January 13, 2016

New Home for Historical Society Makes Use of Its Rural Location


A COMMUNITY RESOURCE: The late-18th-century house at the Updike Farmstead, now the permanent home of the Historical Society of Princeton, is a scenic location for weddings as well as a repository for the area’s history. The HSP has reopened after consolidating its operations at the six-acre site.

Twelve years ago, the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP) purchased the six-acre Updike Farmstead, a bucolic spread that extends behind a late-18th-century white farmhouse on Quaker Road. The HSP’s main headquarters had been at Bainbridge House, on Nassau Street, since 1967. But once the purchase of the Updike Farmstead was completed, a plan was developed to make the more rural setting the HSP’s permanent location.

The project has finally come to fruition. After being closed for a few months, the HSP has reopened at the farm with new exhibits inside and an ambitious plan for the green acreage that surrounds it. A new multimedia exhibit, “The Einstein Salon” with the scientist’s own furniture from his Mercer Street home, and an information-packed display about mathematician John von Neumann including components from the original MANIAC computer, are among the items of interest.

“Bainbridge House was a great location, and Princeton University, which owns the building, was always so nice to us,” said Eve Mandel, director of programs and visitor services. “But here, we own the site. The resources are all here. We can really throw ourselves into planning and utilizing this beautiful landscape, which is so historic in its own right.”

Listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places, Updike Farmstead is on land that was once called Stony Brook, lying along the route that George Washington and his troops followed on their way to engage British soldiers at the neighboring Clarke farm. Benjamin Clarke owned 1,200 acres, which was divided into smaller parcels and remained in the family for several generations.

George Furman Updike purchased nearly 200 acres in 1892 for his farm. The Updike family sold 184 of those acres to the neighboring Institute for Advanced Study in 1969 on the condition that it be used as farmland. Stanley and Sarah Updike, who were brother and sister, lived on the remaining six acres until both died in 2002. The HSP purchased the farm from a descendant of the family.

After renovating the property with the help of a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust, the HSP opened the site in 2011. Operations were divided between the Bainbridge House location until this month, when everything was finally consolidated. The University plans to turn Bainbridge House, which served until 1967 as headquarters for the Princeton Public Library, into a cultural and visitors center.

Ms. Mandel is particularly fond of “Mary Watts’ Store,” one of two paintings by Princeton artist Rex Goreleigh in the HSP’s collection. The painting hangs in the museum’s front entrance next to a photo collage by John Emerick of the general store, that for many years was a fixture on Route 206 near Cherry Valley Road. “Anyone who lived in Princeton up until the store was torn down in 1986 will recognize it,” she said. “I’m especially glad that we can exhibit the painting and the collage together.”

Mr. von Neumann is the first subject for the Innovators Gallery, a rotating display about Princeton’s creative minds. The HSP worked with the archivist from the Institute for Advanced Study to obtain the pieces of the original MANIAC computer — the first programmable, stored memory computing device — and the mathematician’s daughter loaned his Medal of Freedom and a selection of photographs.

The Princeton Innovators Portrait Wall spotlights architect Michael Graves, literary figure Sylvia Beach, engineer Canvass White, entrepreneur Christine Moore Howell, survey sampling pioneer George Gallup, and astrophysicist John Norris Bahcall. The “Princeton’s Portrait” across the hall is a photograph exhibit of early 20th century rural life in Princeton. In addition, there is a group of photos of Updike Farmstead taken by the Princeton Photography Club in 2012.

The Historical Society is continuing its walking tours of downtown Princeton. They will be given virtually this month and next. The regular tours will resume in March starting, as usual, outside Bainbridge House.

Future plans for the Updike site include completing the renovation of the barn. A new roof and foundation are already in place, thanks to Baxter Construction. “They painstakingly removed all of the original stones, poured a foundation, and then replaced the stones,” said Ms. Mandel. The longterm goal is to put up a new building to house the HSP’s collection, which is now stored in a warehouse at Carnegie Center.

“What I like about being here is that it fosters an idea of community and openness,” Ms. Mandel said. “Kids from Trenton come here and experience nature. People who grew up in Princeton get married here. It changes our audience in a way. We want the community to come out here and use our space.”