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Home Featured ‘It is insensitive’

‘It is insensitive’

‘It is insensitive’
PHOTO BY LEA KAHN

The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission has declined to endorse a proposal to construct a 15-unit apartment building that would be attached to the historic Joseph Horner House at 344 Nassau St.

However, the Historic Preservation Commission left open an opportunity for the developer, 344 Nassau LLC, to work with officials to modify the design of the proposed four-story apartment building.

The Historic Preservation Commission also denied the developer’s application to demolish part of the rear of the 1985 addition to the 18th-century house, which the applicant claims is necessary to link the house and the apartment building.

When the addition was built, the original exterior walls of the Joseph Horner House were preserved and incorporated into it. The exterior walls functioned as interior walls that separated the corridors from the office space, according to Historic Preservation officer Elizabeth Kim’s May 9 report to the commission.

The Historic Preservation Commission took action on 344 Nassau LLC’s application, following back-to-back meetings May 13-14. Its recommendations will be sent to the Princeton Planning Board, which is slated to hold a public hearing on the application May 23.

The Historic Preservation Commission was tasked with reviewing the application because the house, which is on the corner of Nassau Street and North Harrison Street, is within the Jugtown and Kings Highway historic districts.

The house, which was built in 1760 by the grandson of early settler John Horner, recently was included on Preservation New Jersey’s list of the “10 Most Endangered Historic Places in New Jersey for 2024” due to the proposed development.

The proposed apartment building would be 44 feet, 9 inches tall. The Joseph Horner House is 29 feet tall. The application meets all of the bulk requirements, such as height and building setbacks, under the Affordable Housing Overlay 2 zone. No variances are needed.

Project architect Marina Rubina outlined architectural features that attempted to mimic some of the historic design details of the Joseph Horner House.

Referring to the 1985 addition on the east side of the house, Rubina said that overall, 68% of the house is not historic.

“It has been modified and expanded over time,” she said.

Rubina also cited a book about the Jugtown neighborhood written by local historian Clifford Zink. He described Jugtown as a neighborhood of small businesses clustered around homes whose residents were of “modest means.”

“In modern language, Jugtown would be described as a mixed-use neighborhood,” Rubina said. “Similarly, the proposed development would include commercial uses on the ground floor of the historic house, and apartments on the second floor and in the apartment building. Three of the 15 apartments would be set aside for affordable housing.”

Architectural historian Robert Wise, who testified on behalf of 344 Nassau LLC, said the design of the proposed apartment building works well at the location. It is surrounded by parking lots, a podiatry practice and other non-residential uses.

Although the apartment building would be four stories tall, Wise said it would be compatible with other buildings in the Jugtown Historic District, which are two-and-a-half stories and three stories tall.

“It will impact the historic district. There is no doubt about that. (But) I think it is appropriate, even though it is larger (than the historic house),” Wise said.

Objectors, represented by attorney Bruce Afran, made their case against the application. Consultants that included architects, architectural historians and planners cited the apartment building’s height, the demolition of part of the house and the development’s lack of integration into the Jugtown neighborhood.

Their remarks echoed many of the comments in the May 9 report by Kim. She had pointed to the height of the apartment building, which will “tower and dwarf the historic building as a result of its height, mass and siting on the property.”

Local architectural historian Clifford Zink said it was remarkable that the Joseph Horner House had survived – including many of its interior details, such as the paneling – since it was built in 1760.

“It is one of three 18th-century buildings at the Jugtown crossroads of Nassau Street and Harrison Street,” he said.

Zink said the purpose of the town’s Historic Preservation ordinance is to safeguard the heritage of Princeton.

“Maintaining a harmonious setting is very important to manage change in the district,” he said.

“The proposed apartment building is out of scale and denigrates the house’s historic significance. It is disharmonious and subsumes and diminishes the house.”

Planner David Kinsey agreed and said the apartment building is visually incompatible with the Joseph Horner House and other buildings in the Jugtown Historic District citing it is significantly larger than the historic house.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, attendees continued to hammer home their displeasure with the height of the proposed apartment building and its overall impact on the neighborhood.

James Bash reminded the Historic Preservation Commission that it is the bulwark and the firewall to preserve historic neighborhoods and properties in Princeton.

“There are two words – breathing room,” he said. “The best way to reduce the perceived mass of the building is to reduce it and not shoehorn an elephant into a bathtub. The applicant should look to the 1985 addition to respect and ‘do it right.'”

Scott Blandford told the applicant that it could build a great project, but “this is not it.” The development, which he described as a massive luxury apartment building, would have a negative impact on the streetscape.

Before casting his vote, Historic Preservation Commission member David Schure said the application represents “a really very high price” to provide for three affordable housing units. Of the 15 apartments, three would be set aside for affordable housing.

Historic Preservation Commission member Elric Endersby said that “what dwells on me” is that the interior of the house would be “trashed” by the renovation and construction of two apartments on the second floor. Many architectural details have been preserved in the house, he said.

“It is insensitive,” Endersby told the applicant.” “I know you are better than that.”