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Planning Board to continue hearing on Princeton University application regarding Victorian homes

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.

The Princeton Planning Board will pick up where it left off in its consideration of a proposal to demolish three Victorian houses at 110-116 Prospect Ave. and to move the former Court Club eating club building at 91 Prospect Ave. across the street when the board meets again July 8.

The Princeton Planning Board started its public hearing on Princeton University’s application for minor site plan approval to move the building at 91 Prospect Ave. across Prospect Avenue and onto the land occupied by the three houses at its June 17 meeting, but it ran out of time to complete the public hearing.

The proposal is key to Princeton University’s planned development of the Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Science complex, which would partially sit on the land occupied by the former Court Club building.

Princeton University Architect Ronald McCoy Jr. told the Planning Board at its June 17 meeting that the purpose of the application is to preserve the building at 91 Prospect Ave. The choice is to preserve the building or demolish it.

“In our evaluation, we believe saving 91 Prospect Ave. is a higher priority” than preserving the three Victorian houses that are owned by Princeton University, McCoy said.

It is not possible to incorporate the former Court Club building at 91 Prospect Ave. into the new buildings that would make up the Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Science complex, McCoy said.

“We know when it will work and when it will not work,” McCoy said.

Addressing concerns that demolishing the houses would set a precedent, McCoy described the plan as “a once-in-275 years” project.

Princeton University was founded as The College of New Jersey in 1746 in Elizabeth and moved to the village of Princeton several years later.

Although the Court Club building is included in the Princeton Historic District, which is listed on the state and national Register of Historic Places, the Victorian houses are not included in the district, said architectural historian Meredith Bzdak, who testified for Princeton University.

The three houses had been located on the south side of Prospect Avenue and were moved to the opposite side of the street in the 1920s to make way for the eating clubs that line Prospect Avenue, Bzdak said. They are typical examples of Victorian architecture and retain varying degrees of architectural integrity, she said.

It was pointed out that although there has been discussion over the years to create a local historic district to include the three Victorian houses, no action was taken. McCoy said it would be “inappropriate” to deny a property owner of the use of their property just because a district was considered 30 years ago.

When Planning Board Vice Chairman Louise Wilson asked McCoy whether Princeton University had considered moving the houses and using them again for housing – they are vacant and have been used for office space – he said it was not a “viable prospect.”

Moving the houses would be “extremely expensive,” McCoy said.

Princeton University offered several houses on Alexander Street to anyone who would want to move them when it was building the Lewis Center for the Arts, but there were no takers, he said.

Opponents of the university’s plan were given time to offer comments, including Sandy Harrison of the Princeton Prospect Foundation. The group’s primary role is the preservation and restoration of the eating clubs, and to educate the public about their history and architecture. The eating clubs are social organizations, similar to fraternities and sororities.

Moving the Court Club building out of the Princeton Historic District would diminish the historical context of Prospect Avenue, Harrison said. It would also set the precedent of establishing a “beach head” on Prospect Avenue that could lead to more demolitions, he said.

Architectural historian Clifford Zink, who wrote a book about the history and architecture of the eating clubs, agreed with Harrison that moving the Court Club building would diminish its historic significance and open the door to more such actions.

While Princeton University officials may say there are no plans to demolish more houses, this project would “open the floodgates” for the university, Zink said. “Everyone knows” that Princeton University has long-term plans that stretch out to 10 or 20 or 30 years, he said.

Zink said there is enough land next to the Court Club building to accommodate the new complex. The university only started to think seriously about the project after he, Harrison and Karl Pettit – who also serves on the board of the Princeton Prospect Foundation – reached out to officials, he said.

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