Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 50
 
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
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Plan for Speer Demolition Concerns Neighbors

Dilshanie Perera

Members of the Mercer Hill Historic District Association (MHHDA) gathered at the Nassau Club last Saturday to discuss Princeton Theological Seminary’s (PTS) proposed demolition of Speer Library. Built in 1956, the library is characterized as Art Deco Collegiate Gothic, and is one of the few buildings of that style found in Princeton.

The Regional Planning Board is holding a site plan hearing at 7:30 p.m. on December 11 regarding the Seminary’s project, which includes razing Speer Library and building a new library as a 98,000 square foot addition to the existing Luce Library. The meeting in Township Hall is open to the public.

Noting that “some of us in the neighborhood have concerns about the project,” Rob Robertson of MHHDA gave a presentation detailing the history of the organization, the historic Mercer Hill neighborhood, prior demolition by the Seminary of structures in the area, and a plan advocating the preservation of Speer Library.

Elaborating on the historic sites in the Mercer Hill region, which include Morven, Trinity Church, and the Barracks, Mr. Robertson noted that “the hallmark of this area is its diversity” in terms of architecture and historical relevance. Architects Robert O’Connor and Walter Kilham who designed Speer also designed Princeton University’s Firestone Library, and the two libraries share similar features, he remarked.

According to Mr. Robertson, a number of questions still need to be answered by the Seminary, including whether the demolition of Speer is consistent with Princeton’s Master Plan, and whether it conforms to the “demolition ordinance” passed by the Borough. He added that major concerns are that “the Seminary hasn’t shared its master plan with the community” and the possibility that the approval of the demolition would “set a precedent with other historic structures in Princeton.”

Former Borough Council and Regional Planning Board member Wendy Benchley agreed, saying, “I’m struck by the fact that nobody’s seen a master plan [for PTS]. As an institution in town, they should have one.” She suggested that the Planning Board should have representatives from the Seminary present its vision for expansion.

“All institutions in town add to the stimulating, wonderful fabric of the community, but all of these institutions are also stimulators of development,” Ms. Benchley said, underscoring the importance of understanding a long-term vision for that development.

Stephen Crocco, the James Lennox Librarian at Princeton Theological Seminary, said in a telephone interview that the Seminary’s initial idea was to renovate Speer Library, but after conducting a feasibility study, it was determined that renovation would be a “more expensive proposition than they had imagined,” and involve the replacement of various building systems.

The architectural firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, which is currently spearheading the project, specializes in overhauling older buildings, according to Mr. Crocco, who reported that they too began their work with plans to renovate Speer, but “after about three to four months found it just wasn’t working.” A cost analysis suggested the cost of renovation and the cost to tear down and construct a new building would be the same.

Since the Borough Council established the Mercer Hill historic preservation district in 1985, no demolitions have occurred in the area. In a November 26, 2008 memorandum to the Regional Planning Board, Borough Historic Preservation Review Committee (HPRC) Chair Jeanne Perantoni wrote that the HPRC “cannot reach a final recommendation” about the demolition because it needs more information from the Seminary.

The Borough’s “demolition ordinance” as part of its Municipal Land Use Ordinance allows demolition only if it conforms to certain standards or if the building in question “cannot be put to a reasonable use and its preservation will impose an undue hardship on the applicant.”

Mr. Crocco said that the renovation “just wouldn’t work” because “we’d have to tear out the building in the middle and keep the facade” and that “modern buildings have taller floor-to-ceiling heights for mechanical equipment.” While noting that Speer is “running out of space for books” and that the lack of natural light in the interior of the library makes it a less than ideal environment, he added that though the Speer and Luce Libraries are currently connected, they still function as separate libraries, and a new structure could better bridge the divide.

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