Historic Preservation Commission won’t endorse Princeton University plan to tear down houses

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The Historic Preservation Commission has declined to endorse Princeton University's plans to tear down three Victorian houses on Prospect Avenue and to relocate the former Court Club building across the street to the land occupied by the three houses.LEA KAHN/STAFF
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The Historic Preservation Commission has declined to endorse Princeton University's plans to tear down three Victorian houses on Prospect Avenue and to relocate the former Court Club building across the street to the land occupied by the three houses.LEA KAHN/STAFF

The Historic Preservation Commission has declined to endorse Princeton University’s plans to tear down three Victorian houses on Prospect Avenue and to relocate the former Court Club building across the street to the land occupied by the three houses.

Princeton University officials outlined their plans in a courtesy review at the Historic Preservation Commission’s June 7 meeting. The commission, which is an advisory board to the Princeton Planning Board, will submit its report to the board.

Princeton University is seeking the Planning Board’s approval to demolish the houses at 110, 114 and 116 Prospect Ave. It wants to move the former Court Club eating club building, currently located at 91 Prospect Ave., across the street onto land that would be vacant after the houses are torn down.

A public hearing on the application is set for the Planning Board’s June 17 meeting.

A petition circulated by opponents of the plan has been signed by nearly 700 people as of June 9, since it was posted online last week. The goal is to reach 1,000 signatures. It is available at change.org

Princeton University also has filed an application for major site plan approval with the Planning Board to develop a new Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Science on the site of the Court Club building. The new buildings would wrap around the rear of the adjacent eating clubs on Prospect Avenue.

Demolition of the three Victorian houses is key to the university’s planned development of the Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Science complex, also clearing the way to move the Court Club building across the street.

The former Court Club now houses Princeton University’s Office of the Dean of Research. The Court Club, which was one of several eating clubs on Prospect Avenue, was disbanded in 1964.

The eating clubs, which are not affiliated with Princeton University, historically have met students’ needs for food and social activities. Their function is similar to fraternities and sororities.

The former Court Club building at 91 Prospect Ave. is included in the Princeton Historic District, which is listed on the state and national Register of Historic Places. The district, which was created in 1975, encompasses much of the former Princeton Borough and the campuses of Princeton University and the Princeton Theological Seminary – including the eating clubs on Prospect Avenue.

While the houses at 110-116 Prospect Ave. are not included in the Princeton Historic District, the Princeton Community Master Plan’s Historic Preservation Element recommended creating the Club Row Historic District. It would be a local historic district to include buildings on both sides of Prospect Avenue. It has not been enacted, however.

Princeton University Architect Ronald McCoy told the Historic Preservation Commission at its June 7 meeting that the university has a track record of strong stewardship of historic properties, and pointed to 80 properties that it has preserved over the past 20 years.

Such stewardship is managing change, not freezing properties in time, McCoy said. Historic preservation is not an “either/or proposition,” he said, and the university’s relocation of the Court Club needs to be seen in the context of its overall record of stewardship.

Princeton University prefers to “rehab” buildings if there is a “reasonably good fit” between the building and the function, McCoy said. But it is not possible to do so if there is an “unviable fit” between the programmatic needs and the building, which is the issue with the Court Club building, he said.

Choices have to be made, and it was decided to move the Court Club building from its home at 91 Prospect Ave. across the street, McCoy said. He pointed out that the three Victorian houses have consistently been omitted from consideration for inclusion in a historic district – local, state and national.

In a memorandum to the Historic Preservation Commission, municipal Historic Preservation Officer Elizabeth Kim wrote that the Court Club was founded in 1921 and the building was constructed in 1927. The university acquired the property after the club closed down in 1964, and it is now used as the Office of the Dean of Research.

The three houses at 110-116 Prospect Ave. were private homes that were moved from the south side of Prospect Avenue across the street to their current locations on the north side of the street in the 1920s, Kim wrote.

The house at 110 Prospect Ave. was built in 1900 and served briefly as the home of the Key and Seal Club, and later as the home of the Arbor Club, Kim wrote. It was later subdivided into five rental apartments after its move across the street.

The houses at 114 Prospect Ave. and 116 Prospect Ave. were built in the Victorian Queen Ann architectural style between 1890 and 1900, Kim wrote. The house at 114 Prospect has retained most of its architectural integrity, but the house at 116 Prospect Ave. has been altered, she wrote.

Kim wrote that demolishing the three houses means three “viable housing buildings” will be removed and that it will weaken the historic streetscape. Collectively, they contribute to the proposed Club Row Historic District as envisioned in the Princeton Community Master Plan.

“Not every building has to – nor should – look like Nassau Hall to warrant preservation attention,” Kim wrote, making the case for preserving the houses.

Moving the Court Club at 91 Prospect Ave. across the street – between the adjacent Prospect Apartments building and a parking garage at the rear – “will isolate the building with no immediate connection to the other clubhouses (eating clubs),” Kim wrote.

Attendees at the June 7 meeting were divided on the plan to tear down the houses and to relocate the Court Club building, and expressed their opinions publicly.

Clifford Zink, who is a historic preservation consultant and the author of “The Princeton Eating Clubs,” argued against the demolition and relocation plan, along with Princeton Prospect Foundation members and Princeton University graduates Sandy Harrison and Karl Pettit.

Zink said that according to the National Park Service guidelines, “Properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places should be moved only when there is no feasible alternative for historic preservation and only when the proposed (relocation) site does not possess historical significance that would be adversely affected by the intrusion of the structure.”

Moving the Court Club out of the Princeton Historic District would remove its National Register of Historic Places listing, Zink said. It would also create “a false sense of historical development,” he said.

“All of us want Princeton University to succeed,” Zink said. There is enough vacant land in the area where the new buildings are proposed so that it would not be necessary to move the Court Club and tear down the three houses, he said.

Several residents concurred, and some expressed concern that it might lead to Princeton University demolishing more buildings that it owns and expanding further into residential neighborhoods – an assertion that Princeton University officials rejected.

But there was at least one supporter for the project among the attendees, as Prospect Avenue resident Melanie Stein said the planned expansion is “exciting” and “inspirational.” She said the three houses do not appear to be “particularly historic.”

Stein, who is a Princeton University graduate, said she was looking forward to the results from the theoretical and experimental research that would occur in the Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Science complex.

After the public comment portion of the meeting was closed, Princeton Historic Commission members debated the issue among themselves. The consensus was not to endorse the proposed demolition and relocation plan.

Commission member Elric Endersby said he was not impressed by the university’s plans and the proposed architectural style of the new buildings. He encouraged Princeton University officials to revisit and scrutinize its proposed buildings.

Endersby agreed with attendees over concerns that it would lead to more encroachment into residential neighborhoods. He also said that the clubhouses provide a transition between the Princeton University campus and the residential area east of the clubhouses.