Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Palmer Square: Vintage Colonial charm, circa 1937

Walk around Princeton's atmospheric Palmer Square, and you'd be excused if you thought parts of it had been there since the American Revolution. Small shops with brick facades are interspersed with wood-faced neighbors, and the picturesque Nassau Inn stands in the center, seemingly having been there forever.

However, Palmer Square is much younger, a planned development built in the 1930s. Its construction brought the destruction of a local institution with a legitimate link to colonial times, as well the relocation of a thriving African-American community.

A portion of Palmer Square, Fall 2014.
Given how central Palmer Square is to the contemporary image of Princeton, and how convincingly old it looks, it's difficult to conceive the town before it was built. Edward Palmer, a Princeton alumnus and heir to the New Jersey Zinc fortune, envisioned a mixed-use development that would become the new focus within the town. In the late 1920s he began to quietly acquire property just a few blocks west of the University gates, between Nassau Street and Jackson Street. He hired architect Thomas Stapleton to design shops and office buildings that, though united, would appear to have been built over an extended period of time.

Typical for 20th century redevelopment projects, Palmer's vision meant displacement for some of the community's less prominent residents. In this case, it was members of the black community, many of whom worked in service positions around town and at the University. As the land for the project was cleared, residents were moved eight blocks north of their previous neighborhood, creating a new 'edge' of town. With them went several houses; new dwellings were built for those whose homes couldn't be salvaged. The project also erased two roads: Baker Street, which intersected Nassau, and Nassau Place, which had been a service road for coaches.

The original Nassau Inn (College Inn) on Nassau Street.
Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey/
Library of Congress
The Nassau Inn was was to be the focal point of the development, but ironically the lovely Colonial-style building we see today took the name of a 1757 structure that was razed in the name of progress. Originally built of brick imported from Holland, Judge Thomas Leonard's home was known as the finest in Princeton for its day, and eventually became widely known as the place to stay as the town became an important stop on the stagecoach route.

A hotel since 1769, the original Nassau Inn had stood directly on Nassau Street, eventually absorbing the adjacent Mansion House built in 1836. At its start, the inn had been known as "The Sign of the College" or "College Inn," and had hosted commencement dinners for the original College of New Jersey until the Revolutionary War forced an end to the tradition. According to local lore, Paul Revere and Thomas Paine visited during wartime, as did several signers of the Declaration of Independence.

In later years, the building hosted the annual commencement ball, though Princeton students were ordinarily forbidden from visiting the tavern. According to notes from the Historic American Buildings Survey, New Jersey Legislature committees often held meetings at the inn, as well. It appears that by the time the building was brought down, it bore little resemblance to the hostelry Washington Irving had visited on an 1813 stop in Princeton.

Though the neighborhood -- and the Inn -- had received their death warrants in the late 1920s, the advent of the Great Depression put the project on hold until 1937. The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey notes that construction was to be completed by 1941, but in reality, pieces and portions of the project have evolved over the decades. More stores, an office building and luxury apartments have all been added in the past 20 years.

As for the old inn, only a few relics remain: a stone platform that now graces the Nassau Inn's Yankee Doodle Tap Room, and the old Nassau Inn sign salvaged by Princeton students in 1937.   

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