July 13, 2022

Preserving Princeton’s Unique Historic Character is a Priority All Can Embrace

To the Editor:

Princeton Council’s unanimous vote on Monday evening to adopt the ordinance establishing the Prospect Avenue Historic District is a notable community accomplishment. One year ago, a small portion of the University’s ES-SEAS development plan imperiled the unique architectural and cultural heritage of Prospect Avenue. Concerned residents and alumni formed the Save Prospect Coalition, one member started a petition eventually signed by over 1,700 people, and others proposed alternative plans to the University. Multiple people wrote letters of support and testified at Historic Preservation Commission and Planning Board hearings, where the members and staff provided everyone ample opportunity and time to express their concerns. Of particular note, HPC and PB members and Witherspoon-Jackson residents expressed the strong connections between Princeton’s historic African American neighborhood to Prospect Avenue, where many African Americans were the backbone of the eating club operations over many decades.

With encouragement from Council, University officials ultimately listened to the community and comments from the Historic Preservation Commission, and agreed to a significant compromise: to preserve the three historic houses on the north side of Prospect and restore their exteriors following National Park Service Guidelines for the Treatment of Historic Properties; to adjust the landscaping plan in front of the proposed Theorist Pavilion to be compatible with the historic streetscape; to support the designation of the Prospect Avenue Historic District; and to submit an application to the N.J. State Historic Preservation Office to expand the National Register Princeton Historic District to the north side of Prospect Avenue to include the relocated Court Clubhouse, the three houses, and the Ferris Thompson Wall and Gate designed by McKim, Mead and White. All the many people that contributed to this positive outcome are too numerous to mention here, but sincerely deserve our collective gratitude.   

The purpose of historic designations like the new Prospect Avenue Historic District is not to freeze buildings and streetscapes in one particular time, but rather to balance the needs of property owners for maintenance and upgrades with the district’s or site’s historic significance to the community and the broader common heritage. The 2012 Princeton Master Plan lists over three dozen “Suggested Historic Districts and Sites,” only two of which — Witherspoon-Jackson and now Prospect Avenue — have been designated. As town officials develop the new Master Plan with consultants and community input, the suggested historic districts and sites should be prioritized with a timeline for detailed consideration and possible designation. As development pressures continue to grow in Princeton over the coming decades, preserving our town’s unique historic character is a priority we all can embrace, for ourselves and for future generations.   

Clifford Zink
Aiken Avenue