In a move that architectural experts say signals an increasing recognition and appreciation of mid-century suburban development, a firm contracted by the Princeton Township Historic Preservation Commission has recommended that a cluster of 34 homes in the Township's Littlebrook section be designated as historic.
The neighborhood, 34 houses developed along Deer Path and Clover Lane between 1954 and 1955, was first publicly identified as a possible historic district by the HPC in 2005, when commissioners began responding to a groundswell of concern stemming from a tear-down, and subsequent worries that any new homes would be built in a form departing from the typical neighborhood style.
The firm, the Metuchen-based Arch2, Inc, determined that neighborhood's primary structural characteristics: one-story rectangular ranches; horizontal siding; low-pitched gable, butterfly, or flat roofs; carports; window placement; as well as landscaped lots set back from the street, were worth preserving. Nancy Zerbe, an architectural historian who served as the study's principal investigator, added that the neighborhood represented "an unusual demonstration of mid-century consumer design and mass production, as well as mid-century ideas about Modernism."
In an acknowledgement of concerns involving developmental restrictions and possible infringement of property owners' rights, the report encourages HPC to accept the fact that individual houses will be altered. "In making review decisions on what changes are acceptable, the Commission should focus on preserving, to the extent possible, each structure's extant character- defining features."
The HPC will likely hold one or a series of as-yet-determined meetings with neighbors following the release of the Arch2 report. Township Committee will make the final ruling on the district's candidacy for historic designation.
However, a dialogue has already begun that is almost guaranteed to accompany the Deer Path-Clover Lane process regarding the implementation of Neighborhood Conservation Districts, a form of overlay zoning that sets neighborhood standards, but is not as stringent as the stipulations affecting historic districts. That initiative, put forth by Township Committeeman Chad Goerner, has been reviewed by both the Township attorney and the planning department, and will likely play a pivotal role in upcoming deliberations.
"It's important to achieve a consensus among neighbors," said planning director Lee Solow Monday, adding that there are other zoning techniques available at the Township's disposal that could be employed in lieu of historic designation. Robert Von Zumbrusch, an HPC commissioner, said that a defining line should be established early, so as not to confuse the process. "If it's going to be historic, it has to be along federal standards," he said, pointing to U.S. Department of the Interior guidelines. "But if it's something else, we need to figure that out so everyone gets the same story."
The original subdivision property was part of the former Princeton Preparatory School campus, which declared bankruptcy in the 1930s and was obtained by the Princeton Bank and Trust, and later sold to Edmund Cook, who had been developing single houses along Rollingmead throughout the 1940s.
According to the report, in 1954 Mr. Cook had come to an agreement with architects Herbert Kendall and David Savage (who had designed developments along Cuyler Road and Ewing Street), to build the 34-house development with various restrictions, including building houses no taller than one-and-a-half stories, and building no closer than 10 feet to any lot line. Additionally, total building area could not exceed 40 percent of the total lot land. While these binding stipulations were set at the time, they mostly expired on January 1, 1966.
Some of the more disturbing elements of the original deed stipulations included several covenants, such as selling to only those of the "Caucasian race." Those restrictions, no longer factors, could have been tied to public outcry of Rollingmead and Snowden Lane residents objecting to smaller lots within the area.
The development also prompted the Township to pass its "no look-alike" ordinance in August 1954. That code, however, was implemented after Mr. Savage received approval for the development.
At the time, a listing in Town Topics had the houses valued at $19,990 (with only a $1,000 down payment for veterans) according to the report, which cited an advertisement heralding the new houses as "the ultimate in contemporary design" and mentioning various features including glass walls to "make the outdoors a part of your design for living."
While the Township's Historic Preservation Commission has yet to set a date, commissioners identified May as a possible date for public review of the report.
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