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Exploring Mercer County’s History Through Its Distinctive Architecture

ARCHITECTURAL ANNIVERSARY: Princeton University’s Nassau Hall is among the historic buildings to be discussed during “Mercer by Architecture,” a symposium August 9 at The Lawrenceville School. The event, which will be followed by a weekend of open houses at local architectural landmarks, is part of Mercer County’s 175th birthday celebration.(Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

ARCHITECTURAL ANNIVERSARY: Princeton University’s Nassau Hall is among the historic buildings to be discussed during “Mercer by Architecture,” a symposium August 9 at The Lawrenceville School. The event, which will be followed by a weekend of open houses at local architectural landmarks, is part of Mercer County’s 175th birthday celebration. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

When Mercer County officials began thinking about the best way to celebrate its 175th birthday, the idea of architecture emerged at the top of the list. The county has a rich store of buildings and sites from the 17th century to the present, making it what some regard as an architectural microcosm of the nation.

“A group from many divisions and departments got together to talk about how we wanted to commemorate the anniversary,” said Tricia Fagan, the county’s Historic Outreach Specialist. “A number of departments had their wish lists. In the meantime, I’ve been collecting files on the history of various things in the county. I pulled them out, and the history of architecture just seemed like a winner to everybody.”

So planning began for “Mercer by Architecture,” a day-long symposium that will bring prominent historians and architects including Michael Graves. Michael Mills, Philip Hayden, and Robert Hillier [a Town Topics shareholder] to the campus of The Lawrenceville School — an architectural landmark itself — for programs on varied topics. The August 9 event will be followed by a “Mercer County Open House Weekend” August 10 and 11.

“We have such an astonishing infrastructure in Mercer County,” said Ms. Fagan. “And yet, we’re sort of casual about it. We say, ‘Oh yes, Morven’ or ‘Oh, the Trent House.’ I love that casualness, but it’s also time to celebrate what we have here and not take it for granted.”

Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes will introduce the symposium, which begins with breakfast at 8:30 a.m. The keynote speaker is W. Barksdale Maynard, whose topic is “Princeton: America’s Campus — Architecture in History and Context.” Mr. Maynard is the author of five books on American history, architecture, and landscape and has taught art, architecture, and landscape courses at Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities.

“He’s probably if not the best, then one of the top three speakers they’ve ever had at the New Jersey Historical Commission,” Ms. Fagan said. “He wrote the book Princeton: America’s Campus, which looks at the long and invaluable history of the University. He makes the argument that the architecture of Princeton University tells the story of architecture in the United States.”

Two panel discussions will be held, both moderated by Meredith Arms Bzdak, an architectural historian and partner with the Princeton firm Mills + Schnoering Architects. Taking part in the morning session, “Architecture of Place: History of Housing in Mercer” are Mr. Hayden, senior historian and architectural historian at Richard Grubb & Associates; Mr. Hillier, founder of the Princeton firm RMJM and a visiting lecturer in History and Theory of the Architecture Profession at Princeton University; and Janet W. Foster, an architectural historian, teacher, and advocate for the historic built environment.

The afternoon session, “Architecture of Space: Public Architecture and Mercer,” will feature Kate Nearpass Ogden; a professor of Art History at Stockton College; Mr. Mills, partner at Mills + Schnoering specializing in the preservation, restoration, and adaptive use of historic structures; and Princeton architect Michael Graves, whose two firms provide architecture, interior design, master planning, product and graphic design, and branding. Mr. Graves was appointed last March to the U.S. Access Board by President Barack Obama.

“We’ve reached out to these terrifically gifted people, some of whom are internationally known, and they’ve been immediately saying yes,” Ms. Fagan said. “That’s heartwarming. They love the idea of being part of this, and we’re very lucky to have them.”

Among the buildings that will be open to the public over the weekend are the faculty dining room at Nassau Hall on the Princeton campus, and a portion of The Lawrenceville School. Jacqueline Haun, the school’s archives librarian, will lead a tour of its older, historic buildings. A portion of the campus is a National Historic Landmark and was designed in collaboration with the landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted and architects Peabody & Stearns.

Admission to the symposium is $20.50, including breakfast, lunch, and parking. Visit http://nj.gov/counties/mercer/ for more information.

“From quaint farmhouses to stately public buildings, Mercer County’s architecture is rich in history, covering every period of our Nation’s past,” said Mr. Hughes. “This symposium will be an excellent way to share the stories behind some of Mercer’s many architectural treasures.”

—Anne Levin

 

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