PRINCETON: The power of education attracts ETS and its employees to Robeson House renovation

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By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
During the week, Rob Forsell can be found at his job at Educational Testing Service doing work that does not require him to stand outside under the sun like he was doing in Princeton on Thursday.
He and 15 other employees from ETS spent part or all of the day landscaping and doing other tasks to clean up the outside of the Paul Robeson House, the 19th-century-home being renovated, at the corner of Witherspoon and Green streets.
ETS encourages its employees like Mr. Forsell to do community service, even providing paid time off for them to do so. Maria Hazell, a community relations associate with ETS, said the organization has an entire center devoted to this kind of work. She said ETS has relationships with nonprofits in Mercer County and seeks to connect employees with opportunities to serve.
“So we’re involved with this project because we find that it has great significance to this community, to the Princeton area,” she said. “Our employees find it very meaningful.”
In all, there were two work shifts — in the morning and afternoon. Ms. Hazell said her organization shares a “common value” with Mr. Robeson, an entertainer and social activist who graduated from Rutgers and Columbia universities, “in his commitment to education.”
“He really believed in the power of education, being that he was a scholar himself,” she said. “So our belief in the importance of equity and excellence in education really aligns with what he was all about. And this is why we were so attracted to this project.”
The arrangement to bring in ETS came through a former ETS employee reaching out to her old employer to learn what kind of help it could provide for a major renovation of the house.
Denyse Leslie, a member of the Paul Robeson House Management Advisory Committee, said she got in touch with ETS to understand how its corporate giving program worked. She and others have a vision for turning the house into a community resource center with meeting rooms, offices and temporary lodging. So far, however, the group has raised only about 10 percent of the money it needs.
“The challenge is that we need to raise the money for further renovation,” said Ms. Leslie, who put the fundraising goal at $750,000. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
What eventually became one house used to be two houses located side by side in the 19th century, according to Ben Colbert, chairman of the Robeson House board. Mr. Robeson was born in, in 1898, and, for a short time, lived in the residence that would have been on the right-hand side. There are no pictures of what the residence looked like back then, however.
The house was the manse, or pastor’s home, for the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, where Mr. Robeson’s father, William, led the congregation from 1880 to 1901, said architect and Robeson House board member Kevin Wilkes. The house eventually passed out of the church’s ownership for most of the 20th century, he said.
“The church was not able to continue its ownership after the Robesons moved out,” said Mr. Wilkes, a former borough councilman.
The congregation, however, repurchased the property in 2005. Renovations began in February, and are expected to take a couple of years, Mr. Wilkes said.