July 21, 2021

HPC Considers Club Row Historic District

By Donald Gilpin

Resuming a process that began in 1992 before lying dormant for the past 26 years, the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) held a concept discussion on Monday, July 19, on the designation of a Club Row historic district on Prospect Avenue.

Club Row is already on the National Register of Historic Places, but designation as a local historic district would provide a greater level of future protection to the Prospect Avenue streetscape with its stately eating clubs and other buildings on both sides of the street. It would also prevent future demolitions or construction without town approval.

The creation of the district could not have any direct effect on pending applications before the Princeton Planning Board, according to New Jersey’s time of application rule, and historic preservationist Clifford Zink assured the HPC, “This process is not being done to try to make changes to existing applications. This is about the long-term future. This is not an effort to stop what is going on now.”

But Princeton University’s pending application to move its 91 Prospect Avenue building, the former Court Clubhouse, across the street in order to make room for construction of the “gateway” to its new Environmental Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences complex was a significant factor in instigating Monday’s proceedings.

Princeton Prospect Foundation Chairman Sandy Harrison, who has been a leading spokesperson in opposition to the University’s planned encroachments on Prospect Avenue, expressed his support of the historic district designation for Prospect and alerted the HPC to “the threat that is perceived because of what we are going through now with the Court Clubhouse controversy.  That threat is so palpable and real now, and I worry that the University is establishing a beachhead on Prospect that could threaten the clubs’ viability going forward. The next steps are moving and demolishing.”

Quoting Marvin Reed, who was Princeton Borough mayor at the time of the 1995 hearings on the subject, and Wanda Gunning, who was HPC chairwoman at the time, Zink emphasized that their warnings about the need to protect Prospect Avenue against future encroachments were “completely applicable to this present effort.”

Gunning, as reported in the May 10, 1995 Town Topics, supported designation of Prospect Avenue as a local historic district. “It is important to look at Prospect as a group, a unique configuration of fine architecture,” she was quoted as saying. “I’d like to see a really wonderful group of buildings by fine architects preserved as a group, and see the architectural heritage of Prospect Avenue become part of the town’s heritage. It is surely one of Princeton’s assets.”

Borough Council, according to the Town Topics 1995 article, instructed zoning and HPC officials to prepare an ordinance designating the area as an historic district.

Reed, as reported by The Daily Princetonian of May 8, 1995, said that the motivation behind the recommendation to designate Prospect as an historic district was “the Borough’s fear that the university would raze the eating clubs and construct other buildings in their place.”

Reed added, “The university has made major changes to the face of Prospect Ave. in the past, most obviously the Woodrow Wilson School. We’ve been told there are no plans to do so, but this adds an element of protection to the ‘Street’.”

In a July 20 phone conversation, Zink emphasized the importance of a local historic designation for Prospect Avenue.   “It’s important to try to preserve these streets that are so iconic to the history of the town,” he said. “The present situation has highlighted that Mayor Reed was prescient in his comments. Ideally Prospect would have been designated an historic district years ago.  It’s time to get this district protected.”

Zink went on to warn that Prospect Avenue would undoubtedly come under increasing threats in the future.  “Disrupting Prospect Avenue is a bridge too far. It’s impinging on what makes Princeton Princeton.”

Harrison, in a July 20 phone conversation, pointed out that Monday’s HPC proceedings were just the first round of renewed discussions on historic district designation for Club Row. He noted that “everybody on the call seemed to agree on moving forward and making this happen.”

Harrison and the PPF, along with Zink and others, will be proceeding with additional research and helping to navigate the application through the HPC process in the coming weeks and months.  Harrison said he thought the process might take six months or more to complete.

Zink, author of a highly acclaimed 2017 book on the Princeton eating clubs, is looking to also use the application process as an opportunity to highlight the interaction between the Prospect Avenue eating clubs and the Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District, where many of the clubs’ employees lived.

Harrison said that he would be collaborating with board chairs of the eating clubs and  other graduate inter-club council (GICC) members in writing a joint statement of support for the historic district designation for Prospect Avenue.  He added that all current club leadership is in agreement that the time has come for the historic designation process for Prospect Avenue to move forward.