ON THE MAP: In a College Building in Trenton, a Hidden Shrine to a Lost Love


Published: July 09, 2000

A plaque near the entrance to the five-story Italian Renaissance-inspired Kelsey Building on West State Street in downtown Trenton notes that it was built by Henry Cooper Kelsey in memory of his wife, Prudence Townsend Kelsey.

Nowhere in the inscription is there any indication that in his ardor for his deceased wife, Kelsey built a shrine to her on the second floor, a lavish jewel box of a room filled with valuables and articles of devotion. The room is bathed in color from three illuminated stained-glass panels. Four oval oil paintings are set in the intricate, hand-sculptured plaster ceiling, and the floor is inlaid marble. Lining the walls are Prudence Kelsey’s favorites among the porcelain she collected in Europe. The center of the room is dominated by an elaborately carved gilt table. The lone seat is a marble bench in a rear corner. Little calendars are turned to Jan. 3, 1904, and the clocks are all stopped at 11:49 p.m., the moment when Prudence Kelsey died.

Saved from demolition in 1979, the building became the home of Thomas Edison State College. The small sanctum is open to the public only a few times a year, but the school’s president, George Pruitt, agreed to allow a visitor inside and to tell its story.

Q. What is the story behind the building and its room?

A. Henry Cooper Kelsey was Secretary of State for the state of New Jersey for 27 years; at that period it was sort of like a volunteer assignment. He was a wealthy man. In 1861 he met, fell in love with and married Prudence Townsend, and this man was seriously in love with his wife. They traveled a lot, they liked to summer in Europe, and they made 54 trips to Europe on a ship. Well, when Prudence died in 1904 he was heartbroken and he wanted to memorialize his wife in some suitable way. There was a building in Florence that she liked, the Palazzo Strozzi, and when he came back here, he found Cass Gilbert, an architect of some renown who designed the Woolworth Building, and he asked him to design a building and to model it after that building in Florence.

Q. The room is small but very lavish.

A. Over 10 percent of the total cost of this building went into this one room. This building cost about $120,000 to build back in 1910, and the Kelsey room, they put in about $12,000 into that one room, and this is back in 1910, so you know what $1,000 must have been worth back in 1910. When we came in and restored the building, this room was a mess, but we were able to raise funds to restore it. The cabinets are all hand-made. The room itself is a piece of art and it was all done by hand. Look at all of the plasterwork, and that is very special stained glass.

Q. What is the value of the collection?

A. I have no idea what the monetary value of the collection would be but I do know that historically it is irreplaceable.

Q. Do you think anybody would ever create a memorial like this today?

A. I don’t want to detract from the romance of it but it is a little obsessive, isnt it.

Q. Where are the Kelseys buried?

A. They are buried next to each other in Newton, N.J.

Q. What about their ghosts?

A. Well, we joke about that. When the lights flicker or something stops working we say, ”Oh, Prudence is out.” But we like her — yeah, we like her — we’re not scared a whole lot. There is a kind of irony, too, to all this, because this floor is really the heart of our information technology computer data-processing operations. There is a special room that holds most of our computing. So any time the computer crashes or something people blame it on Prudence.