August 9, 2017

Painter of the 1918 Solar Eclipse Was a Resident of Library Place

A TUSCAN VILLA IN PRINCETON: Painter and prominent Princetonian Howard Russell Butler, a graduate of Princeton University’s first school of science, lived in this unique property for several years and designed its significant expansion to include a tower and light-filled studio.

With its distinctive tower and roofline, the house at 107 Library Place in Princeton’s western section has long been a source of curiosity to those who drive past. Credit for its unusual layout goes to none other than Howard Russell Butler, the artist and scientist who is the subject of a current exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum focused on his paintings of the 1918 solar eclipse.

An 1876 graduate of the University, Butler bought the home in 1911 and proceeded to transform its straightforward rooms into something altogether different. “He took a colonial and turned it into a Tuscan villa,” said Tamara Jacobs, who has lived in the house with her family since 2005. “Everybody who has lived here has loved the house. It has such a fascinating history.”

Mr. Butler, whose accomplishments included convincing tycoon Andrew Carnegie to pay for the construction of Lake Carnegie and founding what is now the Art Students League of New York, isn’t the only notable to have lived in the house. George Ball, the under secretary of state for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, bought it in the 1960s and entertained JFK, among others, in its formal dining room.

Ms. Jacobs has the pictures to prove it. Framed photos of the distinguished inhabitants and their guests are displayed throughout the house. The architectural plans for Mr. Butler’s addition hang along the long hallway leading to the massive space that was Mr. Butler’s art studio and Mr. Ball’s office. The plans were found in the basement.

It was in 1912 that Mr. Butler undertook a massive renovation and addition to the house he had just purchased. A paneled library, studio, and tower were the focus. The former studio, which has spacious windows on the ceiling but no windows on the walls, is completely sound-proof and filled with light. Ms. Jacobs runs her communications firm from the imposing space.

“I love working in here. I can breathe in here,” she said. “I have conferences and do executive coaching. I’ve used it to hold events, like functions for McCarter Theatre. It’s a great place because of its history. And I always feel like I’m bathed in light in this glass-topped room.”

Ms. Jacobs, her husband, and daughter were living on Elm Road when she saw a “For Sale” sign outside 107 Library Place some 12 years ago. “Pete Callaway showed it to me,” she recalled. “I walked in and I said immediately, ‘I want this house.’ He said, ‘You haven’t even seen it yet.’ But I knew. It was the biggest impulse purchase I’ve ever made.”

At the time, the house was in need of attention. “We put together a team of craftsmen, and it took almost 14 months before it was finished,” Ms. Jacobs said. “But it was a labor of love. I love the history of the house. And especially for a Princeton home, it has unique architecture. There’s just no place like it.”

Ms. Jacobs feels Mr. Butler is a hometown hero who doesn’t get the attention he deserves. In addition to convincing Andrew Carnegie to fund the lake, he participated in the development of Palmer Square and the remodeling of the Nassau Inn, and took an active part in planning the Princeton Battle monument. In a scrapbook, she has copies of letters he wrote asking for money to fund the project. “I only need $800 more,” he wrote to one Mrs. Morgan. “Thirty-four have contributed $100 each. Can I move your name up into this list? Your contribution was $50.”

“I would love to have known him,” Ms. Jacobs said. “It had to take a lot of guts to stand up to Andrew Carnegie and others and keep asking for money. The city should celebrate him. Without him, there would be no Lake Carnegie. He really saw it through.”

Mr. Butler’s other accomplishments include serving as president of Carnegie Hall for nine years, and as architectural advisor for Carnegie’s New York mansion, today home to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. He designed an Astronomy Hall for the American Museum of Natural History, but it was never built. Several paintings intended for that space are in Princeton University’s collections, according to information on the current exhibit at the University’s museum.

The house with six bedrooms and two kitchens has been on and off the market for the past few years. As empty nesters, Ms. Jacobs and her husband have been thinking about moving to a new location with less upkeep. But they won’t sell to just anybody.

“I want somebody who will be a really good steward,” she said. “Everyone who has lived here has taken good care of it, and we want that to continue.”