April 4, 2012

Morven Will Bring Its Plans for Expansion Before the State Historic Sites Council in Trenton


MORE SPACE FOR MORVEN: The interpretive center proposed for the Morven property would house a large gathering space, offices, and a small kitchen, and be open to the surrounding gardens. (Rendering Courtesy of GWWO Inc. Architects)

When officials from Historic Morven Inc. appear before the New Jersey Historic Sites Council in Trenton on April 19, they will be seeking final approval for an ambitious expansion plan that has been years in the making. Designs for an interpretive center and expanded garden on the 4.5 acre site have been tweaked and scaled down since the master plan was first put before the Council in 2005.

The revised scheme, as designed by GWWO Inc. Architects of Baltimore, places the two-level interpretive center to the right of the historic Morven house, with its rear facing Borough Hall. A large gathering space, lobby, gift shop, and small kitchen will be on the main level of the long, low building. Offices will be underground.

The functions of the Morven house will change as part of the plan. Built before the American Revolution by Richard Stockton, signer of the Declaration of Independence, the historic house was occupied by General Robert Wood Johnson from 1928 to 1944 and then home to five New Jersey governors between 1945 and 1982.

“The most precious piece of our collection is the house itself,” says Clare Smith, Morven’s director. “There has been a lot of wear and tear since we opened as a museum in 2004. We will still use the house but to a lesser degree, for tours, small receptions, displaying the permanent collection, and changing exhibitions.”

On a recent balmy afternoon, Ms. Smith sat on the patio of Morven’s restored pool house to talk about the expansion project. Built in 1941 by Robert Wood Johnson and renovated as part of the $5.8 million restoration of Morven that began in 2004, the pool house was the site of many lavish parties attended by such guests as Ethel Kennedy, Princess Grace, and Fidel Castro. The modernist, white building was the last to be restored as part of the 2004 project.

“The pool house interprets Robert Wood Johnson and that period of history when the governors lived here. It was definitely an under-interpreted but important period of Morven’s history,” says Ms. Smith, pointing out the lawn where the tennis court once stood. What was once the pool is currently being designed as a water feature, which will feature fountains and retain its original apple shape.

Other buildings on the property that have been renovated include the carriage house, which was restored to its 1890’s vintage and is now a garden support building; and the old ice house, circa 1850, which is currently the gift shop but will become a classroom once the gift shop moves to the new interpretive center. The parking lot has been redesigned and will have 63 spaces.

GWWO Inc. Architects is not the first firm to have tackled the expansion of Morven. Renowned architect Rafael Vinoly, originally engaged, suggested putting the interpretive center in front of the house. “The building has been imagined in many different areas,” said Ms. Smith. “Another architect wanted to do it in two parts, on either side of the house.”

The site finally selected had already been approved once GWWO, which designed the new orientation center at historic Mt. Vernon in Virginia, came on board in 2008. “There was a requirement already in place to break up the massing and volume of the building,” said project architect Nancy Nes. “And that included the roof line, which couldn’t be taller than the window sill of the second floor windows in the main house.”

Like the building at Mt. Vernon, Morven’s new interpretive center will be modern in style. “It follows the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for [adding to] historic buildings. They encourage you to design something of your own time, so there is no confusion over what’s historic and what is not,” Ms. Nes said. “This is a contemporary building, but it’s fairly simple. We’ve done a lot of things to bring it down to the scale of the garden.”

The Morven estate lies in Princeton Borough, but it is owned and operated by the State of New Jersey. So it is the State’s Historic Sites Council, rather than the governing bodies of Princeton, that will decide whether the plan can proceed. Last month, Ms. Smith was among Morven representatives who appeared before Princeton’s Planning Board for a courtesy review.

“Even though we’re not under their jurisdiction, we wanted to hear what they had to say,” Ms. Smith said. “And the New Jersey Historic Sites Council wants the approval of the Historic Princeton Review Committee and the Planning Board. It’s helpful. We are part of the community, and we need the community as much as the community needs us.”

After receiving some recommendations from Planning Board members about the location of parking spaces, identification of specimen trees, and interpretive signage, the Morven representatives heard from some neighbors on Boudinot Street, which borders the property. Resident Priscilla Russell expressed concerns about storm runoff, and Oscar Newton said he was worried about the gravel maintenance area during construction.

Ms. Smith said Morven officials have made an effort to keep the neighbors informed about the directions the project is taking. “We had invited about 180 households to a meeting, and the few people who did come were very gracious,” she said. “We go out of our way to collaborate with them on the details, within reason.”

Plans call for archaeological monitoring during the construction process. “Research has already been done, and one of the reasons they picked this site was that there wasn’t that much there,” said Ms. Nes. “Actually, there is more where the parking lot will be. There is an old greenhouse under the parking lot.”

Funding issues in 2010 slowed down the project, but Historic Morven Inc. is ready to proceed should final approval be granted by the state review board. “We’ve kept moving, but not really knowing when it would come to fruition,” said Ms. Smith. “Luckily, we have a supportive board who understand that it has to be done sequentially. Once we’re approved, we can do it — but again, in a very deliberate manner.”