By Anne Levin
At a meeting Monday night, Princeton Council voted to adopt an ordinance establishing the Prospect Avenue Historic District, designating the street that is home to Princeton University’s eating clubs as the 21st such district in the town.
The unanimous vote brings to an official end a long, controversial process related to the University’s June 2021 proposal to demolish three Queen Anne Victorian houses on the north side of Prospect Avenue and move the 91 Prospect former Court Clubhouse across the street into their place, to make room for a Theorist Pavilion and entrance into the new Environmental Studies and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (ES+SEAS) complex.
Extensive protests from members of the local community and alumni, hearings in front of the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Board, and encouragement from Council led the University to revise the proposal. The three houses will be preserved. The house at 110 Prospect will be moved to a space behind the other two, which are at numbers 114 and 116. The Court Club building will be moved to the space where 110 currently stands.
During public comment on the ordinance, Sandy Harrison, who chairs the board of the Princeton Prospect
Foundation, said both the University and the eating clubs supported the designation of the historic district. The Princeton Prospect Foundation and the Graduate Interclub Council “met with the board chairs of the clubs to make sure they understood what it means to be a historic district,” he said.
Author/historian Clifford Zink, who wrote a book about the eating clubs and often leads tours of the iconic buildings, spoke in support of the ordinance.
“Adoption will be a very positive outcome of well over a year of work by so many people to come up with a compromise solution on Prospect Avenue to maintain the quality of the historic character of the street, and also allow the University to do some very important and needed changes in a way that respects the historic character,” he said.
Zink was among those to thank several people who worked on the compromise,
including KyuJung Whang, the University’s vice president for facilities; former Municipal Planner Michael La Place; Councilwoman Mia Sacks; and Harrison. “The purpose of the designation is not to freeze Prospect the way it is today, but rather to manage any future changes that the clubs or the University would like to make, in a way that balances the property owners’ needs with the meaning and significance Prospect Avenue has for people in the town,” said Zink.
Princeton resident Kip Cherry urged Council to adopt the ordinance. “Historic districts create a context for change,” she said. “To put Prospect into context, this area represents a major period of change and evolution for the town and the University as well as the country as a whole.” In addition to the unique architecture of the eating clubs, Cherry cited the employment of formerly segregated residents, and the fight to allow women to join the clubs as important milestones in their history.
Former Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore, a University alumnus whose grandfather worked on “the avenue,” as Prospect was often referred to by members of the African American community, said the history of that community’s involvement with the eating clubs is important and needs to be further documented.
Resident John Heilner, also an alumnus, singled out Whang and University President Christopher L. Eisgruber “for moving the University off its original ‘we just can’t do it any other way’ stance. I hope this excellent compromise marks a turning point in town/gown relations when it comes to other development projects that might alter the historic streetscapes for which Princeton is famous,” he said.
Councilman Leighton Newlin commented that members of the African American community, specifically from the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, worked not only on building the eating clubs, but many other buildings in and around the campus as well. “I just want to let the public know that the imprint of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood was felt on the avenue — that’s for sure — but was also felt throughout the bricks and mortar of the University and the infrastructure of
Princeton,” he said.
Also at the meeting, Council discussed how and when to return to in-person and hybrid gatherings. The Zoom meetings that have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic have resulted in increased participation by the public, some members noted. “Going back to in-person does not mean in any way we are interested in having a small number of people participate in our meetings,” said Sacks.
Deputy Administrator for Health and Community Services Jeffrey Grosser and Municipal Attorney Trishka Cecil were consulted about details. Council plans to revisit the idea and possibly adopt a resolution to hold in-person meetings starting September 12, at its next gathering, which is July 25.