brooklyn Bridge designer John A. Roebling. In 1957, she was described as one of the 10 wealthiest women in the country.

Red oaks, lindens and sycamores lined the streets, as they do today. Garages were designed to be in the backs of the houses, accessed by a rear alley.

Mr. Hill promoted the neighborhood as a suburb of Trenton, and residents were not permitted to sell alcohol for a profit. “He didn’t want to see a tavern on the corner,” says Ms. Featherston.

Building picked up after World War I, with the period between 1920 and 1924 seeing the biggest [msu: boom?: ]jump in homebuilding. By 1937, the neighborhood was built out. During the Depression, there were house foreclosures, but the neighborhood never experienced a decline, as many urban areas did after the 1968 race riots.

Today, many new people are moving in, refurbishing old houses, as young people do. Most houses sell for between $350,000 to $400,000, according to Ms. Featherston, and for that amount, a homeowner gets four to six bedrooms, a fireplace, classic architectural details, and possibly Mercer tile surrounding fireplaces or in bathrooms.

Many of the families send their children to private schools, says Ms. Featherson, and when asked about crime, she says “It’s a city. There’s petty opportunistic crime but nothing serious. We have neighborhood crime watch and you have to be sensible and lock your car at night.”

The neighbors represent a diverse lot, including artists, architects, musicians, people working in business and financial industries, “black, white, gay, straight, single, with children, and married with pets,” says Ms. Featherston. Many homes are owned, and some are rentals.

What Olmsted built into the neighborhood to attract its original inhabitants still lures residents today. Ms. Featherston and Mr. Modica boast of all the welcome parties and block parties that consume their social calendars.

In addition to classic details in their house, Mr. Modica and Ms. Featherston have hidden treasure. While doing some plaster work on the first floor, they discovered chestnut pocket doors that, somehow, over the years, were encased into the plaster walls. Another project for another day.

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