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This article by Barbara Fox was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
December 9, 1998. All rights reserved.
Another Old House: It Stays
Palmer House is a nice old house that is owned by
Princeton University and sits on the corner of Nassau Street and
Lane. Actually, this house is more than just nice: It is also really
old and architecturally significant — a Steadman design,
in 1823 by Charles Steadman, known in Princeton for his distinctive
You have passed it many times: a two-and-a-half story brick home with
a pitched roof, a portico with Ionic columns, painted yellow, with
But it has been vacant for years. Though the university had used
House as a guest house for celebrity visitors, it had severe
With no air conditioning, it couldn’t be used in the summer. Steep
steps prevented wheelchair access. And only two bedrooms had private
baths. In other words, unless rehabbed, Palmer House could serve only
as a subpar B&B or a private, very expensive dwelling, right in the
middle of town.
Given the choice of selling it or doing major renovations, the
(apparently with the strong support of President Harold Shapiro) chose
the latter. So though most Princeton residents will never see it
Palmer House will remain a landmark, duly refurbished. Though designed
as a residence, Palmer House must now meet the codes of a hotel with
assembly uses, with all renovations balanced against the historic
integrity of the building.
"Our approach to the project is not as a museum restoration, but
as a historically sensitive renovation," says Marilou Ehrler,
of Holt Morgan Russell Architects, which has been engaged to do the
job. "On the two street sides, it will remain just as it is now,
in a historic district, but not an individually listed building."
Holt Morgan Russell, based on Alexander Street, was invited to do
a feasibility study in 1990, and that study is coming to fruition
now. When complete, Palmer House will have accommodations worthy of
a hotel — nine bedrooms, each with its own bath, central air
an accessible entrance and first floor guest room, a handicapped lift
for access to the formal parlors and dining room, and a fire sprinkler
Interior work is being done this winter, with roofing and exterior
scheduled for next spring, with occupancy targeted by late spring.
Four or five trades will be working at the same time, 30 people, in
a house four times the size of an average house.
Cynthia Hinson, president of Historic Preservation & Illumination
Inc., is working with Holt Morgan Russell on Palmer House. "I’m
redoing the lighting, to bring it up to contemporary levels, and also
doing paint analysis work," says Hinson, who recently moved her
firm from Research Park to Cranbury.
The job is fraught with complications: the floors had to be opened
up to do asbestos abatement. Footings must be poured to replace the
brick walls that sit on wooden floor joists that sit on top of dirt.
To insulate the fire sprinkler system, either the floors must be
or the plaster ceilings and moldings must be replaced.
"That’s part of the fun of doing the historical renovation
says Robert W. Russell, a named partner in the firm, "you get
to work with the crafts of historic preservation."
Phil Holt founded the firm with Perry Morgan in 1965, and they took
on Russell as a named partner in 1981. Holt and Russell have worked
together on such important preservation projects as the restorations
at Craftsman Farms (including Gustav Stickley designs) and restoration
of the Italianate Garden at Drumthwacket.
Russell, who went to the New York Institute of Technology (Class of
1978), has also had such projects as the additions to Institute for
Advanced Study’s Fuld Hall in the 1980s, an addition to the historic
Morristown Library, and four projects for Rutgers, including the
restoration of Kirkpatrick Chapel.
Ehrler went to Catholic University, Class of 1980, and earned her
master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia. She worked
at a historic preservation firm in New York, Jan Hird Pokorny, and
then for the Vitetta Group, which is leading the War Memorial
Russell and Ehrler come fresh from redoing the two historic chapels
on the Rutgers campus: the 1926 Voorhees chapel, a $5 million job
done over a period of years, and the Kirkpatrick chapel, built on
the Queens Campus in 1972. "Our biggest surprise with Palmer
says Ehrler, "was how many additions there were. The kitchen had
been a separate building. Then it was attached. Then they enclosed
a porch on the west side of the kitchen wing, then a two-bay addition
at the north end of the kitchen wing was added. We found three
In 1923 the house was a gift from the father of Henrietta Marie
the bride of Robert Field Stockton. It was built on property owned
by Richard Stockton and later willed to Robert Stockton. But when
Richard died, Robert and Henrietta moved across the street to Morven,
and they sold the property to Marie’s brother James Potter. Then
members of a Garrett family occupied the house (three Garretts
the university), and in 1923 John Garrett sold the property to Edgar
Palmer — of Palmer Square, Palmer Hall, and the late Palmer
The Palmers moved the house to a different corner of the property,
built a seven-car garage, and replaced an iron pipe fence with the
existing brick wall. In 1968 the Palmers deeded the house to the
Minimal decorating was done in 1970; it has remained essentially
since the 1930s.
Why bother to save this house? "Because it is the heritage of
our built environment," says Ehrler, "and people are getting
tired of the WalMart environment."
Princeton University’s major donors are likely to be frequent guests
at Palmer House. No, Washington probably did not sleep here. But Jimmy
Carter did. And maybe Palmer House will host a future president. Bill
— Barbara Fox
Street, Princeton 08540. 609-924-1358; fax, 609-924-5985. E-mail:
Main, Cranbury 08512. 609-430-9631; fax, 609-430-9632.
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