Princeton’s Historic Preservation Commission

Maria Boyes, HPC Correspondent
November 15, 2020

Princeton is perhaps one of the best-known municipalities in New Jersey. As home to the world-renowned university evoking images of ivy-covered buildings, the town’s historic sites are iconic. These include Nassau Hall (1756), the largest of the academic buildings which briefly served as the nation’s Capital in 1783, the Thomas Clark House (1772) which operated as a dedicated field hospital during the Battle of Princeton (1777), the Morven Mansion (1730) built by Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Drumthwacket (1835), purchased by the state of New Jersey in 1966 to function as the official residence of the state’s governors.

In addition to having numerous national landmarks and encompassing every architectural style, Princeton has had many prominent residents. Presidents (James Madison, Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland), writers (Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald), and scientists (Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer), as well as the actor, activist and scholar Paul Robeson, have called Princeton home. 

Nassau Hall

In January 2013, there was an official consolidation of Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, which had completely surrounded the Borough.  Eighteen months prior, a majority of residents voted for the merger to make Princeton one municipality. As many governmental entities combined, so did the Historic Preservation Commissions, each of which had Certified Local Government (CLG) status. Recognizing them as a now new municipality, the State Historic Preservation Office has required a new application, which is currently pending.

The HPC members value the importance of working closely with the State Historic Preservation Office and have received several grants through their past CLG status. One of the more recent grants received was for an updated architectural survey for Princeton and for the King’s Highway nomination which was a collaborative effort with two other towns. This stretch of roadway, often referred to as “the Oldest Road in America,” is lined with institutions and sites that played an important role in our country’s history. In fact, Washington traveled the King’s Highway in 1789 on his inaugural procession to New York. 

Princeton was also awarded a grant from New Jersey Historic Trust for the engineering study of Mountain Lakes Dam.  Mountain Lakes is the home of the Princeton Ice Company that harvested ice for over five decades from a man-made pond, delivering blocks of ice to residents and businesses prior to electric refrigeration.  The engineering study was a critical component in the rehabilitation of the ice dam.

Mountain Lakes Dam

Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) Chair, Julie Capozzoli, has been a member of the commission since 2003, having first served in the Township.  She has a Masters Degree in Architecture and has worked at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. When asked what makes Princeton unique, Capozzoli credits the engagement of the town’s citizens for the success of the community.  “Princeton has never been just a bedroom community,” she says. “It has so many involved residents where everything is discussed.”  

This sentiment carries over when queried about best practices for the Commission. “I think we’re all very cognizant that public comment is one of the most important parts of the meeting,” says Capozzoli. In fact, she has been heartened to see that even during the pandemic, online engagement is robust.  She says, “We have plenty of participation via Zoom – for some meetings, even more so than before.  It is easier now for those with transportation or mobility issues to attend. They get sworn in by our attorney and have a chance to say what they have to say.”

With 20 historically designated districts, Princeton’s HPC reviews a good deal of applications averaging 3 or 4 per meeting. Some districts have only a handful of homes while others have several hundred. One example of a smaller district is Maybury Hill. Although the only historically significant structure is the 1725 childhood home of Joseph Hewes (signer of the Declaration of Independence), the surrounding homes, built in the 1990s, are also designated.

Elizabeth Kim, who is employed by the town as the consolidated Historic Preservation Officer (HPO) since 2014, remembers working on the Maybury Hill development decades ago. With a background as a licensed landscape architect with a concentration on historic landscape, Kim says, “We clustered the subdivision development to be sensitive to the historic estate to create more open space.”  Kim explains the importance of respecting and protecting the historic building by ensuring the new houses did not detract or overshadow the historic structure and its surrounding land.

Kim’s responsibilities include accepting and reviewing the HPC applications, writing and researching reports, and presenting them to the different boards and commissions within the town. Recommending new historic districts for the Master Plan and working to designate new historic districts are also an important role.   Much of her time is spent working with property owners, or their representatives, who need guidance on how to navigate an application in an historic district which can be quite different from other municipal applications.

Maybury Hill

When asked what makes a successful Commission, Kim credits the ordinance stating, “A strong ordinance is the foundation of a strong Commission.  It supports their ability to protect, preserve and improve on historic buildings and properties appropriately and sympathetically.  And key to accomplishing this is knowledgeable and committed Commission members, which Princeton is so fortunate to have.” In addition, she cites the importance of having support from the other departments she and the Commission works with as well as the administration.

One department that gets involved with many of the building applications is the Princeton Environmental Commission. There is an extensive environmental checklist within the zoning ordinance that must be reviewed and incorporated into the report by the HPO to ensure green and sustainable practices. Capozzoli points out that this helps to reinforce the idea of “embodied energy,” by looking at the amount of energy needed to preserve as compared to building with all new materials, which many developers would prefer to do. 

Princeton’s last district to be designated historic, the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood, was attracting developers who were demolishing old homes and replacing them with new construction. Although the buildings are architecturally modest, the neighborhood, with close proximity to the downtown and the university, is culturally significant as an historically segregated African American community. Since the designation, in 2016, developers are now encouraged to put their resources towards renovation and rehabilitation as opposed to demolition.

In 2015, when the designation of this neighborhood was being debated, there were several members of the community who attended town meetings and spoke about their experience growing up in Princeton.  These sixth and seventh generation residents highlighted the extent of the segregation. In addition to realizing that things like repaving of their streets never seemed to happen in their neighborhood, there were also memories of being chased away from the University’s gates and not being allowed to shop “uptown.”

Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church

Shirley Satterfield, a sixth-generation resident who grew up in the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood, serves on the Historic Preservation Commission and is an historian of African American life in Princeton. “This used to be a redlined neighborhood,” remembers Satterfield. “Our people were relegated to this area. So many of these buildings were homes that had their own businesses on the ground floor—a beauty parlor, a tailor, a restaurant—because we were not welcome in establishments on Nassau Street. When people wish to move into this historic neighborhood, it is important that they know and respect the rich history.”

As a consummate historian and dedicated volunteer, Satterfield was the recipient last year of an Award of Recognition by the Princeton Council, honored for “going above and beyond.” She was also one of the earliest proponents to work towards the designation of the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood as the 20th historic district. Although originally met with some resistance, the Town ultimately hired a consultant who researched the neighborhood outlining the extensive history of the area.  This report can be found on the Town’s website here.

According to the report, African Americans historically made up a sizable part of Princeton’s population, mainly through vocation, working for both Princeton’s permanent and student residents, who were predominately white.  For most of that time, Princeton’s African American population faced racism in many aspects of life, creating Witherspoon-Jackson. The report states that the people, history, architecture, and streetscape of this neighborhood remains significantly distinct from the rest of Princeton. 

Although today, the residents of Witherspoon-Jackson are from several emerging ethnic groups, the dominant character of the neighborhood was created by the African American community. This distinct history was forged by segregation. With an increased demand for labor between 1890 and 1910, the African American population doubled. Satterfield states, “African Americans were a vital part of this town. And even if they weren’t allowed to attend the University, they worked on campus as laborers and in the dining clubs as servants.” 

Parsonage of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian, Paul Robeson Birthplace

Satterfield not only grew up in the neighborhood, but she attended the “Witherspoon School for Colored Children” (later the Witherspoon Street School) until it was integrated in 1948.  As part of the “Princeton Plan” (a precursor to Brown v Board of Ed), Satterfield remembers that going to an integrated school gave her a deeper understanding of segregation as a child. Today, that elementary school is on the National Register and has been refurbished into an apartment building designed by Architect J. Robert Hiller and in no small part due to Satterfield advocating to save it.

Paul Robeson, who was born in Princeton in 1898, was the son of Reverend William Robeson, a freed slave and pastor at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Not only an accomplished actor, singer and political activist, Paul Robeson was also a scholar. As a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Valedictorian of his class at Rutgers University, Robeson was only the third African American accepted to the school. He then went on to get a law degree from Columbia University and continued to learn over 20 languages. The house where he was born on Witherspoon Street will now be designated as a Cultural Center to celebrate the legacy of his commitment to social justice and human rights with an expected opening in 2021.

“The Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood was a thriving community and I want people to remember that if it wasn’t for the struggle and pride and faith of our ancestors, the stability of this town wouldn’t be the same,” says Satterfield. “Even though they worked as butlers and maids, they still had dreams for their families in this community. “People need to know the history—not only in this community but every community in Princeton, whether designated or not.”

As Chair of the Historic Preservation Commission, Capozzoli is in complete agreement. “Although it may not have been one of the more affluent neighborhoods, and some buildings aren’t architecturally outstanding, I’m very proud of the creation of the Witherspoon-Jackson District,” says Capozzoli. “Of all the things we’ve done, this is the most significant.”

Maria Boyes is a journalist who has written for newspapers across the country and penned a column in the NJ Courier News for several years. As a member of Preservation New Jersey’s Marketing Committee and Chair of the Westfield Historic Preservation Commission, Maria values historic architecture.

She and her husband, Jim, live in a Victorian where they spend their free time, when not working on their home, volunteering for various organizations and within their community.