Historic Structures

Trenton House Hotel, Trenton New Jersey

Date added: May 11, 2018 Categories: New Jersey Hotel Department Store Commercial

The Trenton House was one of Trenton's most famous and prestigious hotels in the 19th century, serving politicians in town for the work of the state legislature and travelers who arrived at the nearby railroad station. Transformed to a hotel from a Georgian-style residence in 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette stayed here duing his American tour of that year. In 1861 President-elect Abraham Lincoln was a guest at the Trenton House while traveling to his first inauguration. Lincoln was given a reception here, and he addressed crowds of citizens from the hotel balcony. The hotel was a gathering place for many other politicians during the 19th century, and the legend grew of the Trenton House's "Room 100", where deals were made and political careers won 6r lost. The hotel was noted for the high quality of its rooms, service, and food. Additions and alterations to the hotel were made every few years in the latter 19th century to keep it up-to-date. The dining rooms and restaurants on the first floor continued to attract customers at the turn of the century, even as the hotel itself began to decline in the face of competition from newer establishments. The Trenton House kept its name for little over a century, but a 1927 change of ownership made it the Milner Hotel. The Depression years were hard on the business, and in 1941, the once-grand ground-floor spaces - the lobby, the billiard hall, and dining rooms were destroyed as the interior was carved up into fourteen small shops. Gradually, the upper floors of the building were abandoned, and by the 1970s, the old hotel was derelict.

The 63 by 200 foot lot advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette for April 24, 1746 is the first published reference to tne site which would become known as the Trenton House in the following century. By the time the property had passed to John Reynolds in 1778, a brick house was standing there. That house became the core of Trenton's most famous 19th century hotel, whose arrival was noted in a modest announcement in the local paper, the True American, on May 8, 1824.

The new hotel had a distinguished guest almost immediately, when the Marquis de Lafayette stayed there during his visit to Trenton on September 27, 1824. Lafayette's tour of America nearly fifty years after the Revolution celebrated both the French general who had supported the American cause, and the accomplishments of the new nation. He was feted in towns all over the eastern seaboard; in Trenton, a banquet in his honor was held at the Trenton House. The host at the hotel at this time was Joseph Bispham, who made a name for himself in the hotel business in Trenton. He left in 1829 to manage the Clinton House in New York City.

The hotel continued to be quietly successful when an enthusiastic young man, Peter Katzenbach, came to work for proprietress Maria Snowden in the 1840s. He became the manager, and then lessee of the building in 1851. Before he leased the building, a complete inventory was drawn up of the hotel and its furnishings. Twenty-three rooms were listed, Including garrets and kitchens; twelve of these were guest rooms. The hotel still occupied the old Georgian building, and Katzenbach saw that a larger, more modern facility was needed.

In 1854, he purchased the building, and launched the hotel and himself into local fame. Katzenbach began by having the gable roof torn off, and two stories added atop the old building. The resulting hotel was much more imposing in size than its predecessor, and readily visible from the Camden & Amboy Railroad station a block away. The flat roof, projecting eaves, and a small bracketed porch on the hotel also made it more architecturally fashionable, suggesting the newly popular Italianate style.

Peter Katzenbach encouraged the patronage of local and state politicians, and the second floor front room of the hotel, known as Room 100, gained a reputation as the gathering place for deal-makers and legislators. It was widely reported that much legislation originated there, and large sums of money changed hands. Room 100 was enshrined as a political landmark when Abraham Lincoln stayed there on his way to his Presidential inauguration in 1861. Lincoln arrived by train from Jersey City at mid-day, and was a guest of the hotel for a luncheon. In response to calls and cheers from the street, Lincoln stepped to a window and briefly addressed the crowd. By two in the afternoon, the President-elect was again on the train, bound for Philadelphia. His visit was brief, but the impact profound; for over a century after the event, the Trenton House was popularly known as the hotel where Lincoln had stayed.

After the Civil War, General William Sewell rented Room 100 for several years. Others who came to Katzenbach1s Trenton House included James G. Blaine, William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryan, many of New Jersey's governors, and leading actresses and actors. A local wag noted that "Even after the Civil War, no tipsy man who wanted to take a nap in a chair on the Trenton House porch was permitted to do so unless he was a leading citizen."

To accommodate the rich, the famous, and the ordinary traveler, Katzenbach embarked on another building campaign in 1869. He hired Harry E. Finch, a Trenton architect best known for the design of the Taylor Opera House in that city. Finch created a large four story brick box along Hanover Street, attached to the rear of the old hotel. The lack of ornament on the exterior did not mean spartan interiors, however, and rooms were graced with marblized slate mantlepieces, and stencilled ceiling decoration. Seventy-five guest rooms were added, but their paint was barely dry when Katzenbach had the old stables at the rear of the property torn down in 1871 to put up a four-story annex. This caused a contemporary reporter to write, "The Trenton House now looks like a giant hotel." The lower floor of the new addition incorporated a spacious and elegant billiard room, and Katzenbach brought in expert players to interest the public and show off fancy shots.

After the building was complete, Peter Katzenbach worked to improve the ammenities of the Trenton House. A barber was installed in the hotel, and the business traveler of the late 19th century was catered to with "sample rooms, especially adapted for commercial trades," according to a city directory advertisement of 1884. Businessmen were further lured by the promise of telephone communications, bath rooms, and "the most commodious Billiard Parlor in the City." In 1885, the Trenton House boasted of its improved steam laundry services. The food and wines served in the restaurants were emphasized in another advertisement.

In 1895, Katzenbach, now an old man, directed his last improvements to the hotel, with extensive renovations and redecorating of the interior. The famed billiard room was converted into a Grill Room, banquet hall, and bar room. Many of Trenton's social clubs and service groups met over dinner at the Trenton House in the early 20th century.

Peter Katzenbach died in 1906. His son Frederick sold the hotel, but remained as manager for a decade. However, the Katzenbach name was not enough to reverse a decline in the fortunes of the hotel. Faced with competition from newer, more modern hotels several blocks away, and the loss of the rail road-station nearby, the Trenton House began to lose its luster. The owner at the time, Benedict C. Kuser, made plans in 1925 to tear the old hotel down and build a modern eleven story Trenton Hotel on the site. This never came about, and the hotel changed hands again. After a century of operation under the same name, that too changed in 1927, to the Milner Hotel.

The Depression did nothing to improve business at the hotel, so in 1941, the owners proposed to transform the little used lobbies and public spaces to commercial use. The grand rooms of the hotel were carved up into fourteen small retail establishments, most with separate storefronts along the perimeter of the building. This caused a dramatic change on the hotel's first floor, transforming its conservative brick street face to one of glass, steel, enameled metal, and neon signs.

The upper floors of the building remained a shabby hotel, reached by a small lobby and dark staircase. Over the years, floors and wings of the enormous building were abandoned as maintenance needs grew. The first floor shops were tenanted for a time by Dunham's Department Store, a major presence on the block in the 1950s, but they were succeeded by a series of dry cleaners, coffee shops, barber shops, and shoe shine establishments. Renamed the Earle Hotel in 1953, it was closed in 1962 for failing to meet city health and housing standards. A number of permanent residents were evicted, but business continued in the shops on the lower floors. The entire building was condemned by the city in 1982 after a small fire set by vagrants; the once-bustling hotel sat vacant and deteriorating until 1987, when it was demolished.

In 1946, before the final years of decay and vandalism to the building, the hotel was noted in city records as having 104 rooms, 23 bathrooms, and 14 shops.