A century ago, Princeton citizens began planning a small park as a tribute to residents of the town killed in combat during World War I. It took nine years for the memorial to take shape at the intersection of Mercer and Nassau streets, and it continues today as a tribute to those killed in ensuing wars. As it has been for decades, the park was a focus of Memorial Day activities this past weekend.
According to a history of the site compiled by Leigh Bartlett from the archives of the Garden Club of Princeton, the classical stone bench was designed by Harvey Wiley Corbett, a New York architect who was also a lecturer in the arts department at Princeton University. Mr. Corbett was inspired by ancient Greek examples.
The club, which is a founding member of The Garden Club of America, has been a key factor in the evolution of the site. Recently, the group created a landscaping plan for beds in front of the Memorial Bench. Knock-out roses and boxwood were planted along with annuals in red, white, and blue.
This was the first phase of the project, which was planned in coordination with the town. Mastroianni Landscaping donated the plants and labor, working along with members of the club. The second phase will include landscaping the area behind the bench, with installation anticipated in the coming year.
When the memorial was completed in 1925, Art and Archaeology magazine described it as “an exquisitely designed exedra, carefully proportioned to the little park. With its simple inscription, ‘Hold dear our sons and daughters who gave their lives for freedom in the World War,’ it very touchingly does its work of commemoration. It is a model of what a simple memorial should be.” Andrew Fleming West, first dean of the Princeton University Graduate School, wrote the inscription, according to Ms. Bartlett’s research.
The memorial was initiated by the Chamber of Commerce with public donations. The Garden Club and members of their families have been involved over the last century in planning, fundraising, designing, landscaping, planting, cleaning up, and maintaining the park.
Early contributors included such prominent names as Mrs. Moses Taylor Pyne, Allan Marquand, Bayard Stockton, Gerard Lambert, and Mrs. Thomas Jex Preston, Jr., the widow of President Grover Cleveland. Moses Taylor Pyne donated several properties and the Nassau Club contributed a small piece of ground.
The location was selected by a design committee. “Nine buildings in various states of disrepair were acquired and leveled,” according to Ms. Barlett’s history. The secretary of the committee focused on architectural improvement of street plans and traffic routing near the park. It was Sydney R. Taber, who wrote, “The Princeton War Memorial promises to be a distinct adornment to the Borough, in which the community will take a just pride, as well as a dignified, chaste, and fitting means of commemoration. It is therefore hoped that every citizen of Princeton will wish to have a share in this common expression of admiration and gratitude towards those who died in a great cause.”