Prospect Avenue Historic District endorsed by commission

LEA KAHN/STAFF

The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission has recommended creating the Prospect Avenue Historic District, centered on the undergraduate eating clubs that line Prospect Avenue between Washington Road and Murray Place.

The commission voted unanimously to recommend creating the local historic district – which would be the town’s 21st local historic district – to the Princeton Council and the Princeton Planning Board at a special meeting Aug. 30.

The Princeton Council would have the final say.

The proposed local historic district would encompass a portion of Prospect Avenue, beginning at Washington Road and stopping at Murray Place on the north side of the street, with the exception of the academic buildings on the corner of Washington Road.

On the south side of the street, it would include all of the eating club buildings, starting at Washington Road, and stopping two lots short of Fitzrandolph Road.

It would include the 15 undergraduate eating clubs – of which 11 are still used for that purpose by Princeton University students – and three Victorian houses at 110 Prospect Ave., 114 Prospect Ave., and 116 Prospect Ave. The three-story brick apartment building on the corner of Prospect Avenue and Murray Place would be included, too.

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

The proposed district would include the Ferris Thompson Wall and gateway, which led to athletic fields on the north side of Prospect Avenue. The former athletic fields have been redeveloped for other uses by Princeton University.

However, creating the Prospect Avenue Historic District would not affect a pending application before the Princeton Planning Board that calls for relocating the former Court Club at 91 Prospect Ave. and demolishing the three Victorian houses on the north side of the street.

Princeton University is seeking approval to move the former Court Club building across the street to the site of the trio of Victorian houses, and to build its planned Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences on the former Court Club site.

Clifford Zink, who is a historic preservation consultant and the author of “The Princeton Eating Clubs,” said the Prospect Avenue historic district was first proposed in 1992. The Princeton Community Master Plan’s Historic Preservation Element recommended creating the Club Row Historic District, but no action was taken.

Most of the area of Prospect Avenue was included in the larger Princeton Historic District, which was entered into the New Jersey Register of Historic Places in 1973 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, Zink said.

Unlike the state and national registers, a property included in a local historic district would require a review by the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission for alterations or additions visible from the street.

In support of the proposed Prospect Avenue Historic District, Zink outlined its significance in an Aug. 20 report to the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission. The report also provided details on each of the eating clubs, including when they were built and the name of the architect who designed them.

“Princeton’s eating clubs transformed a street that began with faculty residences and small pattern book houses into a statement of the wealth and taste of undergraduates and their mentors over five decades,” Zink wrote. “Since the construction of the first clubhouse in 1883, Prospect Avenue has been the center of undergraduate social life and collaboration between undergraduates and alumni that continues to this day.”

The main features of the proposed district – the eating clubs, the “monumental wall and gate representing the rise of college athletics and its connection to the eating clubs, and Princeton’s first major apartment building expanding faculty housing” – were built between the 1890s and the 1920s, Zink wrote.

When the Historic Preservation Commission meeting was opened for public comment, several attendees spoke in favor of the proposed local historic district, including some Princeton University alumni and former eating club members.

James Bash, who has lived in Princeton for 21 years, said the eating clubs are “icons” and unique in the world. No other town or college or institution has such a rich history as Prospect Avenue, he said.

“If we lose it, we lose it forever,” Bash said, urging the commission to “do the right thing.”

John Heilner, who graduated from Princeton University in 1963, said that while he “loves” his university, he is concerned for the future of the clubhouses and the Victorian houses on Prospect Avenue.

Some of the clubhouses belong to Princeton University, as do the Victorian houses, and have been converted into offices. Over the years, Princeton University has demolished properties it owns – mostly along Alexander Street, Heilner said.

Of the three Victorian houses, Heilner said they have been vacant for several years and have begun to deteriorate. They will be left to rot, and university officials will claim that they cannot be salvaged, he said.

“I hate to say it, but my university has not shown itself to be a good partner,” Heilner said.

He added that he has “no faith,” given Princeton University’s recent performance, that it would preserve the Victorian houses.

Yina Moore, who grew up in Princeton and is a Princeton University graduate, said Prospect Avenue is a local landmark for tourism and should be preserved. The “grand street” is woven into the history of the town, said Moore, who lives in Princeton.

Moore, who is Black, said her family moved to Princeton from Virginia in the 1890s and found work at the Elm Club. She recalled the discrimination faced by the Blacks who worked on “the Avenue,” but it was offset by a good paycheck.

Despite its “scarred history,” Moore said, Prospect Avenue is worth saving.

Historic Preservation Commission member Shirley Satterfield said many Blacks who lived in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood worked in the eating clubs. College-bound Blacks could not attend Princeton University, so many of them enrolled at Lincoln University instead, she said.

While the emphasis on creating a local historic district may be focused on the buildings’ architecture and related elements, Satterfield said she would like to see some more emphasis on the cultural aspects – the connection between the eating clubs and the town’s Black community.