July 18, 2012

Two Olden Street Houses Are Demolished, To Be Replaced by Visiting Scholars’ Apartments

TOPPLING THE WALLS: Demolition of two residential buildings on Olden Street clears the way for construction of a new apartment house for visiting scholars. The buildings, boarded up for years, once served as apartments for Princeton University students, among other uses. (Photo by Jeff Tryon)

A pair of boarded-up buildings long considered an eyesore on Olden Street are being demolished to make room for a new apartment house for visiting faculty members at Princeton University. Cranes have been busy for several days knocking down two houses that have a long history in the community, including years as apartments and, at one time, a kosher dining place for University students.

In their place on the northwest corner of Olden and William streets will rise Olden House, a three-story complex of 18 studio and one-bedroom dwellings designed by local architect/developer J. Robert Hillier (a Town Topics shareholder), who is a graduate of the University and a visiting lecturer in its school of architecture. The building has been designed with low-flow plumbing fixtures to reduce water consumption, building finishes using sustainable products, an energy-efficient HVAC system, and energy-efficient lighting.

“These are small but complete apartments with washers, dryers, kitchenettes, and fully handicapped access,” Mr. Hillier said. “The key to our design is that everyone has gotten used to a vacant lot on the corner, and we are preserving a piece of that. The interesting thing architecturally is that we had to do a somewhat institutional building, but also a residential building in a residential neighborhood. So we were working between two types of buildings.”

The proportion and the arrangement of the windows is “very residential,” Mr. Hillier said. “All of the University buildings are brick, but we’re whitewashing this instead, so it will have much more of a residential feel. The wood screen is sustainable wood, and it serves as a rain screen where it becomes almost like a trellis. So it will feel very airy. It’s at the corner, so we wanted to make sure that the building was inviting, not heavy.”

Visiting scholars will use the apartments for anywhere from a month to a year. Since the building is close to campus, residents will be able to walk to destinations. “This means we don’t need as much parking as a usual apartment building would need,” Mr. Hillier said. “We will have a Zip car on the site.”

Mr. Hillier’s firm is leasing the land from the University, and will operate the building for them. It will be a tax-paying entity [the University does a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT].

The Hillier firm and University officials met with neighborhood residents during the past two years on three occasions. “We wanted to make sure we were doing something they would be comfortable with,” Mr. Hillier said. “They were happy to see the buildings go.”

Watching the demolition of the houses — one numbered 13 and 15 Olden Street; the other 17, 19 and 21 — with some regret was Alfred Kahn, who owned the buildings and rented them out until the University purchased them from him 13 years ago. “I was there when they were tearing them down,” Mr. Kahn said Tuesday. “To see them come down was a little bit upsetting to me. I remember each and every room, and who the kids were that lived in them.”

Mr. Kahn, who owned the Abel Bagel shop on Witherspoon Street and still owns a residential building on Leigh Avenue, said his father Benjamin Kahn bought the Olden Street buildings in the early 1950’s. “They were probably built around the turn of the century. They were always occupied by local people,” he said. “I started managing them in the early 1970’s. I rented them to students. The reason the University wanted them is that they became fraternity houses, and they frowned upon that. They bought them and boarded them up.”

At one time, Mr. Kahn and his family lived at 21 Olden Street. In addition to Yavneh House, the University’s kosher dining facility, and apartments, the buildings also served as headquarters for the New Jersey Monthly magazine and the Princeton Review, he said. “They were founded in those houses. And a lot of local kids who went to Princeton University lived in them.”

A third house and garage on the property were taken down more than 15 years ago. Estimated completion of Olden House is summer 2013.