June 9, 2021

Commission Advises Planners to Reject University Application

By Donald Gilpin

The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) decided at a spirited June 7 virtual meeting to recommend that the Princeton Planning Board turn down a Princeton University application to move a former eating club across the street and demolish three Victorian homes on Prospect Avenue.

The three-hour session brought out more than 60 concerned community members, with most speaking in opposition to the University’s plan that would require moving the former Court Clubhouse at 91 Prospect to make room for the new Environmental Science and Engineering complex on the south side of Prospect and razing the houses at 110, 114, and 116 in order to position the Clubhouse on the north side of Prospect.

“I am profoundly concerned about the proposed moving of 91 Prospect and demolishing three homes to make room for it,” said Sandy Harrison, Princeton Prospect Foundation board chair.  “That would substantially diminish the aesthetic continuity of Prospect Avenue and set a disturbing precedent for the future. The University can achieve its objectives without uprooting this portion of Prospect Avenue.”

He went on to note the “enormous concern of local residents” and cited an online petition in opposition to the plan that at last count had more than 640 signatures.

HPC Chair Julie Capozzoli, who is also a member of the Planning Board, which will take up the matter at a public hearing on June 17, pointed out that the HPC was supportive of the University’s desire to expand its environmental studies, engineering, and applied science departments but also unanimous in not approving of the plan to move the 91 Prospect building and demolish the three houses.

She went on to note that she was very pleased with the community’s widespread, energetic participation in the meeting and in the process of historic preservation. “I’m enthusiastic about the public participation in preservation meetings, and I’m grateful for the engaged and educated public that we have in Princeton,” she said. “Their participation is key and there were so many who wanted to participate.”

Capozzoli was optimistic that there would be some sort of compromise in the future. “It’s a good opportunity for other boards to realize how important it is that it should be an open democratic process.”

Emphasizing Princeton University’s commitment to historic preservation and stewardship, Princeton University Architect Ron McCoy presented the University’s plan as the best way to save the 91 Prospect building and the only way to serve the best interests of the University’s educational mission. He argued that it would be impossible to incorporate the Court Clubhouse building into the planned new complex. 

McCoy went on to emphasize with numerous renderings and photo simulations that the new complex would be “very compatible with the pattern of buildings in the neighborhood.”

He noted that the three houses planned for demolition were not in the historic district and were not considered as individual landmarks. Meredith Bzdak, an architect and Princeton University historic preservation consultant, added, “We do not believe these buildings are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.” 

A number of participants in the discussion at Monday’s meeting, however, claimed that the University had overlooked the historical importance of the three Queen Anne Victorian houses at 110, 114, and 116 Prospect. 

“There’s a great deal of history here,’ said Clifford Zink, historic preservation consultant and author of a widely acclaimed book about the Prospect Avenue eating clubs. “The history of these houses has not been investigated. They were residences of very important people. We need documentation on these houses.”

The online petition states, “The Victorians on Prospect are rich in history and lore, where celebrated scholars and luminaries have lived and gathered over the past century.”  Art historian Erwin Panofsky, Greek literature scholar Froma Zeitlin, and art historian Thomas Kaufmann were among the distinguished past residents of the three houses. 

Zink went on to note that the University plan would be violating several guidelines of the National Park Service for moving buildings and for new construction.  “If the University had said to its architects, ‘We want to have connectivity onto Prospect Avenue, but we’re going to respect the historic district and Court Clubhouse and the three historic houses across the street,’ the architects would have said, ‘Fine,’ and they would have come up with a plan to accommodate that,” Zink said. “This is going to do exactly what the Park Service says is inappropriate.”

As the HPC approached its decision, HPC Vice Chair David Schure summed up the proceedings. “What I hear is that a lot of people have faith in the Commission trying to protect the qualities of neighborhood or history or design context that make Princeton special,” he said. “The University is probably also hearing that loud and clear. What input can we give the designers to help make the designs better?”

He continued, “The houses have a lot of history, and I’m sorry that the University consultant missed that history. Those houses are indeed significant. They aren’t just throwaway buildings. We’re hearing a lot from the community and we have clear direction as far as our recommendation is concerned.”