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Vol. LXII, No. 6
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
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With History at Issue, Township Could Revisit Deer Path and Clover Lane

Matthew Hersh

The issue of whether to preserve a cluster of houses in Princeton Township’s Littlebrook section is about to surface again, as Township Committee looks to continue a nearly three-year discussion on the aesthetic and historical merits of mid-century construction.

Members of the Township’s Historic Preservation Commission are expected to be in attendance at Township Committee’s February 11 meeting, and while it is not clear what type of presentation will be offered, officials familiar with the request to place historic designation on a cluster of 34 houses along Deer Path and Clover Lane said that the issue will likely be addressed.

But outright historic designation appears unlikely, in view of Committee’s tepid May 2007 response to a municipally commissioned report that recommended that the group of houses, mostly built in 1954 and 1955, be deemed historic. The $6,000 study by the Metuchen-based Arch2, Inc., determined that the neighborhood’s primary structural characteristics: one-story rectangular ranches; horizontal siding; low-pitched gable, butterfly, or flat roofs; carports; window placement; as well as landscaped lots set back from the street, qualified for preservation.

“The Deer Path and Clover Lane subdivision is architecturally significant for its representation of many of the architectural ideals that were prevalent in mid-twentieth century residential developments,” wrote the report’s lead investigator, Nancy Zerbe, who appeared before Township Committee’s May 2007 hearing.

The development is also one of the few examples, the report says, of “Modern style subdivisions in the Princeton area and New Jersey.

“This subdivision was built at a time when public and funding agencies were reluctant to accept modern architecture, making it architecturally unusual.”

The report did, however, acknowledge that homeowners would want to make physical changes, urging the HPC to accept “that individual houses will undergo alterations,” but that the above characteristics should be preserved “to the extent possible.”

Residents along the tract were split almost solidly down the middle, and Committee has been sensitive to the apparent lack of plurality, a fact that HPC member Robert von Zumbusch referred to in the last hearing, when he said that the governing body would likely be receptive to a majority opposition.

“Let’s be realistic about it, if all of the neighbors are opposed, Township Committee will have to feel pretty strongly about this,” Mr. von Zumbusch said last year. As for the HPC endorsement of the Arch2, “we have to take advice on technical merit,” he said.

That concern was effectively what led Committeeman Chad Goerner to circumvent the prospect of outright historic designation by suggesting a form of overlay zoning, particularly in the form of a conservation district that sets neighborhood standards less stringent than historic districts.

Both the Township attorney and the planning department have reviewed that initiative.

The original subdivision property was part of the former Princeton Preparatory School campus, which declared bankruptcy in the 1930s and was obtained by Princeton Bank and Trust, and later sold to Edmund Cook, who had been developing single houses along Rollingmead throughout the 1940s.

According to Ms. Zerbe’s report, Mr. Cook had come to an agreement in 1954 with developer Herbert Kendall and architect David Savage to build the 34-house development with various restrictions, including building houses no taller than one-and-a-half stories, and building no closer than 10 feet to any lot line. Additionally, the total building area could not exceed 40 percent of the total lot land. While these binding stipulations were set at the time, they mostly expired on January 1, 1966.

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