Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A classical ruin and the preservation of a battlefield

If you have interest in historic preservation, you're likely familiar with the many protracted fights to keep development from encroaching on some of America's most important battlefields. The past 40 years or so have seen attempts to build a Disney theme park on the Civil War-era Manassas battlefield in Virginia (also known as the "Third Battle of Manassas"), and here in New Jersey, the encroachment of residential sprawl on portions of the historic site of the Battle of Monmouth.

It goes without saying that your Hidden New Jersey explorers are firmly on the side of preserving historic battle sites. Keeping battlefields undeveloped is crucial to helping visitors understand the the challenges our forebears faced in liberating and defending our nation. Somehow, watching a reenactment on a developed battlefield -- as I did for the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Springfield -- loses its impact when you see Hessians marching past a CVS.

Thing is, we've been building on battlefields for as long as there's been a United States. Many of the battles took place on privately owned land, and when the wars were over, the owners were more concerned with making their land profitable than they were in preserving history. You really couldn't blame them, especially farmers who were trying to get as much from their acreage as possible.

I hadn't given too much thought to the old development issues until we stopped by the Princeton Battlefield a few weekends ago. A key location in the ten crucial days that turned the tide of the Revolution in the Americans' favor, the Battlefield State Park includes the site of the recently-deceased Mercer Oak, under which General Hugh Mercer was said to have collapsed after having been bayonetted by Redcoats several times. The Clarke House, which was used as a hospital during and after the battle, is also still on site.

And then there's the Colonnade -- a set of Ionic columns topped by a large lintel and supported by brick walls on the sides. It sits on the northern side of the park, atop a hill far opposite the Clarke House, looking very out of place and incomplete. There's no statue of Mercer or Washington or anyone else beside it to give it context, and the casual passer-by is left to wonder what in heck it is. If it were in Greece or Italy, you'd shrug it off as just another classical ruin, but in Princeton? Ivan and I took a walk up the hill to check it out (and, well, to see if we could find winter finches, but that's another story).

Long story short, the Colonnade is a ruin -- of not one, but two houses. Originally, it served as part of the facade for a Philadelphia mansion designed by U.S. Capitol architect Thomas U. Walter in 1836 for a merchant named Matthew Newkirk. After the Newkirk home was demolished in 1900, the columns were brought to Princeton and recycled for the entrance of Mercer Manor, a grand home built at the edge of the battlefield.

Mercer Manor stood on the site for over 50 years, until it was severely damaged in a fire. Mostly unsalvageable, the mansion was demolished in 1957, except for the Colonnade that stands today. Its then owners, the Institute for Advanced Study, donated the property to the State for inclusion in the Battlefield Park.

A view of the battlefield from behind the Colonnade.
Since then, the four Ionic columns have become the focal point of a memorial to unidentified soldiers killed in the battle -- 21 British and 15 Americans who are buried somewhere behind the site where Mercer Manor once stood. Nearby, there's a plaque on which is printed a memorial poem written in 1916 by visiting Princeton professor and future Poet Laureate of England, Alfred Noyes.

Unintended as it might have been, the Colonnade could be considered a fitting tribute to the brave Americans who fought at Princeton. These patriots were battling for a new republic and victory that until then appeared unlikely. Their humble contributions helped forge a country that has stood strong for well over two centuries.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the info. I pass these columns every day to and from work and have always wondered about them. Its true ... you learn something new everyday.

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