November 8, 2017

Nonprofit Group Files Plans To Renovate Robeson House

HONORING ROBESON AND THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Paul Robeson’s birthplace at 110 Witherspoon Street is to be renovated as a permanent tribute to the actor and activist, as well as a community resource for nonprofits. (Photo by Douglas Wallack)

By Anne Levin

When historian Shirley Satterfield leads tours of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, she makes it a point to stop at five sites related to actor and activist Paul Robeson. One of them is Robeson’s birthplace, a simple house at 110 Witherspoon Street.

“What amazes me,” Satterfield said this week, “is how many people never heard of Paul Robeson — even students from Princeton University.”

That should change once the house is turned into a permanent tribute to Robeson’s life and legacy, as well as a community resource and gathering place. A nonprofit group known as The Paul Robeson House has filed an application with the town of Princeton for historic preservation and zoning approval. Efforts to raise $1 million for the project are underway, but a major campaign will be launched once approvals are obtained.

The house dates from the 1850s or slightly earlier, said architect and former Borough Councilman Kevin Wilkes, who, like Satterfield, is on the group’s board of directors. The nonprofit will manage the site. “Use of the building will change from a single family residence to a business use for our nonprofit on the first floor and ground floor,” he said. “Residential use will continue on the second floor. We do need a variance to get that approved.”

The ground floor will be a gallery open to the public, telling the history of the Robeson family and the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, where Robeson’s father was pastor. According to the group’s website, the site will serve as an “open house for the discussion, review and resolution of concerns in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood with special emphasis on resident concerns, immigration issues, cultural, and social services.”

There will be two offices on the first floor, plus a 500-square-foot meeting room that can be rented by other nonprofits. The second floor apartments will have a separate entrance. Wilkes said the building will undergo a significant renovation. “There is a failing foundation and roof, and there are some rotted walls,” he said. “We will completely replace all the systems in the building and we’ll add fire sprinklers. This is a landmark and a treasure, so we will have commercial-grade systems to make sure that it is here for the next 100 years.”

The home is at the corner of Witherspoon and Green streets. Originally a double house, it served as a rooming house after the Robesons moved out when Paul was nine, Satterfield said. “It is extremely important because Paul Robeson and his father were such noted and respected people in the community.”

Satterfield’s grandmother, a teacher, taught Robeson in primary school. The singer, actor, lawyer, and activist was born in 1898 and died in 1976.

His birthplace is “a good quality building, but it is not an architectural gem,” said Wilkes. “It is completely significant because of its social and cultural history and the people who lived there. It is a place of primary importance in the history of the neighborhood.”

Approval could take six months. “Construction will be dependent on fundraising,” said Wilkes. “We have a little less than 10 percent in the bank today. We’re looking to raise $1 million to fund construction and a modest endowment to maintain the building going forward.”