Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 44
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
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A Little Princeton History in Store on Historical Society House Tour

Matthew Hersh

The Historical Society of Princeton’s sixth annual house tour this weekend will feature a home that was built out of necessity when Princeton University grew, another that had T.S. Eliot as a tenant, and one that was built as a “dream house” for a U.S. president.

The tour is slated to feature a neat cross-section of five private homes and two notable buildings this weekend while offering some local history, along with ideas for fixing an old home, rather than surrendering to the ever-present McMansion option.

The house tour “allows the Historical Society to highlight spectacular homes around town,” said Erin Dougherty, HSP executive director. Ms. Dougherty added, however, that preservation is the key here: “We are grateful to the homeowners who take pride in preserving their homes.”

Take 14 Alexander Street, the T.S. Eliot house. Ann and Tom Chapman bought the house in 1982 and recently completed two renovations. In 2003, the kitchen was totally redesigned, with the incorporation of a side porch and the addition of windows and a door to a back door porch. Then in 2005, the Chapmans filled in their 1960s-era carport, replacing it with a two-story barn with space for two cars below the home office and studio.

Or how about 6 Chestnut Street in downtown Princeton? With gas prices on the rise and the concept of sustainable living very much in the air, residents like Laura Strong and Eric Dutaud are doing their best to blend that old village style with modern amenities. Having purchased the house in 1998, the couple has carried out a complete renovation of the kitchen, and have added a half bathroom and a third floor media room. The 100-year-old house also had to be completely rewired.

Ms. Strong quipped that being included on the house tour was good for the couple because it motivated them to set a finite timeline for when they had to get their house in order. “When we were booked for the tour, I joked ‘oh good, a deadline!’”

The house was developed in 1900 by Hannah Van Acker, a widow living at the corner of Chestnut and Nassau streets. She decided to develop her large back garden with a two-family rental property facing Chestnut. While most of the “tree streets” (Chestnut, Pine, Maple, Spruce) were developed in the 1850s, Ms. Van Acker sought to capitalize on Princeton University’s 1896 expansion by building rental housing for workers and staff.

Prior to Ms. Strong and Ms. Dutaud, the same tenant had occupied 6 Chestnut for 40-plus years. “There was lots of shag rug — even the bathroom had shag!” There were layers of linoleum floors, walls awash in red paint, even whisky bottles in the attic distilling some fermented libations. “You never know what you’re going to find,” Ms. Strong said.

Other houses on the tour include: 82 Library Place (Woodrow Wilson’s home); 117 Library Place, once part of the Morven Tract; 162 Mercer Street, one of the oldest houses on Mercer Hill; as well as Historic Morven, the former governor’s mansion, and Bainbridge House, current home of the Historical Society.

The tour will be held this Saturday, November 3. Tickets are $25 purchased in advance and $30 the day of the event. For more information or to book a spot on the tour, call (609) 921-6748, or go to

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