September 9, 2020

Community Collaboration Saves 145 Ewing, Red Farmhouse with 265 Years of History

By Donald Gilpin

When the Princeton Planning Board (PPB) approved a minor subdivision plan last month for 145 Ewing Street, known as the red farmhouse, it was a victory for the owner, for a group of concerned local residents who spoke up, for historic preservation, and for the whole Princeton community.

“We were very happy with the outcome of the application,” said Planning Director Michael LaPlace. “It was really a team effort with the applicant, the town, and interested neighbors as well.  A lot of credit goes to Brooke Brown, the owner. She was willing to rethink the application in order to preserve the historic building.”

He continued, “We saw it as a win-win for both the applicant and the community. We’re very excited about it. It shows that there are many ways to achieve historic preservation. This was a creative and sensible solution.”

Built in 1755, with additions in 1830, the house has a rich history. It was the home of novelist Caroline Gordon from 1956 to the mid-1970s, and, though they divorced in 1959, her husband the poet and essayist Allen Tate was there frequently, reportedly along with such
literary celebrity visitors as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Walker Percy.

Other, unconfirmed, stories of the red farmhouse include a visit by Thomas Jefferson in 1783, when he attended the Continental Congress in Nassau Hall, and a raid by British soldiers, who supposedly kicked down the front door during or after the Battle of Princeton in 1777. Job Stockton, who also built the Bainbridge House on Nassau Street and was a cousin of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Stockton, apparently bought the land from John Hornor and built the original farmhouse.

According to current neighbor Steve Hiltner, who was one of the participants in saving the house from demolition, Brooke Brown, who purchased the house in November 2018, considered tearing it down and re-building.  A bicentennial plaque on the front of the house, she discovered, did not signify any official historic status or protection.

When Hiltner and another neighbor, Galina Chernaya, found out about plans to possibly demolish the house they began to make inquiries with the town and the new owner to see if the house could be saved, or at least to try to salvage some of the historic materials for reuse.

Another neighbor, Peter Thompson, had also been following the news about the house’s proposed demolition, and decided to post about it on the “I Grew Up in Princeton” Facebook page, where it received considerable attention.

“My sense is that the strong community response to that post got the attention of the town,” said Hiltner. “The town became aware of how much people care about this house.”

“I saw it, and I was really upset,” said Princeton Councilwoman Mia Sacks. “It was something important that had fallen between the cracks. I saw it and I talked with Michael LaPlace and [Council President] David Cohen.  If Peter hadn’t posted that I think the house would have been destroyed.”

She continued, “It’s encouraging because often citizens feel they can’t make a difference, that things are inevitable.  But you never know. It’s a story of the community coming together.”

Cohen, LaPlace, and others worked with Brown in revising the proposal so that the house could be saved as part of a duplex. When the property is subdivided, the lot next to Harrison Street will include a new unit, a house, and the parcel that the old house is on will become a duplex with the old farmhouse preserved, Hiltner explained.

“I think that’s the way things should work,” he said in reflecting on the process and its favorable outcome. “We associate history mostly with the western side of Princeton, I think, but this was a house that was very unusual for the neighborhood in how old it was.  It was a quiet house, didn’t stand out in any way, just this red house on Ewing Street that people would be hurrying by on their way to somewhere else, but it has this amazing history to it.”

Noting his interest in “the creative reuse of old objects,” Hiltner, who is president of the board of directors of Friends of Herrontown Woods (FOHW), is looking forward to making use of an old eight-foot square shed and a nice, elegant gazebo” on the 145 Ewing property.  He is working with Brown to arrange the transfer of the shed and gazebo to Herrontown Woods to stand near the historic Veblen House. 

FOHW could mount solar panels on the roof of the shed, Hiltner said, and use the inside as a place to store tools for a botanical garden they are creating. The gazebo could overlook some farmland  and a little pond next to the Veblen House. “We’ll figure out how to move them,” he added, noting that one of the FOHW board members has a trailer they can use. 

Cohen, who serves on both Council and the planning board, applauded the resolution of the red farmhouse discussions.  “It was a great collaboration between the community and the planning department,” he said. “It came to our attention because of concerned neighbors. We reached out to the planning department, and Michael LaPlace reached out to the owner.”

He continued, “This is a great example of how good communication can uncover opportunities that you might have missed otherwise.” He added that the protection of individual properties that are historically important though not part of a historic district needs to be a topic for further investigation in the future. 

“I’m relieved and happy that everybody was able to come together and find a way to save this special place,” said Hiltner.