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Mercer Hill Historic District letter to Historic Preservation Commission

Dear Members of the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission,

Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) has an application pending with the Town of Princeton to demolish the former Hun School Campus located at the intersection of Stockton Street and Hibben Road. The three principal buildings of this campus – Tennent Hall, Roberts Hall and Whiteley Gymnasium – are important historical buildings, cited as warranting status as key contributing buildings to the Princeton Historic District by Watson & Henry, PTS’s own preservation consultants.

While PTS’s application for demolition indicates there is no plan to redevelop this site, it is public knowledge that PTS has contracted to sell the site to a developer, Herring Properties, apparently after demolishing the buildings on it. This egregious two-step strategy removes Planning Board review of the demolition application. Actively moving ahead with its project plans, Herring Properties has already retained a public relations firm to organize, by invitation only and with the promise of anonymity, focus groups to discuss its redevelopment of the site.

The HPC pursuant to a 2014 municipal ordinance is charged to: --

-- Preserve, enhance, and safeguard the heritage of Princeton by preserving the resources within the community that reflect elements of its historical significance . . .

-- Foster civic pride in the history, architectural, cultural landscape and resources, and landscape architecture in Princeton . . .

-- Manage change of historic areas and historic preservation districts by encouraging sensitive alteration and/or new construction;

-- Discourage the unnecessary demolition of historic resources . . . [and] -- Encourage the adaptive reuse of historic structures when appropriate.

As a prelude to articulating the HPC’s responsibilities, the ordinance states that “Princeton Council finds and declares that Princeton contains numerous buildings … that …reflect elements of the cultural, social, economic and architectural history of the community; and that preservation and enhancement of such elements are required in the interest of the health, prosperity and welfare of the municipality”

In 2019, when PTS was proposing to redevelop the Tennent/Roberts/Whiteley buildings to create additional married student housing on the campus, the HPC conducted an advisory review of the proposed redevelopment. In a February 4, 2019 Memorandum to the Princeton Planning Board, the HPC found:

-- The Tennent Campus, comprising Roberts and Tennent Halls, and Whiteley Gymnasium, is historically and architecturally significant.

-- This historic complex of buildings was constructed in the 1920’s for the Hun School and designed by Rolf W. Bauhan, a graduate of Princeton University (1914) who designed approximately 70 houses and was responsible for the renovation of more than 150 buildings in Princeton. His papers are in the collection of the Historical Society of Princeton.

-- The Tennent Campus is located within the Princeton Historic District, listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Although not in the Mercer Hill Historic District, these buildings contribute to the Princeton Historic District, and are included in the Princeton Community Master Plan as a suggested extension of the Mercer Hill Historic District.

In its February 4, 2019 Memorandum, the HPC “strongly recommended that the Tennent Campus be preserved in its current appearance fronting Stockton Street and Hibben Road.” The HPC also noted that the campus green is a significant feature of the Tennent and former Hun School Campus and recommended that the streetscape be preserved.

In a May 28, 2019 follow up memorandum to Councilman David Cohen as Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee for the PTS Redevelopment, the HPC observed that a study commissioned by PTS from Watson & Henry Associates titled The Historic Preservation Planning Study for Princeton Theological Seminary recognized the “Historic significance [of] the educational history of Tennent Hall, that previously served as Edgehill School and the Hun School … [and the] Architectural significance for Tennent hall, Roberts Hall, and Whitely Gymnasium as designs of Princeton’s leading early-twentieth-century architect, Rolf Bauhan …” In that same Memorandum, the HPC, referring to its recommendation of a feasibility study on adaptive reuse of the Tennent/Roberts/Whiteley buildings, wrote: “The demolition of historic buildings with long ties to the history of Princeton presents an irrevocable loss to the community, and should not be accepted without much more rigorous review”.

The Town has done nothing to explore the adaptive reuse of these buildings and seems content to allow them to be demolished. Councilman Cohen recently stated publicly that the Tennent, Roberts and Whiteley buildings “are not historic’, flatly contradicting the HPC and PTS’s own historic preservation consultants. The Town designated these buildings as part of an Area in Need of Redevelopment (ANR) in 2018 with the consent of PTS, thus conferring on them a special legal status that requires the Town to be engaged in and approve any proposed redevelopment plan for the properties. Surely the Town has the authority to delay or prevent demolition to permit exploration of adaptive reuse as part of a plan of redevelopment.

In your recent review of the application for the demolition and redevelopment of 39 Linden Lane, located in another suggested historic district, the Tree Streets Historic District, you cite the provisions of MLUL Section 40:55D-110 which provides that your commission review every application submitted to the Planning or Zoning Boards for development of properties located in historic zoning districts as well as in suggested historic districts. The PTS/Herring strategy is to avoid proper review by separating demolition from plan review and should not be allowed.

We urge the HPC to do something. As the Town’s Commission charged with identifying and safeguarding Princeton’s historic buildings and neighborhoods, we urge you to make your views (expressed publicly in 2019) known to the current Mayor and current Council members, some of whom were elected subsequent to 2019, as well as to the public. Time is of the essence, and action is needed to forestall the impending demolition of these significant and historic buildings that frame the western gateway to Princeton.

Respectfully submitted.

Mercer Hill Historic District Association

Tom Chapman

Jack Kerr

Nora Kerr

Jane MacLennan

Christopher Olsen

Carolyn Robertson

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