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.
“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 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.
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.