February 13, 2013

Alexander Street Houses Headed for Wrecking Ball Unless a Buyer Steps Up

Princeton has a history of moving buildings from one location to another. Since the mid-19th century, as the town and its institutions have grown, stately houses, modest workers’ cottages, estate outbuildings, boarding houses, and numerous other dwellings and public buildings have been hauled from one corner of town to another.

Preservation-minded citizens have been hopeful that a group of houses along Alexander Street will continue that tradition. But it doesn’t look good. The houses, owned by Princeton University, are sitting in the path of its recently approved $300 million Arts & Transit development. The University plans to start clearing the site this spring, and the houses С some of which are considered historically significant and date from the 19th century С are headed for demolition.

The University has offered to give the houses to anyone who is willing to undertake the complicated and costly process of moving them, but there are no takers. “We have entertained an offer from one couple who were interested,” says Kristin Appelget, the University’s director of community and regional affairs. “But it didn’t work out. So as of right now, they will be taken down. If someone came forward who could have the buildings removed within the time frame, we would be willing to have that conversation with them. But they would need to have the structure, or structures, removed before April.”

A member of Princeton’s Historic Preservation Commission says there is still hope that a buyer can be found. Not representing the Commission but speaking for himself, Elric Endersby has been quietly talking to a candidate who may opt to take on at least one of the houses. “There is still somebody who is potentially interested in moving the houses, and we are attempting to explore the possibilities,” he says. “I still believe that if it is possible for someone to save even one or two houses, it’s a win-win-win situation. It would allow the University to demonstrate that they have been open to this kind of idea, which they have. And it would demonstrate that the town would do what it could to facilitate the transfer of these buildings.”

The string of houses along Alexander Street represents an important part of the history not just of Princeton, but of the state as a whole. “The transportation  advancements of 19th century New Jersey, including canals and railroads between Philadelphia and New York City, were key elements to the development of Alexander Street,” reads a 1994 survey by Hintz Associates, Inc. “The road was developed in 1830 as ‘Canal Street,’ when the canal and railroad intersection at Princeton Basin created the combined need for a direct link to Princeton Borough.” The report continues, “The street has played a key role in the development of Princeton and is currently among the main roads leading to town, serving as a corridor from Route 1 to Princeton Borough.”

According to Mr. Endersby, the houses threatened with demolition are worth saving because of their “good bones.”

“There are a couple of three-bay houses, and two of those are really in the same league as several of those on Alexander Street between Mercer Street and College Road,” he says. “I don’t know anything about the interior detail work, but even if the details are missing, the frames and the configuration of rooms would allow them to be replicated and renovated if not entirely restored. The houses are not huge, which is a plus. They are of a human scale. We’re not talking about major [Charles] Steadman buildings. These were of a more moderate scale. But that scale commends them rather than condemns them.”

Owned by the University for several years, the houses between 106 and 152 Alexander Street have served most recently as offices and apartments. They are currently empty. Princeton University is preparing the buildings for demolition by having asbestos and lead paint removed and gutting the interiors. Once that is completed and the proper approvals are obtained, the University can apply for a demolition permit. The houses are marked by either a large “X” or a slash by their front doors. According to Ms. Appleget, the markings indicate building conditions for first responders like the fire department.

At a meeting this week of the Historic Preservation Commission, Princeton resident Kip Cherry voiced her concerns about the plans to demolish the houses. “We would like to see the University make their mortgage subsidy program available to a potential buyer, or maybe a house could be moved and used for a University department,” she said. “I think this is certainly a matter for the Commission to consider.”

Julie Capozzoli, the HPC chair, told Ms. Cherry that since the houses are not located in a historic district, the Commission has the authority to advise but not to officially review them. HPC member Cecelia Taazelar commented that the asbestos removal and other pre-demolition work make the houses less appealing to a potential buyer. “They’ve jinxed the opportunity for anyone to move the houses,” she said. “When you start taking away all the exterior details, then what’s the value in moving them? They shouldn’t be doing it.”

Moving a building is an expensive and complicated proposition. “It’s quite extensive,” says John Pettenati, Princeton’s building inspector. “You have to shut down the road, do it in the middle of the night, and disconnect all the power lines. It’s legitimate and it can be done, and anyone is welcome to come in with the permits for it. The University did move a huge house a long time ago, but just across the street. Another one on Cherry Valley Road was moved too, but again, across the street.”

Mr. Endersby’s New Jersey Barn Company specializes in the dismantling and rebuilding of historic structures, but he would not be able to consider disassembling the houses. “We have one that has been in storage since 1983,” he said. “Our business is moving buildings, but not by surface.”

Drawing on the knowledge of a group of historic buildings in East Hampton, Long Island that were moved and converted into a municipal complex, Mr. Endersby wondered at one point whether the Alexander Street houses could be moved en masse to the Basin. That suggestion was rejected due to environmental issues.

Talks with the University about the fate of the houses have not been adversarial. “They demonstrated their willingness, back in September, to talk,” Mr. Endersby says. “I’ve never sensed that the University was hostile to these efforts, but just that they thought it was probably futile.”

Neighborhood resident Anne Neumann says suggestions that the University move the houses for use by departments within the school were rejected by their attorney. “We’re not aware that an invitation ever went out to any of the departments asking them if they’d be interested,” she said. “But Princeton University has a long history of respecting historic preservation. They’ve moved many houses in the past. There is a long legacy of that, and it could be continued.”