In 1890 at Trenton's Evening Drawing School, ten students bent over boards and inkwells in a room still lit by gas lamps. Some were wearing ink-stained smocks. Many were potters or machinists. They ranged in age from 15 to 40. In order to advance in their careers they studied mechanical drawing at the new school, established on November 3 at 120 North Broad Street. These modest beginnings mark the start of what is today known as Mercer County Community College. The intervening 108 years have brought tremendous growth and change, but one thing has remained constant -- the college continues to respond to the needs of the community it serves.
According to records from the Trenton Historical Society, Mercer's commitment to educational excellence was in evidence from the school's earliest days. Its first teacher, Professor Joseph Crampton, is described as "an earnest and skillful teacher whose interest was unremitting and not confined to stated hours of service." Another dedicated teacher, Charles E. Roberts, championed the need for a formal art school in Trenton. As a result of Roberts' persistence and an 1881 state law on industrial education, the school garnered matching state funds which enabled it to formally open as the Trenton School of Technical Science and Art on April 4, 1898. The school remained at its original North Broad Street address with 43 students enrolled in both afternoon and evening classes. The school's first principal was Charles S. Binns, a ceramist. A reporter wrote in February of 1899, "The fact that the school is maintained for the benefit of the city and the promotion of its industries is kept well to the front" -- an early affirmation of MCCC's long-standing tradition of community service.
In 1900, notes of a school meeting reflect an interest in promoting the development of Trenton's industries. "The large manufacturers of the city are showing a much more decided interest in the school. Each big factory now seems anxious to have a representative on the commission." The report concluded: "the sons of Trenton potters have opportunities for acquiring scientific knowledge of the art far exceeding those enjoyed by their fathers."
During the year 1901-1902 the school held classes in the Union Library, then moved across the street to 219 East State Street, bearing a new name: The School of Industrial Arts. At that time the school's board was replaced by a governor-appointed board of trustees. In 1906, historians reported that "the enrollment and scope of the school have been considerably increased." Seventy-five students were now taught by a staff of eight teachers.
The school's growth did not go unnoticed. In 1909 Henry Cooper Kelsey, who served as New Jersey Secretary of State from 1870 to 1897, purchased the site on the corner of West State and Willow streets (the current Barracks Street) in order to erect "a suitable building" for the art school in memory of his wife, Prudence Townsend Kelsey. Kelsey paid a total of $142,000 for the site and a new building, and students and faculty moved in by March, 1911. According to newspaper reports, "hundreds were in attendance" when John A. Campbell, a trustee, accepted the deed and keys to the building from architect Cass Gilbert on June 7, coinciding with commencement exercises.
Kelsey spoke movingly that day of his wife's death: "When on a bitter winter night now more than seven years ago the light of my life went out, all the world seemed dark and cold to me. My heart was chilled, my reason staggered, and I felt that for me the end could not come too soon, but after a period of despair I realized my own work was not done. Hence the erection of this building as a tribute to the memory of my forever adored -- now glorified -- wife, and for the use of the students of arts and crafts of the city and the state."
Architect Gilbert had built the school as a reproduction of the Strozzi Palace in Florence, Italy. The first floor held directors' offices, the library, and an auditorium with a seating capacity of 426. According to Kelsey's wishes, the room was filled with artworks and collectibles from his late wife. Marble stairs led up to the second floor that contained rooms for art exhibits and classes. The third and fourth floors held classrooms, and the fifth floor housed art studios.
The School of Industrial Arts now offered a variety of courses including metal shop, electrical, chemical, ceramics, auto labs, machine and architectural drafting, dressmaking, millinery, drawing, painting, modeling, and designing. Certificates of proficiency were offered in trade courses such as machine shop, auto mechanics, electrical wiring, and wood work.
In 1916 the city commission authorized the purchase of land for a shop building on Quarry Street, the current Quarry Alley. The school was financed with $60,000 by equal contributions from the state and the city. By 1920, school enrollment had reached 1,250 students.
Despite the upheavals of World War I and the Great Depression, the school continued to grow. By 1935 there were 42 full-time faculty members. Following World War II, veterans returned home seeking education and jobs, resulting in colleges everywhere "jammed to capacity." That fact convinced the trustees to establish a two-year college-level institution. In 1947, the trustees changed the school's name to Trenton Junior College and School of Industrial Arts (TJC).
In the 1950s, the New Jersey Board of Education authorized TJC to confer the degrees of Associate of Arts and Science, and by 1958, the direction and purpose of the college was clear: TJC students could transfer their credits to four-year colleges all over the country, and the school would provide a quality education to students who needed a second or third chance.
The college's increasing popularity proved a double-edged sword. By September, 1960, TJC was turning away hundreds of applicants, and some courses were moved into rented space. Recalls Trenton native, Dr. Albert A. Maisto, alumnus of MCCC's class of '70 and commencement speaker for the graduating class of '98, "The library at that time was located on the second floor of an abandoned pharmacy, and I remember taking mathematics one particularly hot summer in a room not only without air conditioning, but also without ventilation, for the windows had been painted shut some time before the turn of the century." (Maisto went on to become a psychology professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a Carnegie Foundation Teacher of the Year, 1997-98.)
In 1962, the college reached an important milestone when it gained full accreditation from the Commission on Institutions of Higher Learning of the Middle States Association. That same year, the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders was drawn into the effort to create a county college. Enrollment was now topping 1,300, with 75 percent of graduates transferring to four-year colleges, but overcrowding became commonplace and many applicants had to be turned away.
In 1966, Mercer County Community College became a reality, made possible in part by the community college bill passed by the state legislature in 1962. On July 1, 1967, TJC and MCCC formally merged. The State Board of Education approved a 292-acre site in Assunpink Park for the West Windsor Campus, and dedication ceremonies took place in 1972.
While much attention shifted to the new West Windsor Campus, Mercer's downtown Trenton site continued to serve as a vital educational resource for city residents. In 1972, the James Kerney Foundation of Trenton donated an acre of land on the corner of North Broad and Academy streets to house MCCC's James Kerney Center. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held on Aug. 23, 1974, and the building was dedicated on May 21, 1975. The original Kelsey site was sold to the state and now houses Thomas A. Edison State College. Kelsey's name lives on at the college, however, in the acclaimed Kelsey Theater on the West Windsor campus, which celebrated its 26th year in 1998.
In March of 1998, in recognition of a growing demand for educational opportunities in Trenton, MCCC's James Kerney Center at North Broad and Academy Streets opened a newly renovated adjoining building. Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Mayor of Trenton Douglas Palmer, Mercer County Clerk Cathy DiCostanzo, MCCC President Thomas D. Sepe, and JKC Provost Beverly Richardson were all on hand to participate in the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The new facility measures 19,000 square feet and is linked by a skywalk to the main building. It houses the JKC Career Training Institute, four computer labs with Internet access, nine classrooms, a business practice firm in which students apply learned office skills, a conference room, and office space for the New Jersey Department of Labor Employment Services. A 2,000-square-foot multipurpose activity area is available for student and community use. The Learning Center on the third floor bustles with activity six days a week, with students from ages seven to 80 making good use of the center's computers.
On June 16, 1998, the James Kerney Center became the James Kerney Campus of Mercer County Community College. From its roots as the Evening Drawing School, the Kerney Campus stands today as a testimony to educational leaders whose vision and persistence have created a dynamic educational institution serving the changing needs of tens of thousands of students seeking educational fulfillment and personal and career growth.