June 16, 2021

Razing of Victorian Homes on Prospect Avenue Will Set a Dangerous Precedent

To the Editor:

As I write this, over 800 people have joined the petition at change.org/saveprospect urging the town Council to uphold our zoning laws and maintain the integrity of the Historic District on Prospect Avenue. In the 11 years that I have lived around corner from Prospect’s threatened homes, I’ve watched the destruction of the 19th-century canal houses on Alexander and the planned destruction of the last of the Gothic Revival portion of the Princeton Museum. In the Prospect area alone, I’ve seen the tearing down of the Victorians at Olden and Williams, and the demolition of the early 20th-century house at Olden and Prospect. University representatives claim the Victorians they are planning to demolish lack a “context” and are in poor repair. If they lack a context, it’s because the University is systematically removing that context. They are in poor repair because the University is not maintaining them – seemingly engaged in a practice known as “demolition by neglect.”

University representatives argue that the Prospect houses are not historic because they’re “not the work of a master” and weren’t homes to prominent people. While the latter is demonstrably false, history is larger than simply the study of so-called “masters” and elites. Indeed, many residents observe that the eating clubs are monuments to the privileged. If that is all they represent, then perhaps we should tear them all down. But these homes and buildings mean more than that to the community. For some of us, their age and rarity attracted us to this neighborhood; for others, they’re filled with memories (good and bad), but the community values them as they are. That is why the town created the current zoning.

I propose that the University check its privilege and cease pressuring the community into suspending our laws. Rather than erasing history, I urge the University to consider this an opportunity for restorative justice. It could use a fraction of the $1.5 billion in interest it earned last year on its $26.6 billion endowment to restore the buildings in question, return them to residential use, and offer them as affordable housing. Better still, they could include them in a larger conversation on reparations to the descendants of Princeton’s formerly enslaved peoples. The precedent has been set by others, including the Theological Seminary. Princeton could take this opportunity to reconsider its history, address the grossest exploitations, and restore and strengthen the residential character of the street.

The University controls much of the property on Prospect, Murray, and Fitzrandolph. For now, it’s still a community of predominantly turn-of-the-century homes. University representatives say we should trust them; that their current plan does not envision further destruction in this neighborhood. I am not convinced. The razing of these Prospect Victorians will set a dangerous precedent and embolden future architects, University Boards, and generations of new donors to continue to plan without regard to the zoning laws set by the citizens of Princeton.

Louis Hamilton
Murray Place