July 27, 2022

Momos Seek to Raze and Rebuild on Witherspoon

PROPOSED DESIGN: This rendering from Dowling Studios shows the vision of restaurateurs Carlo and Raoul Momo for 70-74 Witherspoon Street, where two 19th century buildings currently house Terra Momo Bread Company and A Taste of Cuba.

By Anne Levin

At an upcoming meeting of Princeton’s Planning Board, the future of a corner of Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place will be considered. The property, at 70-74 Witherspoon, was the subject of a “courtesy review” held by the town’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) on July 18.

The owners, restaurateurs Raoul and Carlo Momo (CRX Associates), plan to tear down two 19th century buildings at the site, home for the past few decades to Terra Momo Bread Company and A Taste of Cuba cigar parlor. They propose to replace them with a three-story, mixed use project containing a restaurant/wine bar, bakery, and gourmet market on the first floor, and apartments on the two upper levels. The architect is Leslie Dowling, wife of Carlo Momo.

The corner has a distinctive history, but is not officially designated historic. From 1931 to 1976, it was home to a beauty salon run by Virginia Mills, whose husband was the first Black postman in Princeton. Toto’s Market, which closed in 1987 after 75 years, was also located there.

Before offering their own comments, members of the HPC heard from the Momos’ attorney Tom Letizia, and Carlo Momo. Letizia asserted that the buildings are going to be demolished no matter what, and there was no legal basis for the review because the buildings are not mentioned in the town’s master plan.

“However, we are here in good faith, and hoping that with some discussion, perhaps we can incorporate something into the plan that will commemorate the history [of the site],” he said. “I think there are ways we can show evidence of that history, and tell the public who will be customers of this new restaurant — and even the apartment tenants above — about the history that occurred on this property.”

Carlo Momo said that since CRX Associates bought the buildings nearly 25 years ago, neighboring Princeton Public Library and the Arts Council of Princeton were reconstructed, the Residences at Palmer Square was built, and the site housing the restaurants Elements and Mistral underwent a substantial reconstruction. The presence of dumpsters, closings of Witherspoon Street, and other factors related to these projects caused major disruptions and financial strain for the two businesses.

The strain continues with the impending construction of residences on the lot known as Griggs Corner. “We have been very patient and supportive. We have carefully considered the viability of the building[s],” Momo said. “We have decided it is the best time to undergo a complete rebuild. We very much support somehow commemorating the history, whether through some storytelling with the building, on the building, or some signage in the little park. But the building is in a terrible, terrible state, and needs to be addressed.”

Members of the HPC said they understood the situation but regret the loss of the buildings. “I understand Carlo’s point of view, but to me it’s still a loss,” said Roger Shatzkin. “I’m heartened by the idea of some type of historical memory of the building, and maybe we can add that to our letter. But looking north from Hulfish Street, this is going to be the new Princeton. Looking south, they are the last remnant of 19th century Princeton in that area, and it will be gone forever.”

Shirley Satterfield, who grew up in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood and remembers the beauty salon, suggested the façade of the building be maintained, as it has been with the renovation of the Paul Robeson House nearby. “All of our establishments are being replaced by businesses, and I’m just concerned we are losing our history,” she said. “Those of you who haven’t grown up in Princeton, and didn’t go through a segregated Princeton, and couldn’t do certain things because they were redlined — you don’t care. You should keep not only the memory, but part of those buildings.”

Elric Endersby said he wondered if 74 Witherspoon Street could be raised one level, with the restaurant under the historic façade. He also suggested that the buildings be moved further north on the street. David Schure said there is a difference between a historic plaque and an actual structure. “The suggestion of a plaque — I think we are better than that,” he said. “It’s an afterthought.”

Speaking a few days after the meeting, Raoul Momo said the decision to demolish and rebuild has been something the brothers have been considering for years. “We are very much in favor of historic preservation,” he said. “If this could have been restored to be a viable structure, we absolutely would do that. But it is unstable. It has deteriorated beyond its life.”