Historical neighborhood celebrates holiday tradition

Raul Valcarcel congregates his guests in his living room and draws their attention to his antique Victrola phonograph. When the needle is placed on the record, the soothing sounds of a vintage recording of “Auld Lang Syne” fill the room and blend with the delicious aroma of chocolate chip cookies baking in the kitchen. Even though many of these people have never met before, there is an overwhelming feeling of unity and holiday spirit in the room.

Valcarcel’s home at 235 Mercer St. in the Mill Hill area of Trenton was one of 18 beautifully restored 19th century houses featured on the 40th Annual Mill Hill Holiday House Tour on Saturday, Dec. 2. The tour began at the Mill Hill Playhouse and continued down Mercer and Jackson streets. The residents of Mill Hill invited visitors into their homes to experience a mixture of traditional and modern architecture brought to life by festive holiday decorations.

Also featured on the tour were three churches and the Labor Lyceum, a former meeting place for Jewish immigrant laborers that has recently been converted into a housing complex with six loft-type condominiums. The building was also owned by the Greek Orthodox Church for a period of time.

“Many of my visitors have told me that they used to take Greek classes in my living room,” Janet Kotkin, owner of Unit #1 of the Labor Lyceum, said.

Another unit in the Labor Lyceum boasts a spiral staircase leading up to a private rooftop deck overlooking downtown Trenton. For many of those in attendance, this type of elaborate and luxurious design was certainly not what they expected from a neighborhood in Trenton.

The six units in the Labor Lyceum were part of a 20- house restoration project in Mill Hill conducted by life partners John Hatch and David Henderson, who have lived in the neighborhood for 18 years. Both architects, the two began their project 10 years ago and continue their collaboration today.

“When we bought the houses they were wrecks,” Hatch said. Hatch and Henderson restored the houses and sold them.

One of the first houses on the tour at 165 Mercer St., Hatch and Henderson’s three-story rowhouse, is actually one of the newest in the area, built in 1887. The oldest houses in Mill Hill date back to the 1820s. Hatch and Henderson’s residence retains its Victorian-era detailing and charm while adding modern, environmentally-friendly elements such as solar panels on the roof and efficient natural lighting.

“The Mill Hill Holiday House Tour has grown in popularity each year with many guests returning year after year to see the different homes,” Joseph Fysz, chairman of the Old Mill Hill Society, said in a press release. “Mill Hill is a great historic neighborhood and our house tour is a great way to introduce or reintroduce folk to Trenton.”

The event was also highlighted by the New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus, which sang Christmas carols at points throughout the tour.

Mill Hill is part of the National Historic District of Trenton that dates back to 1679. In the 1960s, the neighborhood was rescued from dilapidation by an aggressive federally-funded redevelopment program that combined the efforts of public officials and private citizens of Trenton.

The Mill Hill Holiday House Tour has certainly come a long way since its inception in 1966. The very first tour featured only one home, as the neighborhood was in the infancy of its revitalization. Today, the tour is a major annual attraction in Trenton. This year’s tour was blessed with perfect weather conditions, and the enthusiasm for one of Trenton’s most revered holiday traditions was shared by the multitude of friends and family members who came out for the tour.