Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 41
 
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
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Photographs of Local Historic Site Prompt Exhibition, Panel Discussion

Linda Arntzenius

Since 2003, Montgomery resident Kristine Weilbacker Hanson has been photographing the North Princeton Development Center (NPDC), located between adjoining Skillman Road and Burnt Hill Road.

Drawn to the abandoned buildings as to a ghost town, she finds a “sense of beauty and majesty” in what once served as a model village for the treatment of epilepsy.

Inspired by the Bielefeld Epileptic Colony in Germany, the New Jersey State Village of Epileptics was established in 1898. It operated as a self-contained community, initially in the John A. Voorhees House (later named Maplewood). At its peak, the village housed close to 2,000 men, women and children with epilepsy and had its own farm, dairy, school, and fire station.

Closed by the state in 1995 and abandoned since 1998, the site has been recently purchased by Montgomery Township for development as “Skillman Village.” [For more information, visit www.montgomery.nj.us/about/npdchome.asp.]

“There is splendor in the deterioration of the buildings and the overgrown quality of the land where nature has come to claim it,” said the photographer, who is also a professional urban planner working primarily in low-income finance and development.

At first, Ms. Hanson said, she felt compelled to document the site “in this moment in time as evidence of what it had been.” But when she discovered “Krissy Wuz,” her own childhood name, scrawled in chalk across a door, she felt a deeper connection and an obligation “to listen to what this place was trying to tell me — these physical remains were home to the people who lived and worked here, and like all homes, they resonate with dreams and spirits.

“It concerns me that as a society we don’t replace things, we abandon. Documenting this part of the changing landscape of New Jersey is important.”

When she began taking photographs of the site, the Township of Montgomery was in the process of finalizing its purchase with the state. Then Mayor of Montgomery (now Deputy Mayor) Louise Wilson, who was instrumental in pushing through the purchase of the property, encouraged Ms. Hanson’s project. It took the photographer some eight weeks, however, to get permission from the state to enter and photograph the buildings.

Considered a landmark in the history of the medical treatment of epilepsy, The New Jersey State Village of Epileptics closed in 1952, becoming the New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute, a research center for the treatment of epilepsy as well as mental illness, drug addiction, and alcoholism. In 1975, it became a place for people with developmental disabilities and was eventually renamed the North Princeton Development Center in 1983.

In securing permission to enter the property, the photographer had to make it clear that her goal was far from an exploitative sensationalizing of the site’s history. Her purpose rather is to promote awareness of the changing landscape of New Jersey.

Once she had secured permission, a state representative drove her through the property pointing out the most dangerous spots. “I took pictures once a week for three years,” she recalled. “I’d check in with the security guard and then explore. The buildings are well made and solid but it was often quite physically and emotionally draining, sometimes disturbing. I was never sure what I would find.” Her explorations resulted in thousands of negatives produced using a Nikon F100 film camera from which she makes her own prints.

“The fragments of human existence are everywhere — the feeling that those who inhabited had just left a moment ago.”

This past summer, the site was cleaned. Ninety-two buildings were demolished and the remaining handful boarded up.

Ms. Hanson contacted the Historical Society of Princeton about her work. A grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities is supporting the public showing of her 16x20 exhibition prints and the upcoming panel discussion.

Panelists

“Ms. Hanson’s documentary photographs were the impetus for the program and set the stage for the discussion,” said Eileen Morales of the Historical Society of Princeton.

In addition to Ms. Hanson, “North Princeton Development Center: Public Memory and Social Landscape” will feature Janet Golden, professor of history at Rutgers University, who will act as moderator; Ron Emrich, executive director of Preservation New Jersey, Inc.; and Montgomery resident Brad Fay, past president of the Van Harlingen Historical Society and a member of Montgomery Townships’s Economic Development Commission.

The panel will discuss the changing social landscape, exploring themes of public memory, local history, historic preservation, and the era of lost medical institutions in New Jersey.

The discussion will be hosted by the D&R Greenway Land Trust, in the Johnson Education Center, 1 Preservation Place (off Rosedale Road), on Saturday, October, 13, from 1 to 3 p.m. The free event will be followed by a reception at which members of the community will be invited to record their memories of the site. For more information and to register, call (609) 921-6748, or email jeanette@princetonhistory.org.

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