Many remember Bainbridge House as home to the Historical Society of Princeton, as a venue that hosted exhibitions about Princeton’s African-American, Italian, and Jewish communities; buildings moved across town; artist Rex Goreleigh, architect Rolf Bauhan, and Princeton resident Albert Einstein and his furniture; and others. Those who have been around longer may remember it as the site of the Princeton Public Library.
Now the building at 158 Nassau Street enters a new chapter. On Saturday, September 14, the Princeton University Art Museum will host a celebration of the building’s incarnation as Art@Bainbridge, a place for exhibitions of contemporary, emerging artists.
Art@Bainbridge hopes to extend the museum’s reach into the community, inviting new visitors to experience the visual arts and serving as a gateway to the museum’s main building in the heart of the university campus.
The inaugural exhibition is “Jordan Nassar: Between Sky and Earth,” on view through January 5. The September 14 block party will feature exhibition tours, live music, and family-friendly activities. Tour guides from the Historical Society will be available to discuss the building’s storied past.
During a recent visit, the comingled scents of vintage wood and fresh paint wafted through the climate-controlled space. Owned by Princeton University, Bainbridge House is one of the few remaining 18th-century structures in downtown Princeton and one of a handful of structures that stood as silent witness to the 1777 Battle of Princeton, a turning point in the Revolutionary War, and to the moment in 1783 when the Congress of the Confederation met in Princeton, and when the town and Nassau Hall served, briefly, as the capital of the nation.
The house at 158 Nassau was built in 1766 by Job Stockton, a wealthy tanner and cousin to signer of the Declaration of Independence Richard Stockton.
Remarkably, almost all of the original structure remains, including some of its original wall paneling and its fireplace mantels, doors, and staircase. Designed in the Georgian style (thus named for the four British monarchs, George I, George II, George III, and George IV, who reigned between 1714 and 1830), Bainbridge House is architecturally notable for its symmetry and restrained ornament.
Part of its history was as lodging for members of Congress in 1783. In June of that year, American troops had surrounded the State House in Philadelphia, demanding back pay and the resolution of other grievances. Although the mutiny was short-lived, Congress President Elias Boudinot adjourned and reconvened the Congress in Princeton, where he had family and professional connections.
The Stockton family leased the building as home and medical office to Dr. Absalom Bainbridge, who kept an enslaved man named Prime. When Bainbridge left New Jersey to work as a surgeon for the British army, his “property,” including Prime, was confiscated by American officials. Hoping to gain freedom, Prime joined the Revolutionary Army, but after a drawn-out legal battle he lost that right, ultimately becoming one of three enslaved New Jersey men freed by an act of the state legislature as a reward for military service during the Revolutionary War.
Prime’s story is one “of remarkable perseverance, one that should figure as prominently on Nassau Street as the name of his master,” writes Historical Society of Princeton Executive Director Izzy Kasdin.
Bainbridge House was named not for Dr. Absalom Bainbridge, but for his son, William Bainbridge, who lived there briefly from his birth in 1774 to 1777, then moved to New York City and went on to became a hero in the War of 1812.
Princeton University acquired the building in 1877 to be used as a boardinghouse for students. In the 20th century Bainbridge House served as the Princeton Public Library for more than 50 years, and as home to the Historical Society of Princeton from 1967 until 2015, when the society moved to the Updike Farmstead on Quaker Road.
The university commissioned New York City-based MBB Architects to restore, renovate, and repurpose the building, which included cleaning, repairing, and replacing brickwork, windows, shutters, and roofing, and upgrading the thermal performance. The building’s outmoded systems, from mechanical, electrical, and plumbing to fire protection and security, have been replaced with state-of-the-art sustainable systems retrofitted into the historic fabric.
In a plaque on the wall of the first-floor hallway, the Art Museum acknowledges the Lenni-Lenape people, on whose territory the property sits, as the original people of this land, and the enslaved people who lived and worked on this site: “We honor with gratitude the land itself and the people who have stewarded it throughout the generations.”
The restoration process took two years and, says the museum’s director of education, Caroline Harris, “was a labor of love.” The original woodwork had to be painstakingly removed before the asbestos abatement could begin. Each piece was carefully numbered so it could be returned after the new walls were built. There are corner cupboards and original doors and hardware.
The wood floors were restored to their original colors, and the windows at the front of the building, which had been sealed off for decades, were re-opened, and each little pane of the divided light coated with UV protection, so people on the street would feel welcomed.
A new bluestone plaza was built in the front, providing ADA access, as well as a place to sit surrounded by planters. A redbud tree was planted in a tree well that formerly held a cut leaf maple (rescued during construction by Princeton University grounds crew to be grown in another location). The original historic front door remains, and a glass vestibule was added inside for insulation.
In addition to exhibition space, the first-floor galleries will be used for museum programs, small community gatherings, and partnership events with the Princeton Garden Theater and Labyrinth Books. Bainbridge House’s upper floors will house the museum’s education department.
There will be visitor services representatives to provide information on exhibitions, as well as brochures, all provided by the education department. A new video monitor, designed to fit the vertical space of a doorway, is programmed to show visitors attractions at the museum’s main building.
The fire code occupancy maxes out at 49 people, so programming will be modest. The September 14 block party will take place mostly outdoors with the flow of visitors entering the building regulated, offering tours of all three floors. Collaborations with the Princeton Public Library and the Garden Theater will expand opportunities for artist lectures and other programs, and the Historical Society will still begin its weekly walking tours from the front of the building.
Installing works of contemporary art in an historic building presents its own set of challenges or, as Mitra Abbaspour, curator of modern and contemporary art, puts it, “opportunities.”
There are mantels and fireplaces to work around, and works of contemporary art are often large. “The challenge is to not interfere with what you’ve set out to preserve,” says Abbaspour, “so we see these as opportunities for artists to take advantage of. Our selection of artists takes these factors into consideration. We are looking at those who are interested in domestic spaces and how they shape our understanding of the world. We are looking at the broader idea of shelter to include the myriad social and humanitarian concerns at the forefront of our lives today, such as climate change, movement around the planet, political borders and immigration.”
An advisory committee created a proposal for a suite of artists interested in these themes, and Jordan Nassar was the selected as the first. “His practice makes the most sense in a domestic space,” says Abbaspour. “He comes from a tradition of Palestinian embroidery that would decorate pillows, table runners, and furniture covers in a home space, only he makes his larger and hung on the wall like a painting, and he’s shifting how colors and pattern are used. Traditionally they would be symmetrical, but he’s creating abstract ruptured patterns to suggest, say, a series of cascading hills in a landscape.”
Nassar creates idealized landscapes that evoke, in his words, “a dreamland or utopia.” His imagined Shangri-La is a vision of Palestine held by the displaced constituents who comprise the region’s diaspora. Since much of the conflict in the region centers on land rights, especially as they relate to histories of colonialism, it makes sense that topography would feature prominently in the work of artists with a connection to this region.
A number of the works were produced in collaboration with Palestinian craftswomen in the West Bank who began the compositions, which Nassar then responded to and finished.
Born in 1985 in New York to a Palestinian father and a Polish American mother, Nassar was raised to identify with his Palestinian side. Nassar is married to an Israeli husband and recently learned that his Polish Catholic grandmother was born to a Jewish father. He threads these roots together in his work, evoking “the hope, the longing, the inherited nostalgia we all feel for our homeland that becomes more imaginary, more mystical and magical than any real place actually is … I like to discuss these landscapes as versions of Palestine as they exist in the minds of [those] who have never been there and can never go there.”
Nassar earned a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in 2007 and taught himself to embroider eight years ago using pattern books. He works from his imagination, rather than from photographs, beginning with a modular patterned grid to compose his works. The decorative motifs themselves prompt a conversation about the relationship of Western and non-Western traditions.
While the Princeton University Art Museum is celebrating its newest outpost, it is still very much alive and well at its main campus location and will be through at least 2020. Construction for the redesigned museum, led by Sir David Adjaye, architect of, among other spaces, the Smithsonian African American Museum in Washington, D.C., will not begin until 2021 at the earliest, according to director James Steward. The museum hopes to publicly present the schematic design in spring, 2020. Once the project begins, the building will close for a projected two to three years, but the museum will maintain its presence in other ways.
“We are hard at work on a number of things that will keep the museum alive and impactful, including strategies for sustaining our teaching during construction; satellite display venues; public programs across campus; traveling exhibitions drawn from the collections; long-term loans to other institutions, including in the region; and more,” says Steward. “It’s a great opportunity for some experimentation, and we look forward to sharing details in due course.”
Art@Bainbridge, Princeton University Art Museum, 158 Nassau Street, Princeton. Opening Block Party, Saturday, September 14, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. live music, exhibition tours, and family-friendly activities. Free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.