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A Neighborhood's Revolutionary Revival

than two centuries ago, George Washington's troops outmaneuvered the British along the banks of the Assunpink Creek. Today, the same Trenton, N.J., neighborhood, known as the Mill Hill National Historic District, is the site of a more peaceful revolution. Under the leadership of architect David Henderson C'81, houses which had fallen apart during the city's economic decline are being returned to their earlier elegance.

Henderson (foreground) oversees work on an arts center in downtown Trenton.

   As he sits in his own refurbished three-story Victorian -- warmed with rich mahogany trim, period lighting and the presence of a chocolate-brown cocker spaniel -- Henderson describes what led him and his partner, John Hatch, also an architect, to settle in Trenton a decade ago. "It was sort of the forgotten city," he says. "It had all of this beautiful architecture and all of this history; it was nationally significant, but completely overlooked." For Henderson, who was then commuting to a Manhattan architectural firm, Trenton was "the countryside" in terms of scenery and neighborliness, and thus seemed to be the natural place to carry out his dream of restoring houses and "creating a sense of community."
   The pair fixed up their own home in Mill Hill, became active in the local neighborhood association and in 1995 combined talents with two neighbors to form a for-profit redevelopment company, Atlantis Historic Properties. Since Atlantis began buying, restoring and reselling historic homes, property values have risen between 30 to 40 percent in their neighborhood.
   Settled by Quakers in 1679, Mill Hill was for much of the 18th and 19th century the home of middle-class shopkeepers and prosperous industrialists. But like many industrial-city neighborhoods, it entered a long decline in the mid-20th century. Its gradual turnaround began in 1964, when the former mayor of Trenton, Arthur Holland, made headlines by moving his family to the then-run-down neighborhood and restoring a home there. Henderson and his partners hope to complete Mill Hill's renewal.
   So far Atlantis has fixed up four homes (not including the partners' own residences), and is in the process of renovating several others. The company's reputation has grown to the point that it is able to find buyers well before each renovation is completed. "One couple," Henderson reports, "walked through a home whose back half had rotted away, and signed a contract and plunked down a $11,000 deposit. There's a real sense of vision and trust, and we respect that a lot."
   One of the first houses they renovated together, 261 Jackson Street, desperately required that degree of vision. A back wall and roof of the vacant, 19th-century townhouse had collapsed in the middle of one night. To save it from demolition, Henderson and his partners (a social worker and a marketing executive) purchased the derelict property from the city. "It was the idea of having the whole row [of homes] complete and not having a missing tooth in it, or a vacant lot," Henderson explains. "I knew if we lost it, we would have a lot for a long time." Fortunately, as they labored for many weekends on the property -- fueled by coffee and doughnuts, and encouragement from their neighbors -- they found much worth salvaging inside the structure. They even used part of the fallen interior, for example, to construct a catwalk across a dramatic, two-story dining room born out of the decay. An architect bought the house soon after its completion.
   Now, with Henderson in charge of the business full time, Atlantis hires subcontractors to complete projects faster, while still paying attention to the budget. "We're restoring at about $50-a-foot construction costs, which is really, really good," Henderson says. As a result, buyers who are willing to invest in this "overlooked" city neighborhood get a whole lot of house -- and history -- for their money.
   Henderson's urban-renewal efforts haven't stopped with home restoration, however. He and Hatch, and a third partner with an arts and film background have launched another initiative, called Trenton Makes, to cultivate the arts in downtown Trenton. "We were doing house building in the neighborhood, but public life here still had missing elements," he explains. So they bought four boarded-up buildings not far from Mill Hill, with plans to transform them into an arts center. Due to open in April was the Urban Word Cafe -- a "light- fare, coffee,wine-bar restaurant" which will host poetry readings, jazz music performances and other events. It will be followed this summer by the opening of a 150-seat film and music theater. When completed, the arts complex will also include an African-American bookstore, galleries and artist studios.
   Given the large number of area colleges and the population of young professionals concentrated along nearby Route 1, Henderson feels certain of the demand for such cultural amenities in Trenton. He also believes that once-forgotten cities have the potential to become thriving places again -- if not the manufacturing centers they once were. "I think when they are restored, cities offer the best quality of life you can find."

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