Trenton celebrates its 50th Mill Hill Holiday House Tour

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Bob and Bill and Bella in front of their Mill Hill home in Trenton
Bob and Bill and Bella in front of their Mill Hill home in Trenton

The Mill Hill neighborhood, located in the heart of New Jersey’s capital city of Trenton, celebrates its 50th annual Holiday House Tour on Saturday, Dec. 3 from noon to 5pm. LGBT residents of Mill Hill have been involved in the tour since the beginning.

Lucy and Cynthia Devin-Nicholas at home in Trenton's Mill Hill neighborhood. Photos by Gary Nigh.
Lucy and Cynthia Devin-Nicholas at home in Trenton’s Mill Hill neighborhood. Photos by Gary Nigh.

A lot has happened in the last half century. Fifty years ago, Arthur Holland made national news as a white mayor who moved his young family into the racially mixed, ‘blighted’ Mill Hill neighborhood. Moving ahead 50 years, Mill Hill is now a vibrant and alive community, Trenton has its third African-American mayor, and Barack Obama is the president. In between all of those years, the struggle for LGBT civil rights and equality has changed everything.

In 1966, to get more people to come and see Mill Hill, the first “House Tour” was held—a Christmas reception in Bob Allen’s house on Jackson Street. In those early years of the tour, very few people came. One of the residents from that time recalls that while many were aware of the gay presence in the neighborhood, no one spoke of it.

Richard and David in their Mill Hill home in Trenton. Photo by Gary Nigh.
Richard and David in their Mill Hill home in Trenton. Photo by Gary Nigh.

In those early years, as part of the ongoing urban renewal project, the City of Trenton installed the brick sidewalks and the Wellsbach Boulevard lamps that have become a symbol of the neighborhood. Gradually, more people moved to the neighborhood, taking advantage of HUD low-interest loans to renovate houses. In 1977, the Mill Hill neighborhood was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. It was described as a “reasonably good matrix of small-scale 19th century middle-class housing, among which several noteworthy buildings stand out.”

In 1982, Richard Loatman used the HUD program to buy his then-vacant house on the “rough and tumble” 200 block of Jackson Street. “I didn’t look at the community as gay and straight. At the time, I was so interested in getting in and getting the house done,” he said.

Grant and Kale in their Mill Hill neighborhood home in Trenton. Photo by Gary Nigh.
Grant and Kale in their Mill Hill neighborhood home in Trenton. Photo by Gary Nigh.

David Abers, Richard’s partner of 28 years, recalls the community spirit of those early years. “We were testing out the alarm system, it went off and we had a hard time getting it reset. Within minutes, folks who lived on either side…all came out. Everybody was concerned. The community just came together: “We’re not going the let this [crime] happen in our neighborhood. I’ve never felt uncomfortable or not accepted.”

After opening their house in the past, this year will be the first time in years Loatman and Abers will be on the tour. Don’t miss their amazing collection of nutcrackers!

Tom and Pete kiss in their Mill Hill Home. Photo by Gary Nigh.
Tom and Pete kiss in their Mill Hill Home. Photo by Gary Nigh.

Pete Hobday and Tom Moyer bought their house in 1987. “You could get a house very cheaply. We were all working together on one goal,” Pete said. “There were a lot of gay people.”

“It was like a renaissance,” says Moyer. “Everybody was working on their houses.” They’ve opened their home many times and always enjoyed it. Tom recalls how some followed their renovation progress over the years. “They could see the change… they didn’t have HGTV [then]… it was like a reality show.”

Hobday and Moyer’s joy in sharing their home comes through in the stories they tell of former residents who have come back to the house they grew up in to marvel at how it has changed.

John Hatch was drawn to Trenton by a job opportunity and rented an apartment in Mill Hill. He was dating David Henderson, who lived and worked in Manhattan. They talked about living together, but it wasn’t until putting an offer on a house in the neighborhood, that David recalls saying, “Well, I guess we’re living together.” In 1989, they moved into the home they have since painstakingly restored on Mercer Street. “What I loved about the neighborhood was that it was an incredibly diverse community,” said Henderson. “There were gay people; there were straight people. All different ethnicities. It was very, very comfortable. I felt as a gay person I could just be myself.”

John adds, “What was particularly great was how welcoming straight people were.”

Hatch and Henderson, with many neighbors, had a hand in the continuing renovation of Mill Hill, not only through their own home but as partners in Atlantis Properties, which restored vacant homes throughout the area. “From a neighborhood development perspective,” Henderson said, “[Mill Hill] went from being a transitional neighborhood to a stable neighborhood. When we first came, it seemed like a neighborhood that was largely singles and couples and a few kids… and then there were a lot of kids.” Hatch and Henderson joined this trend when, with Lucy and Cynthia Vandenberg, they started co-parented their children, Devin and Nicholas. Reflecting on Mill Hill as it is today, Henderson calls it a little tight-knit village in the middle of the city and Hatch agrees.

Brian Murphy came to Mill Hill about the same time as Hatch and Henderson. He had been looking for an old house. “This was the house [on Mercer Street] that was perfect. It needed a lot of work,” he said. “Complete renovation, but it was moving and the price was right.”

Initially, he did not meet anyone who was gay, just had the assumption. He said the major force behind gentrification was gay people. When he moved in, he soon discovered there were a lot of gay people in the neighborhood. “It was a time in the [19]90’s when gays kind of ran the neighborhood,” said Murphy. Gays were most of the officers of the Old Mill Hill Society. It has changed since then and became a lot more mixed.

Lucy and Cynthia Vandenberg moved to Mill Hill in 1999, to be closer to Lucy’s job, but it was the friendly neighbors and great housing stock that won them over. Lucy recalls it was “…a very open, accepting community. People were just friendly and social.” Cynthia adds, “it was more a bond of this shared experience of living in a community like Mill Hill, which is, sort of, plopped down in the middle of what isn’t always the most stable environment in the city, but people pull together here and get things done.” Lucy says, “Things have changed in the world … a huge shift in society in terms of acceptance of gay people. A lot has changed around us.” They feel the world has caught up with Mill Hill. “One of the amazing things for us about this community is that’s how we met John and David and that’s how we ended up having the kids,” said Lucy. “That would never have happened except for Mill Hill.” Cynthia sees in Mill Hill “…people knowing each other and being there for each other, that all happens in this community in a way that just doesn’t in most communities any more.”

Joe Fysz and Jorge Vazquez were already residents of Trenton and together for 12 years when they decided to buy a home in Mill Hill. “We did the house tour [in 2000] while this [their home] was under renovation [by Atlantis Properties] and that was the first time we met a lot of people,” Fysz said, “and it was extremely comforting to see the reaction that everybody gave us, two men that were going to move here.”

Vazquez said that from the get-go it was a nonissue. They enjoy the sense of community and Fysz reminisces that when he was executor of his uncle’s estate, all the help he needed was nearby. Neighbor Lou Sancinito was the estate attorney, neighbor Tammy Williams helped him go through his aunt’s jewelry, and neighbor Michael Smith took care of their computer. He said Moyer and Hobday took care of a lot of things from their shop. “There was somebody here that could deal with all of that,” said Joe. “People here are very interesting and very involved,” adds Vazquez.

Opening a home for the House Tour can be a chore, but it has its advantages. It gives you deadlines to complete work on your house and, says Fysz, “It can be a big ego boost. One woman [tourgoer] opened the door and exclaimed. ‘They’re all so different inside.’”

Bob CoStantini grew up in Hamilton but when he and Bill Henderson went looking for a home, they originally focused on Philadelphia. However, housing inventory, location, and affordability led them to Trenton’s Mill Hill neighborhood. “The clincher at the time [2005] was wanting to be comfortable as a gay couple in a neighborhood where we didn’t worry about coming home to possibly vandalism to a house or being ridiculed walking down the street,” said CoStantini. “Our first week in the house, a young man said goodbye to another young man on the street with a kiss and I said we’re in the right place. That sealed it,” said Henderson. They have been on the House Tour seven times and they decorate all three floors for Christmas. On their last tour, they had 11 Christmas trees scattered throughout the house. “We go full boat for decorating for Christmas,” said CoStantini. “It takes us about a month to do. We go soup to nuts Christmas.”

In 2009, Ed Wengryn was happy as a renter in Ewing Township. A coworker and Mill Hill resident insisted, “You’ve got to come see this house.” I said, “But I’m a renter, leave me alone. I’m not buying a house. She just hounded me ‘till I finally came and saw it and I fell in love with it and within three days I put an offer in on the house.” Finding an LGBT community here was a bonus, said Wengryn. “I didn’t know about that community here in the neighborhood until I moved here. It was a pleasant surprise to find.” Wengryn’s pithy command to anyone interested in moving to Mill Hill: “Pack your bags, it’s a great place to be.”

Among the newest residents of Mill Hill are Grant Mech and Kale Thompson, who moved here several years ago. What motivated them to choose Mill Hill? “Primarily it was the historic factor of the neighborhood, being able to get into a property that was over a hundred years old and be able to have a lot of fun with it,” said Thompson. “Specifically this neighborhood as opposed to another neighborhood in Trenton was the community and how tight-knit it was.” Mech adds, “That and home prices were accessible. I rented in Princeton for eight years and there was a big difference [in price].”

“For anyone looking to move in,” said Thompson, “there are perks you get with city life. The fact that I can go on a run every day and I get to run by the Capitol Building and the [Old] Barracks. That’s kind of fun. The history the city offers both architecturally and in terms of major events. There’s a lot to do.”

“The Mill Hill neighborhood’s location is a really big selling point,” said Mech. “The proximity to the train station makes [it] easy.”

“We’re very unique in opening up our doors for people like that twice a year. I don’t think we’ve met an unfriendly person on the tour,” said Thompson.

Because of the 50th anniversary, Mill Hill is going all out in 2016. On Dec. 3, from noon to 5 pm, the tour will be bringing life to history, and history to life, to create a fun, interesting and inspiring day for all. In addition to the home tour, there will be additional activities to create a festive atmosphere, including:

Central Jersey Antique Car Club cars on display
Horse and carriage rides
Mill Hill photo exhibit and reception
Bonjour Creperie food truck
Photo booth with Victorian dress options
Display commemorating 50 years of House Tours
Victorian Cupid Hunt for the young and the young at heart
Talk on the history of Mill Hill
Antique penny farthing with rider
Chestnuts roasting over an open fire
Live music by local church choirs, as well as the Rancocas High School Choir and the Trenton Children’s Chorus

Many of the homeowners quoted in this article will be welcoming tourgoers into their homes.

For more information go to www.trentonmillhill.org/events