Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 29
 
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
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Senator Turner Tours Tax-Exempt Club

Linda Arntzenius

Last Friday, July 13, a handful of visitors turned up at 51 Prospect Avenue for a tour of the University Cottage Club on one of just 12 days each year that it opens its doors to the general public.

The first to arrive for the 10 a.m. tour was state Senator Shirley Turner (D-15), one of two sponsors of a bill that would force the club to be open for at least 96 days of the year or lose its designation as an historic site and thus its bid for exemption from paying property taxes to the Borough.

In May, a ruling by the state Supreme Court in effect granted the club historic-designation-based tax-exempt status in spite of a 2004 state law that requires privately owned historic sites to be open to the public at least 96 days each year in order to secure exemption from property taxes.

The court's decision judged the private social club legally qualified for exemption from property taxes amounting to some $320,760 retroactive to 2001 and $50,000 or more annually in later years. It reversed earlier decisions by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a state appellate court that rejected the club's bid for tax-exemption.

"I would like to see what the Princeton taxpayer is subsidizing," said Ms. Turner, who represents the 15th legislative district that includes Princeton Borough and Township as well as Trenton, Lawrenceville, and Ewing. "Why is this building so worthy of being tax exempt?

"I represent one of the most diverse districts in the state; it includes the very rich and the best educated, the very poor and least educated, as well as a large middle class group," said Ms. Turner, who attended the College of New Jersey (then Trenton State), Rider, and subsequently Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

By the time the great oak door to the University Cottage Club creaked open, several others had joined the inaugural public tour including Lee and Sydney Neuwirth, residents of Prospect Avenue and close neighbors of the University's ten private eating clubs for dues-paying Princeton University students, alumni, and their guests.

"I am one angry citizen and I want to see the inside of the club that for the longest time wouldn't take Jews and was the last to take women," announced Mr. Neuwirth, who said that he was curious about the history that would be presented to the public at the tour.

The tour was led by volunteer docent Camille Guerriero, an interior designer from Union County with, she said, an enthusiasm for the club's history, but no other affiliation with the club.

Also on hand were Kenneth Samuel and Marjory H. Fleming, whose husband and son are both members of the club.

Reading from a typescript, Ms. Guerriero focused on the club's origins, architecture, and history. She described its founding in 1886 by a group of seven students who called themselves "The Seven Wise Men of Grease," because of the lack of good eating places in Princeton in the late 19th century. Following a fire at Nassau Hall, students were no longer provided food in college and had to look to the town for their meals. In the late 1880s the University Cottage Club followed several other eating clubs that had been built on Prospect Avenue, taking its name from an existing shingled colonial-style home that belonged to the University and was known as "the cottage." By 1906, noted New York architect Charles McKim had been commissioned to build a club "befitting the needs of the sons of prominent men," Ms. Guerriero told the small group. McKim's sketches for the Georgian revival building were approved by Woodrow Wilson.

But Friday's visitors were more interested in the Cottage Club today rather than its history. Ms. Neuwirth wanted to know how to find out about the open houses that the club holds each year as required by its designation as an historic site. She also wanted to know why the cottage club is exempt from paying taxes to the Borough of Princeton and voiced her displeasure that Borough taxpayers were being asked to pay back taxes for a building which, as her husband put it, "does not properly serve the public."

Ms. Guerriero was unable to provide answers to questions concerning the cost of annual membership. She said that tour dates would be posted on the club's website at: www.princeton.edu/cotclub, which offers a virtual tour of the building.

Mr. Neuwirth, who was in the Princeton University Class of 1955 and a member of the Elm Club, expressed his displeasure that the tour "focused on the building and the club's illustrious past and failed to mention its history of bigotry."

Among the items included in the tour, was the participation of the club in the filming of the movie I.Q., for which the upstairs library was used. The library features a desk, the gift of a former member, that dates back to the 1700s with 17 hidden drawers and spaces. "It's a wonderful artifact that the Cottage Club is privileged to own," said Ms. Guerriero.

Also in the upstairs library, housed in a glass presentation case, is a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's book This Side of Paradise, with a photocopied page from the typescript. Fitzgerald began this work, his first novel, in the library's writing room when he was a student (he was a nongraduating member of the class of 1917). Ms. Guerriero quoted from the book before leading the group toward the end of the tour.

Photographs of previous member classes line the walls of the upstairs billiards room. Those of men predominate until recently when some African American and female faces are included. A framed photograph showed a roster of 182 undergraduate members of the club for 2006-2007.

The tour also took in the downstairs oak-panelled gallery which "preserves the privacy and comfort of a New York gentleman's club complete with details modeled on Kensington Palace and Hampton Court"; the dining room where each member's cloth napkin-wrapped utensils reside in individual numbered boxes; the "red" room, painted in one of the club's colors of burgundy, gold and black, that was formerly the smoking room; and an upstairs TV room adapted from a former private dining room. The club's tap room, located in the basement, was not part of the public tour.

Borough Councilman Andrew Koontz, who toured the building around 11 a.m., Friday, commented: "I tried to ask a few questions of the docent but it was clear that her knowledge stretched little further than the script from which she read. In spite of the fact that the club claims to have been open to the public for 12 days a year, there seemed to be little that would suggest it was prepared for tours as an historic building. There was no brochure, for example, and it seemed as if this was first time that the club had prepared for the public."

Mr. Koontz noted that the club does little to promote the days when it is open to the public, other than through a legal notice published in the Princeton Packet.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Turner and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Princeton Borough, that would deny the club tax-exempt status is pending with Gov. Jon S. Corzine's administration.

Friday's tours were given every 45 minutes from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The next public opening will be Friday, August 17, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call (609) 921-6137.

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