The local planning board tonight will review Princeton University’s plans to demolish three historic Queen Anne Victorian homes at 110-116 Prospect Avenue and replace them with a building that was once an eating club. The former eating club is located on the other side of the street at 91 Prospect Avenue and would be moved across the street where the Victorians are located. The university would use the land at 91 Prospect Avenue for a new building it is calling the “Theorists’ Pavilion.”
All of the members of the local historic preservation commission opposed the move and demolition of the three homes at their meeting earlier this month, as do many residents, alumni who belong to eating clubs, and local historians and preservationists.
The planning board meeting will take place at 7:30 p.m. via Zoom. Preservationists say they have been told this week that if the university doesn’t get its plans approved, the school will demolish all of the buildings anyway, including the three houses and the former eating club. This has also been stated in a memo from a lawyer representing the university. Asked on Thursday for comment, University Spokesman Ben Chang issued a written statement about the project.
“The university takes great pride in its beautiful, historic campus and has restored and preserved approximately 80 historic buildings and landscapes on campus and in the adjacent neighborhoods in the past 20 years. In planning campus construction, we seek to balance the distinctive sense of place on campus with the need to advance Princeton’s teaching and research mission,” the statement reads. “The university’s plan, developed in close consultation with historic consultants, will provide much-needed new facilities for environmental studies and the school of engineering and applied science while preserving the historic structure now at 91 Prospect.”
Chang said the buildings at 110-116 Prospect are not in any historic district. “And while 91 Prospect is in the New Jersey and National Register-listed historic district, our plan does not trigger federal, state or local review. The university is open to initiating a process to request a modification of the boundary of the historic district to include 91 Prospect at its new location,” Chang said, adding that in a separate project, the university is working closely with the Princeton Prospect Foundation to restore the historic Prospect Avenue streetscape, and will provide 84 new trees for that effort.
On June 7, About 80 people attended the special historic preservation commission meeting to discuss the university’s plans. All but one resident who spoke during public comment voiced opposition to the plan. Speakers who opposed the plan included professional planners, historians, art historians, and architectural historians.
The plan is to move the former Court Club at 91 Prospect across the street, where it will be sandwiched between a parking garage and apartments. The Court Club building is on the state and national registers of historic places.
Christopher DeGrezia, a lawyer for the university, told the historic preservation commission none of the university’s properties that are part of the plan are in a local historic district, but are only in a “suggested area to be studied” and evaluated for historic district designation. He said therefore there is no requirement for a preservation plan. “History and preservation, though, is an important part of the university, he said. “The university is a strong proponent of stewardship and preservation.”
University Architect Ron McCoy said a benefit of the project is that it will enhance the connection between the campus north of Prospect. “It’s campus connectivity that we are seeking to achieve with this project,” McCoy said.
“Historic preservation as a general principle has never been about freezing the past in time — it has always been about managing change. And that’s one of the roles that this committee and the ordinance. Successful cities evolve through a combination of both preservation and historic development,” McCoy said. “Historic preservation is fundamentally about managing this evolution and this change, I want to just say it’s not an either or proposition. Change and preservation are constantly balanced and evolution of cities, towns and campuses.”
McCoy said the project needs to be seen in the context of the university’s “overall record” of stewardship. “We absolutely prefer to rehabilitate historic buildings whenever we have a chance, and that generally means when there’s a reasonably good fit between the building and the function.” He said in the case of the former Court Club, there is an unviable fit between the programmatic need and the existing fabric of the building.
Sandy Harrison, a university alumnus and chair of the Princeton Prospect Foundation, said the foundation is profoundly concerned about the proposed move of the former Court Club across Prospect Avenue, and the demolition of three historic homes.
“Our view is that such a move would substantially diminish the aesthetic and historic continuity of Prospect Avenue, and it would set a disturbing precedent for the future moving and, or demolition of other historic eating club houses,” Harrison said. “Moreover, in our opinion, the university can achieve its functional objectives for a new engineering and science building complex without uprooting this portion of prospect Avenue, because there is adjacent university-owned land that can be used instead, for what amounts to be a fairly small, physical portion of this project.”
Harrison said the foundation’s concerns are supported by the alumni leadership of the 11 active eating clubs. Almost 1,000 residents have also signed a petition opposing the move and the demolition of the homes.
Clifford Zink, a local architectural historian, said properties on the National Register should only be moved when there is no feasible alternative for historic preservation and only when the proposed relocation site does not possess historical significance that would be adversely affected by the intrusion of the structure. Zink said that moving historic structures can create a false sense of historical development, which will happen if the club is moved to the other side of Prospect. The club will be isolated from the 10 other clubs on the north side of the street. The move will also mean the former Court Club building will be deleted from the National Register. Zink said if campus conductivity was the goal, architects could have still designed a plan that respects the Club House building and the three houses across the street. He said the university’s proposal will demolish houses that are part of campus history, and split and damage the district with incompatible buildings and landscaping.
“There is no campus in the United States that has what Princeton has, which is individual private eating clubs all lined on one street,” Zink said. “This is unique in the entire country.” He said important faculty members have been identified as former occupants of the three houses, including Erwin Panofsky. Albert Einstein frequently visited Panofsky at his Prospect Avenue home.
“We all need to keep in mind that Prospect Avenue is a public street,” Zink said. “It’s not Ivy lane or Western Way, where everybody is perfectly comfortable with the university building what it would like on its private streets.”
Preservationists also said they fear the demolition of the homes will set a precedent for more university encroachment on Prospect Avenue and other neighborhoods. They say the university has not identified a compelling reason to justify the damage to the streetscape, and that the university has adequate space on both sides of the Court Club building to have “conductivity.”
Christine Lewandowski, a licensed professional planner who served as the deputy zoning officer and Princeton’s first historic preservation officer, said the university’s proposed actions on a residential street are without precedent.
“It is quite ironic that the proposed project will bring great environmental damage to an existing developed historic streetscape,” Lewandowski said of the demolition of the three homes and the Court Club building move. She said the Court Club building should be incorporated into the design of the new engineering complex. “This will keep the existing streetscape and provide an old-world design juxtaposed with the modern structure,” she said. “The modern structure would be hidden behind the eating clubs, and it would be in keeping with the university’s 2016 master plan.”
Princeton alumna Eva Martin said the three homes are an important part of Princeton’s cultural history. “These unassuming turn of the century dwellings have been the spaces where some of the most celebrated minds of the last century lived, gathered, exchanged ideas, and wrote,” she said, noting that Panofsky was a giant in art history and wrote some of his most important works at 114 Prospect Avenue.
Historian Lewis Hamilton, who lives on Murray Place, challenged McCoy’s assertions that the university respects the principles of historic preservation. He listed streets where the university has torn down historic buildings, leaving remaining historic buildings isolated. He also said the university’s subsidies of mortgages for faculty members exerts an enormous pressure of gentrification in the community, and further promote the destruction of smaller traditional homes in the area. “I’ve proposed that they (the houses) be restored, return to residential use, either as affordable housing, or given as reparations to the descendants of Princeton’s enslaved peoples,” Hamilton said of the three Victorian homes on Prospect.
Architect Adrian Trevisan said he feared modern buildings would gradually be pushed out onto Harrison Street, and the historic fabric of the town would be lost.
Kip Cherry said preserving the corridor’s character is important to the evolution of the area, and that many architects could integrate the historic building into their designs. “We have talked about sustainability, and the most sustainable thing you can do is maintain the historic building and not tear it down or move it,” she said. “I would (also) argue that there is a detriment to the public good in that we will lose three historic structures…I would hope that the university reconsiders, because I think great design means tying together the context and the environment, and the environment is a physical place. I think that the university’s strength is its ability to tie together the historical and future environment of that campus and to send that message to the students.”
Thomas Kaufmann stressed that historic preservation is not just about a preserving a building, but is also about the context and the streetscape. “The eating clubs provide a natural transition into the Princeton residential area in the Riverside district that is lovely, and the fact that there are other options, good options would seem to me to be reason enough to say, then why? I don’t understand why they have to do something to destroy historic preservation.”
Engineer Jim Bash said he supports the university’s project, but not the unnecessary sprawl up to the residential neighborhood on Prospect Avenue and moving the Court Club building to gain an additional half acre of land for the project. “For some years now, while walking along Prospect as I do so often, I’ve noticed the three Victorians have not been well taken care of, and I haven’t understood why,” Bash noted. “Just like any other building they own, the university has the responsibility for their proper upkeep. So it is puzzling to see the caretaker make a claim here of any lasting perceived integrity.”
Bash said if the university really cares about preservation, it would protect and preserve the town’s history and architectural treasures, not displacing or destroying them with a building that is out of place and incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood and streetscape. He said many people he talked to were not aware of the project. “Most (people) were distressed to hear it. But disappointingly, many I talked to are flat out cynical. They tell me it doesn’t matter, they don’t listen, and nobody will stop them,” Bash said. “Is this really true in our town? Are there no checks and balances. Should our community, not bother safeguarding the historic neighborhood from unchecked expansion? There must be another way. Can we find a workable solution and restore faith that the university will listen and respond that the town will draw the line?”
Resident David Kinsey, a professional planner and alumnus of the university, said he wholeheartedly supports the overall project to build spectacular new complexes for great research and teaching, but the entrance on Prospect Avenue is problematic. The pavilion can still be built while preserving the Court Club building, with plenty of room for connectivity, he said. Kinsey said the planning issue before the planning board when issuing variances is critical. “The benefits must outweigh the detriments,” Kinsey said. “The planning rationale has simply not been provided to you to support a recommendation, favoring the variance that has been requested.”
The lone person to speak in favor of the application was Melanie Stein, a lawyer and Princeton alumna who lives on the 500 block of Prospect Avenue. Stein said she finds the university’s project exciting. She said she drove by the three homes and they don’t look historic to her. “I think we have many bigger issues as a community that we should be focusing on rather than these three things,” she said, adding that the eating clubs were a place of exclusion in the 1980s when she was a student.
Stein also said the most discouraging thing about Princeton is how reasonable projects become a “monumental fight.” She cited the Lewis Center for the Arts as an example of a great development, criticizing the fight to keep the Dinky station from being moved. She said all the energy spent on the Dinky fight could have been used to solve other transportation issues in town.
Aftr public comment, commission members all expressed their opposition to the university’s plans.
Elric Endersby said aesthetically, the university’s plan is wanting and needs to be revisited. “My sense is that the height of those buildings is going to be particularly intrusive on the experience of those buildings on the south side of Prospect,” he said, recommending that a study be conducted like the study that was done for the 20 Nassau Street hotel development proposal.
Thomas Pyle asked what will happen to the parking lots behind the clubs and what the future of the parking garage on Prospect Avenue is. He also asked how plans would impact traffic patterns.
Roger Shatzkin said there has to be a better way to develop the project than to uproot the club and move it across the street. “It just seems like almost like a gimmick to me,” he said, noting that in the past the university has come up with workable solutions and can in this situation also.
Freda Howard said she didn’t understand why the Court Club building needs to be moved when the university owns so much land in town.
David Shure said the three houses the university wants to demolish actually have quite a lot of history.”They are indeed significant to the whole story there,” he said. “They aren’t just throwaway buildings.”
Julie Capozzoli said the entrance to the proposed pavilion seems very problematic. “I don’t think we can recommend the university moving forward without reconsidering the available land nearby,” she said.
Councilman David Cohen was asked to comment and said he never tries to comment, since he is just a liaison and not a member of the historic preservation commission.
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