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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

black shutters.

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


(page 34).

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


building configurations."

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

Bradley maybe?

— Barbara Fox

Holt-Morgan-Russell Architects PA, 350 Alexander

Street, Princeton 08540. 609-924-1358; fax, 609-924-5985. E-mail:

Historic Preservation & Illumination, 60 North

Main, Cranbury 08512. 609-430-9631; fax, 609-430-9632.

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