Consultant Recommends Creation of Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District in Princeton

The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, the historic African-American area of Princeton that developed as a result of discrimination and segregation, is worthy of being preserved as a historic district, a preservation consultant says.

Representatives from Wise Preservation reviewed their 110-page study on the architecture and history of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood Monday night at a special meeting of the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission. More than 175 residents, architects, developers and officials attended the standing room only meeting.

After studying the architecture, streetscapes, and history of the neighborhood this summer and fall, the consultant found that the neighborhood possesses the architectural and historic significance — based on the municipality’s own criteria as well as New Jersey Historic Preservation Office and National Park Service guidelines — to be considered a local historic preservation district.

Witherspoon School
The first class of students at the Witherspoon School.

“In a community where people came and went, the African American community remained, in part because of the economic segregation created by Jim Crow,” consultant Robert Wise said. “Businesses, houses of worship, and educational institutions were segregated. Jim Crow was alive well into the 20th century. The university needed laborers and employed a lot of black laborers. At the same time, it accepted very few black students in the 1940s and 1950s. There was a great dichotomy between the black and white communities in Princeton. The result is a very distinct neighborhood. You can certainly see a difference in the architecture and density.”

The Robeson House on Witherspoon Street.
The Robeson House on Witherspoon Street.

The consultant surveyed 395 properties. Four properties, including community landmarks and buildings that are considered excellent examples of a particular architectural style, are considered key contributing properties for the historic district designation. The four properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are eligible for the National Register, or are resources that the consultant believes may be eligible for the National Register. The four are the Paul Robeson House, the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, the Witherspoon School, and Dorothea’s House.

About 71 percent of the properties are considered contributing properties for the historic district designation. Contributing properties contain buildings, structures, or sites that are more than 50 years old and retain their integrity. Contributing buildings do not appear to be individually eligible for the National Register, but contribute to the overall setting and significance of the historic district.

“Many of the buildings are very unique,” Wise said of house features like gabled roofs, pyramid roofs, and wooden shingles.

Nineteen percent of the properties are considered noncontributing properties. Noncontributing properties are buildings constructed within the past 45 years, and buildings that have been enlarged or altered within the past 45 years to such an extent that they no longer exhibit the historic appearance of other buildings in the neighborhood.

If a historic district is established in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, the consultant recommended that the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission understand the complexities of the architecture within the district and be flexible when considering changes to buildings and the demolition of buildings. He also said renovations and new construction should fit in with the character of the neighborhood in terms of size, setbacks, porches and other design elements. The municipality should develop visual design guidelines for renovations and new construction based on individual architecture and streetscapes, the consultant said.

Read the full report from Wise Preservation here. A website has also been created that includes maps, photographs, and architectural information.

The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission will hold a special meeting at 4 p.m. on Dec. 7 to decide whether to approve, modify, or reject the consultant’s recommendation. If the commission endorses the formation of a historic district, the recommendation will be forwarded to the Princeton Council. The council can then reject the commission’s recommendation or adopt an ordinance creating the district. The ordinance would be introduced early next year if the council decides to move forward with the historic district.

Planet Princeton will also post a story on residents’ reactions to the recommendations. As of 9 p.m. Monday night, the consultant was still presenting the report and public comment had not begun.


  1. Nail the coffin shut and keep those poor old houses the way they’ve always been. Who cares what the property owners / taxpayers want!?

    We don’t want anyone to do anything new/special with their property unless a “Consultant” and still another layer of local government approves.

    There stays the neighborhood!

  2. The neighborhood is unquestionably historic, but it doesn’t follow that historic designation is a good idea. Historic designation means that everybody in the neighborhood would need to apply to the Historic Preservation Commission to do work on their house. For example, replacing a front door with a different type would require approval, the property owner would have to pay a $75 fee and submit to a site review on the property. The Commission could also require that more expensive materials are used, in keeping with what is supposedly ‘authentic’. These costs would be levied on the only neighborhood in Princeton that still contains significant numbers of middle- and working-class people.

    1. I wonder if the Council will even bother to take a walk through this neighborhood before casting a vote on its future. The deferred maintenance in this housing stock is stark. The rotted foundations and the illegal wiring and fundamental disrepair speak to a desperate need for capital improvement. And we want to freeze the neighborhood in place?

      1. This is simply untrue. Building and fire inspectors go through regularly, and if there is an unsafe “rotted foundation,” or illegal wiring, it must be fixed. No problem debating this possible historic district, but let’s stick to the facts and not spread misinformation.

        1. Apparently the Town’s consultant Mr. Wise, who walked through the neighborhood frequently and widely in the spring/summer of 2015, does not agree with Mr. Friday. To quote from his report on p. 65:

          “Meanwhile, the Witherspoon-Jackson community itself, which had never become stigmatized as a “slum” or “ghetto” as so often happened in major cities, has never fallen into architectural disrepair. Perhaps it was pride in the community, the ability to maintain relatively simple housing, or the continued economic climb presented to the community through jobs – though usually menial – from the ever-growing Princeton University. Or, it may also have been something as simple as aluminum siding, vinyl siding, and replacement windows. The vast
          majority of the residences in the district are clad in such material, which, given the wide availability beginning in the 1950s, may have in fact saved the
          majority of houses in the district by reducing their maintenance costs.

    2. “Submit to a site review” sounds like some torture out of the middle ages. In fact, the HPC has clearly stated in at least two public meetings that they will be very flexible when they do need to review changes. What’s not said by SFB is that any maintenance that does not change the look of the house from the street will not even require HPC review. So you can do whatever you like in the interior, or build what you like out the back as long as it conforms to the normal building and zoning codes. You can even paint the front of the house any color you like as long as the surface has been painted before.

      The Wise (consultant) Report and the HPC have also stated that since many of the houses have already been “reclad” with aluminum or vinyl siding, these will be allowed for any new maintenance.

      The “high costs of being in an historic district” is a myth based on misinformation.

      SFB – could you please state your name as Ms Dowling did above, so we all know who is making these posts? Thank you.

      1. It’s an important part of America’s founding narrative (The Federalist Papers) to be able to anonymously publish opinions.

        It allows unpopular opinions to be aired. Not everyone has the luxury of publicly posting their opinions without consequences.

        1. It’s really sad to see that in response to Heilner’s call, someone tried to “out” SFB based on hearsay (and SFB has now deleted his/her original post). Who knows if that was accurate information, but the idea of trying to expose someone for merely publishing their opinions is troubling. Surely, if the argument for the historic zone is a strong one, it can be made on the merits and not be trying to intimidate one’s opponents by “outing” them.

          1. We moderate comments but sometimes it takes several hours to see them. We removed the post that gave a name for the poster, but not until this a.m. when we were reviewing comments.

          2. I’m very sorry that someone tried to “out” SFB, and that he/she felt compelled to withdraw their post as a result. It does seem to me that in 2016, with the ease of posting public comments on the internet, one should take responsibility and accountability for their words, and not hide behind fake names.

            1. I think you need to look at it in a different way. No one is “hiding” behind fake names. Instead, many people don’t have the freedom to post their opinions online. It is easy to post, but one can lose one’s job if one’s boss disagrees with the post, or if one phrases something in the wrong way. By insisting that everyone has to post with their real names, you are taking away the ability for many people to air their opinions.

              This reasoning is similar to why the votes we cast are private.

      2. The reason I don’t use my name for posting is because people who know who I am have heckled me in public places when I was with my family- just because of stuff I have posted on here. They have come to my house and snooped around the back yard when I was out. It’s unacceptable. I’ll be testifying to Council in person, don’t worry about that. But if I can’t post pseudonymously then I will not be commenting further. I have deleted my comment in protest.

  3. Referring to the property information shown on the study, while the property that previously existed at 12 Green Street was indeed over 150 years old, it had been abandoned and left open to the elements (broken windows and holes in the roofing) for almost 30 years (we are told). There was no way to rehabilitate the house. It was dilapidated and rotted through to the framing and floor boards and had consequently become a serious hazard. We couldn’t even get insurance to cover it until it came down. In addition, the interior ceilings were less than 8′ in some cases, the rooms were extremely dark, small and there was very little character on the interior. As the new owners of the property, we initially bought it to partially rehabilitate but were advised that no part of the house was salvageable, except the porch, which was carefully removed by Princeton Design Guild to potentially be re-used on the Paul Robeson House, across the street.

    Further, had the house been in the condition to rehabilitate, it was in violation of current zoning codes- over the property line, inadequate setbacks on sides and front, etc. Therefore, we would have needed to seek a variance to rehabilitate it, which is a costly and time-consuming process for many homeowners. My guess is that other older houses like 12 Green are in the same state and strictly limiting what can be done with them will only keep them in a state of abandonment which is of no good to the neighborhood.

    As an architect, I strongly feel that authentic, vital neighborhoods should have a rich mixture of architectural styles, reflecting the period in which they were designed and constructed. When a house in an historic neighborhood can be rehabilitated, I fully support that. But, replicating traditional styles in new construction merely turns the neighborhood into an inauthentic souvenir of the past. The historic significance of the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood is, without question, very important, but I’m not sure that the proposed ordinance will achieve anything other than limiting the potential for the neighborhood.

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