November 24, 2021

Prospect Ave. Recommended as 21st Historic District

By Donald Gilpin

The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) at their November 15 meeting voted unanimously to recommend the creation of the Prospect Avenue Historic District as Princeton’s 21st historic district. The recommendation will go to the Princeton Planning Board and Princeton Council for approval in the coming months.

The proposed district, which includes 17 current and former undergraduate eating clubs, two residences, a monumental wall and gateway, and an apartment building, would extend from Washington Road to Murray Place. It would not include the academic buildings on the corner of Washington Road.

“The historic district designation would bring a very important level of protection to Prospect Avenue,” said Clifford Zink, a historic preservation consultant and author of The Princeton Eating Clubs. Properties included in a local historic district require review by the Princeton HPC for any alterations or additions visible from the street.

“The value of this district designation is not to freeze Prospect Avenue at some particular period, but rather to appropriately manage changes in the future so that they respect the historic significance of the street,” Zink added. “You want to manage the changes appropriately so that any changes respect history.”

The HPC resolution recommending the Prospect Avenue Historic District emphasizes the “unique and character-defining streetscape comprised of stately structures in residential appearance,” the embodiment of “many aspects of significant American and local history,” primarily involving “the eating clubs of Princeton University and the people who fostered, belonged to, worked for, associated with and even opposed them over seventeen decades since the 1850s even to the present day.”

The resolution continues to mention that “of particular note and local interest throughout this history is the significance of Princeton-area African American service staff members at all the eating clubs, who should be acknowledged as the backbone of the clubs’ success.”

The resolution also emphasizes “the architectural grandeur of the majority of the eating clubs,” describing the clubs as “a distinctive and a grand expression of the European and American revival styles prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”   

Prospect Avenue was in the news earlier this fall as Princeton University faced local resistance to its plan to demolish three Victorian houses on the north side of the street and to move the 91 Prospect former Court Club building into their place in order to make room for a pavilion entrance to their new Environmental Sciences and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (ES+SEAS) complex.

In an 11th-hour compromise before an October 21 meeting of the PPB, the University agreed not to demolish any buildings but to make room for the Court Club building on the north side of the street by moving one of the Victorian houses to a nearby site.

The University’s revised plan, quickly approved by the PPB, also included an agreement to support the creation of the new Prospect Avenue Historic District. 

Princeton Prospect Foundation Board Chair Sandy Harrison, who along with Zink presented the formal nomination of the Prospect Avenue Historic District to the HPC, noted the support of all the eating clubs as well as the University, for the historic district designation. All the buildings in the proposed district are owned by the University or by the individual eating clubs.

“It should happen early next year,” Harrison said. Getting approval from the PPB and Princeton Council, he added, “seems to be a matter of going through the wheels of government and the bureaucratic process. The historic designation would make it less likely that anyone would do anything that would be destructive to the character of the street. They’d have to get approval for it.”

He continued, “The eating clubs are unique. There isn’t anything like them. They’re worth preserving, and they are very impressive buildings — worth preserving architecturally, historically, and they’re very important to the University and to the town. The clubs will be around for a long time. They are integral to the life of the University.”

Both Zink and Harrison commended the results of more than a year of discussion, negotiation, conflict, and eventual compromise with the University.

“It’s really shown the value and importance of citizen engagement,” said Zink. “The community brought values to the situation, the values of preserving history and preserving the visual as well as the cultural history of an iconic place like Prospect Avenue.”

He continued, “As the University goes forward with continued expansion plans, hopefully from this Prospect Avenue experience the University will be more receptive to community input. That’s the hope we all have.”

Harrison added, “I’m impressed with the town. There are some really smart, talented, passionate people in town who really cared about this issue. The town really cares about its history. The best outcomes are when the University and the town engage early on and when there’s a dialogue. We actually got to a very good outcome in the end, but it would have been better, less tense, more efficient if the University and the town had engaged earlier.”