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Renovations Begin on University-Owned Building Once Home to Town Topics Newspaper

RENOVATIONS UNDERWAY: Almost six years after the staff of Town Topics moved from 4 Mercer Street to new quarters on Witherspoon Street, renovations are underway at the “old Town Topics Building,” that once housed Priest’s Drug Store (see front page) and was home to the staff of Town Topics newspaper for 57 years before the move to the current location at 305 Witherspoon Street.(Photo by L. Arntzenius)

RENOVATIONS UNDERWAY: Almost six years after the staff of Town Topics moved from 4 Mercer Street to new quarters on Witherspoon Street, renovations are underway at the “old Town Topics Building,” that once housed Priest’s Drug Store (see front page) and was home to the staff of Town Topics newspaper for 57 years before the move to the current location at 305 Witherspoon Street. (Photo by L. Arntzenius)

Readers of this newspaper often express curiosity about the building at 4 Mercer Street that has become known as the “old Town Topics building.”

Recent passersby will have noticed activity in preparation for the building’s renovation by its owner Princeton University. After being vacated by the newspaper’s staff almost six years ago, building work is now underway.

Speaking for the University, Kristin S. Appelget, director of community and regional affairs, said that the University is in the process of extensive interior and exterior renovations that will “provide a first floor office space for a yet to be determined University use and that the second and third floors will be three separate housing units comprising part of the University housing stock for faculty and staff.”

The front section will have apartments on its second and third floors and there will be a duplex in a three-story brick addition to the rear of the building that replaces a timber section that has been removed. This section was a later addition to the original 19th-century building. “It was removed last week and will be replaced by a new brick addition that will blend with the exterior brick and historic architectural elements,” said Ms. Appelget.

Blue Rock Construction is the general contractor for the project and the architects are HMR Architects of Princeton, on Alexander Road.

Ms. Appelget, who declined to divulge the cost of the renovation project, said that the work is expected to be completed by fall of this year.

The University’s plans for the building were approved by the Borough Zoning Board in 2010 at which time attorney Richard Goldman of Drinker Biddle & Reath explained that the University’s goal in renovating the structure was to “restore the building to its historical look.”

The building has been empty since 2007 when Town Topics newspaper, which had occupied the space since 1950, moved to a new location at 305 Witherspoon Street.

Although the building could be cold in the winter and steamy in the summer, its linoleum cracked and its paint peeling, it is fondly recalled by Town Topics staff members (including this reporter) who once worked there. While there is no one who can recall, as former owner, the late Jeb Stuart once did, the days of ticker-tape news releases and the “advances” of cold type, many at the paper today remember the newspaper’s infamous “wing mailer,” a mid-1940s labeling machine that was still in operation in the late 1990s.

The building’s location was perfect for covering town and gown and while the interior left much to be desired, the facade had charm.

The move coincided with the switch to digital production that replaced the -techniques of the -composing room where items were pasted by hand to create camera-ready-copy for delivery to the printer.

History

Over the years, the building, which dates to 1878, was used for businesses and apartments, until it was moved in 1914 some 60 feet back from its original Nassau Street location to make way for the war memorial. That’s when One Nassau became 4 Mercer. Priest’s Drug Store occupied the ground floor at that time and according to a contemporary account recorded in New Jersey Architecture by Susanne C. Hand, it was said that when the building was moved a glass of water on the counter didn’t spill a drop.

Priest’s remained in the building until 1944.

The newspaper was founded in 1946 by Princeton University graduates Donald Stuart and his brother-in-law Dan Coyle together with Don’s wife Emily, known as “Cissy,” and Dan’s wife Mary. In 1950, Town Topics moved into 4 Mercer Street.

The newspaper passed to Donald and Emily’s son Jeb in 1981. Town Topics continued as a family business until it was sold in 2001 to the current publisher Lynn Adams Smith, architects J. Robert Hillier and Barbara Hillier, and a small group of investors.

Ms. Smith had worked for Town Topics, and Jeb Stuart was convinced that she was the right person to take over the newspaper, with its loyal readership.

“It will be good to see this beautiful old building restored,” said Ms. Smith.

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