In a town where real mansions, not McMansions, grace tree-lined streets, the three-story house at 195 Nassau Street, kitty corner from St. Paul’s Church, with a basement office and a nail salon above, does not look like a corporate enclave. But in fact the 1895 structure and that basement office is the headquarters of one of the largest land companies in the state, Thompson Realty.
It has also been the home for six generations of the Thompson family, including the real estate company president, Bryce Thompson, and the place where Thompson acquired his zeal for adventure and risk taking, in his life and in his business, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary.
The modest building at 195 Nassau Street, along with a house around the corner on Charlton Street that Thompson bought early in his career, are today, Thompson says, the only privately owned spaces between Charlton and University Place. Everything else is owned by Princeton University. He adds the university once made him a generous offer for the Charlton Street house, but he didn’t want to sell.
At the very beginning of his real estate career, Thompson sold houses and farms. Out of about 20 real estate companies in and around Princeton, his grew to be one of the five largest within six months.
Thompson bought his first piece of land in Princeton in 1959, just north of Princeton Shopping Center, with two partners, using his commission from the seller to finance his own portion. That first house and the 30-acre farm surrounding it belonged to Jean Pierre and Eugene Lahiere, brothers of Mary Louise Lahiere, who with her husband, Joseph Christen, opened Lahiere’s restaurant in 1919.
Thompson later resold the house to Commodities Corporation for its headquarters; they added an office building and parking garage.
Thompson still owns 19 acres, having sold off other pieces for the nursing home on Bunn Drive and the assisted living facility on Mount Lucas Road. Unwilling to give details about how much the land has appreciated in the last 50 years, he does note that land has done better than houses.
Thompson was among four individuals profiled in a December 27, 2004, Fortune magazine article titled “Real Estate Investing: How Real People Get Rich.” The story notes the following about sales of parcels from that original investment: “In 1978 [Thompson] sold 2.7 acres for nearly $30,000 an acre. In 1984 he sold 5.8 acres for $85,000 an acre. In 2000 he sold 13 acres for $164,000 an acre.” The article says that at the time of its publication Thompson was under contract to sell 5.9 acres at $203,000 an acre.
By 1963 Thompson had gotten tired of salespeople “elbowing each other about clients,” and he closed the residential end of the business to focus entirely on land. He says he likes farms because of the income he gets when a farmer leases the land. “Every year we were buying another farm and sometimes two or three. By 1970 we were the largest landowner in Mercer County, and by 1975 we were the largest landowner in Hunterdon County.” And just last year the firm bought three more farms.
From that basement office, Thompson has owned somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 acres over the course of his business, although never more than 9,000 at a time, and he is now down to about 5,000. “There’s only so much I can do,” he says. “I still like to use my mind but don’t have the energy to run here and run there.”
Thompson prefers to sell his land to either governmental bodies or conservation groups who will preserve open space rather than build houses on it — even though he doesn’t make as much on the deal. “We have sold a little over 3,000 acres for one form of conservation or another,” he says. “But I couldn’t afford to give it to them; that’s my business.” He distinguishes himself from his older daughter, Lise Lowry Brander, 48, who is into preservation in an entirely “green way.”
A Cornell University graduate who speaks four languages, Brander is on the board of the Nature Conservancy and in 2004 started Conservation Development to explore alternative methods for the planning, construction, and use of buildings and communities. She works with townships, counties, D&R Greenway, and Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association to help preserve open space. “I make the money and she saves the world,” says her father. “She wants to make money and save the world at the same time, but ends up saving land but not making herself any money.”
Thompson’s second child from his first marriage, William Bryce Thompson V, 43, called Junior by the family, is a vice president at Thompson Land. His primary responsibility is leasing the company’s buildings. “He tries to keep them as full as he can, and he does a good job,” says Thompson. He also scouts out buildings for the company.
Though they divorced, Thompson is still close to his first wife, who lives in Princeton. “We go to the same parties and are visiting the grandchildren at the same time,” he says, “and I include her on family trips.”
His second wife, Frances Bronson Lippincott, whose nickname is Flan, was a Cornell classmate of his older daughter. She assented to become his spouse in 1986 by flying a plane over the polo field where Thompson was playing, with the banner “Flan says yes Bryce.” Her father was chief executive officer of the J. B. Lippincott Publishing Company, founded by her great-great-grandfather, Joshua Ballinger Lippincott. She is also a great-great-granddaughter of Joseph Wharton, a founder of Bethlehem Steel and of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Her mother was curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
That marriage, which ended in divorce after about nine years, produced two more children: Barton Lippincott Thompson, 20, a student at the University of San Francisco; and Hannah Chapman Thompson, 19, a student at Colorado College.
Thompson is happy to see some of his former land used for parks, schools, and right of way. He sold three of the 100 parcels that comprise Mercer County Park; he sold Washington Township 70 acres for a new high school; and he was responsible for several farms that provided right of way along the New Jersey Turnpike for a gas pipeline and high tension wires.
Thompson has also purchased 900 acres of preserved land for his portfolio so that the state, counties, and townships will have the money to reinvest. For example, he bought preserved land in Hopewell with a nice old house that he had hoped to fix up for someone in the family. The land also held the remains of John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
But land purchase can also be risky. One big risk is down zoning, which Thompson explains by way of an example. He owns land in East Amwell, where he lives. Although he has held onto it to keep development away from his home, the value of the land has been decreasing. When he bought it, there was no zoning. First lot size was set at a minimum of an acre and a half. Then about 15 to 20 years ago that minimum was doubled to three acres.
The problem for a landowner like Thompson is that the price he can get for three acres is not much more than he would have been able to get for an acre and a half. “I didn’t think that was particularly fair,” he says, explaining that with half as many lots, the government has taken away half the landowner’s value. He adds that now zoning in the valley is 10 acres and in the Sourland Mountains 15. “It’s not all gravy,” he says. “Nobody’s guaranteeing that it’s going to make you rich.”
As the Fortune magazine article pointed out in 2004, the cost of land can include not only taxes and interest but also the improvements needed to make it saleable. And banks are not eager to get into the business — they usually ask for 50 percent down before loaning any money.
The public may also step in and limit what a potential builder may do. Since builders usually purchase properties on approval, meaning that if they can’t get a building permit they don’t have to buy, the landowner loses out. Thompson cites the recent action against Robert Hillier, who was trying to put in senior housing on Bunn Drive. The previous owner was going to build on all the land, but Hillier was going to preserve four or five acres in their natural state. But then 2,000 people signed a petition demanding that the entire plot be left in its natural state. Thompson says, with an edge of sarcasm, maybe the people who signed the petition should have put down a few thousand dollars each, purchased the land, and made it into a park.
The biggest risk for Thompson has been the economy. Thompson Land got into a real bind during the savings and loan crisis between 1991 and 1994, when he lost an average of $1.7 million a year. “I couldn’t borrow any money, and no one was buying my land,” he says. “Nothing was selling except at 50 cents on the dollar, and if I didn’t get what I thought it was worth, I would sit on it.”
“I couldn’t pay my bills,” he continues, noting that although he had never before missed a payment, he owed large amounts to two big banks. According to the Fortune article, he avoided foreclosure by just three days for several properties and by an hour for another property.
In 1995, to pull himself out of this hole, he had to get very aggressive. “As they were about to foreclose on a lot of my properties,” he recalls, “I would go around and knock on the doors of counties, give them a sales pitch about why this particular farm would fit into their plans.”
At one point Somerset County had its eyes on 20 acres of a 150-acre farm that Thompson owned, which sat across from 1,700 acres in the Sourland Mountains the county had received from 3M as an incentive for granting the company mining privileges on Route 601 in Montgomery. The county just wanted space for a parking lot, but Thompson was broke and wanted to sell the entire farm.
He talked up the idea of ecological diversity. When schools would bring classes to the Sourland Mountains, they would also want to show them the bullfrogs and turtles in the small swampy area on Thompson’s property. Because most of the land was flat and dry, he added, it would be a good place for future soccer fields. To sweeten the deal, he added a 50-foot frontage on another piece of land he owned that would make the property accessible from three different areas in total. “A light went off,” he says, and the county agreed.
The next year, when he went back to Montgomery Township to try to sell another 245 acres, they asked him, “What’s your gimmick on this one, Thompson?” This caper had to do with projections about what two big companies, Johnson & Johnson and 3M, which owned land close to Thompson’s plot, might do with land they didn’t use currently. Thompson argued that if the county owned his land, it would have more negotiating power and might eventually end up with another 150 acres free or at a low price from 3M and J&J. They went for his argument.
Although by 1995 Thompson had started making money and was able to pay off some of his debt, in 1999 he decided to start buying buildings to create an income stream. He did not want to be left vulnerable again holding land only. He now owns space in 27 office buildings, about 1 million square feet of space, 700,000 of which is in offices.
Five years ago a company in Bordentown went out of business and sold Thompson three buildings: a former dormitory of the Bordentown Military Academy, a storefront, and a house built in 1730. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Hopkinson, was born, lived, and died in the house. “His father was a lawyer, he was a lawyer, and his son was a lawyer,” says Thompson. “The buildings were all empty, so they sold them cheap.” He bought on speculation that he could fill up all three and now, after three years, it’s up to about 70 percent.
Thompson bought the former Princeton Gamma Tech building on Route 206 near the Wawa in Rocky Hill, about a year ago while he was in Switzerland. “I hadn’t seen the building, but I told them, ‘If everyone was okay, I’m okay,’” he says. It took a year to renovate, but was a worthwhile investment, even though Thompson says it cost as much to renovate the building as to buy it. The U.S. Census Bureau will be a tenant for the next two years as it prepares for the 2010 census and Thompson has also signed on two lawyers and a psychiatrist.
In a nostalgic purchase that is unusual for Thompson, he recently bought the bank building at Nassau and Witherspoon built in 1909 by one of his grandfather’s best friends, Joe Huff. “I bought it with a low return because it was so beautiful,” says Thompson.
Thompson has a strong sense of connection with Princeton past and future, which may make sense for someone who owns as much real estate as he does here. He loves to inject a bit of history into his conversation, expressing pride that the bank property has a view of Nassau Hall, where the Continental Congress spent eight months, from July through October of 1783. But it is also a statement of the position he has created for himself in this town. “It’s a prestige thing,” he says. “I wanted to leave that and this property [195 Nassau] to my four children, as being part of Princeton.”
The house at 195 Nassau Street was built by Thompson’s grandparents. Both sets of Thompson’s maternal great-grandparents came to the United States around 1850 to escape the Irish potato famine, settling in and around Princeton. His maternal grandfather built the house, which was fairly large for its time and originally sported both a front and side porch.
“My grandparents lived in high style, considering,” remembers Thompson. Considering, that is, the old New York money, families like the Morgans and Marquands, who had big estates and “didn’t start with a tiny (general) store on the corner.”
It wasn’t just the store, of course, that created the good living that Thompson remembers from his early childhood. His grandfather had also invested in some real estate. He built the building at 136 Nassau Street where Panera now resides, and which housed the original Annex, a bar and student hangout in 1947. “When I was a kid,” Thompson says, “it had swinging louvered doors, a bar with brass rails and brass spittoons, pictures of teams on the walls, and sawdust on the floor.” His grandfather also built three brick townhouses on Tulane Street.
Thompson’s father, however, did not do so well, ending up as an alcoholic who “played at antiques” and did not contribute much to the support of his family. Early on he had a real estate business in Birmingham, Alabama, but lost it when the Depression coincided with his stay in a tuberculosis hospital in the mountains of North Carolina.
Then, with the encouragement of friends who wanted to help the young man get a new start, Thompson’s father ran for the state senate in Alabama. But after trying to install a friend as postmaster of a small Alabama town, the townspeople rebelled, registering as Republicans at a time when the South was all Democratic, and defeated him.
Although Thompson’s father did have a Princeton connection — his grandfather, the first William Bryce Thompson, graduated from Princeton University in 1868 and returned to Alabama to become a Presbyterian minister — Thompson’s parents met in Florida at the beach and wanted to get married a week later.
Thompson’s father, of course, had no money to finance a wedding, and his grandmother wasn’t about to throw a wedding after a one-week courtship. Furthermore, Catholics weren’t supposed to get married during Lent without dispensation from the bishop — but the bride took care of that. In the end, a family friend, who just happened to be Tallulah Bankhead’s uncle as well as a colonel and a military attache to Canada, threw the reception at the Coral Gables Country Club.
Despite his own father’s inability to make a living, Thompson’s grandparents’ success meant that as a very young boy he lived very well. The family would drive to Florida for winter break in a Cord convertible, the fanciest American car of the time, with big wheels on the sides and beautiful leather within, and a couple of his mother’s sisters also went away to boarding school.
When Thompson was seven, his grandmother died and the money ran out. His mother’s brother took the Cord in lieu of his share of his grandparents’ real estate, which his mother and her four sisters shared, getting one-fifth each.
Thompson emphasizes that they always had food and a roof over their head, but no money for extras. They converted nine stalls in back of the house to nine garages that were rented out for a little income. His mother also owned a half interest in a flower shop across the street, for seven or eight years during the late 1940s and early ‘50s.
Starting at age 12 or so, Thompson sold Christmas trees in the side yard of his house, with the help of Pete McCrohan, a family friend who would late become Princeton police chief, who helped him buy bundles of trees wholesale.
Using proceeds from his various jobs, he had accumulated enough money by 1956 to start buying the house at 195 Nassau from his mother and aunts. “They were kind enough to hold the purchase money mortgage on their shares,” he says, “and I would pay off the interest.” Eventually he did get a mortgage from a bank and paid them off.
Then in 1958 Thompson started his real estate company. “I didn’t want to do the professions or anything with detail — I would be too bored and nervous,” he says. “I was always a wheeler dealer, a buyer and a seller.” And, after all, real estate had been the family business.
Thompson’s first real estate purchase was in 1958 when married his first wife, Siri Romsaas, a Norwegian. He paid $6,000 for a property that backed up to 195 Nassau, half of a two-family house on Charlton Street. The next year he purchased the second half from the first seller’s brother for $7,500. Thompson also owns what was a single-family house next door to his office, which now has two apartments.
Four generations of Thompson’s family actually lived at 195 Nassau, including a three-year stint by his daughter in an apartment on the third floor. Thompson reminisces about sitting on the beautiful front porch. “It was fun to sit and rock and watch things go by,” he says. That is, until about 1947 when they widened Nassau Street and his house lost not only the great big oak trees that still line the yard in front of 185 Nassau next door but also the front porch itself (and the side porch, which made no sense without the front one).
In their place the borough put up parking meters, and the adolescent Thompson was furious. He took a hammer to the meters every third day until a canny policeman called him to court and had a word with him. “Bryce,” he was told, “we want to give you an appointment. Someone has been smashing those parking meters and you are going to watch; and if you don’t catch him, you’re going to be in trouble.” That ended that little escapade.
Thompson says his school background was nothing to brag about. He went through eighth grade at the Nassau Street School, now called 185 Nassau, next door. Thompson had been sick during first grade and his teachers wanted him to repeat the year. But when his mother found out that his two pals, writer John McPhee and Princeton lawyer John Graham, were being skipped from first to third, she went crying to the principal and succeeded in pushing her son ahead. She thought she was doing him a favor, says Thompson, but he adds, “then I was always behind.”
He went to boarding school his first two years of high school and finished at Princeton High School, but didn’t study and maintained a consistently poor record. He did succeed in certain areas, though. “I was number one on the tennis team,” he recalls, “and in the yearbook I was Class Clown and Most Flirtatious — the only person to ever have two superlatives.”
All in all, Thompson did not have the happiest boyhood, with an alcoholic father and a mother who didn’t want to get divorced because she was Catholic. Thompson had one brother, 11 years younger, who died in his mid-50s. “I was more like a father to him than a brother,” says Thompson.
Thompson’s college choices — yes, that is correctly plural — had more to do with tourism than with academics. “I would go for a semester and then transfer, just to see places,” he says. He made his way through the University of Alabama, Florida State, Florida Southern, Rider, the University of Miami, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the University of Miami, and later went to Mexico City College on the GI Bill. Summers through college and after the army he earned money as a tennis pro.
Ever the wheeler-dealer and because he was pretty much broke, he managed in Alabama and Florida to transfer his driver’s license, using the homes of great uncles as “residences.” As a result his tuition was only $150 a semester. At Rider he played tennis for two quarters on a scholarship. But since he earned money in the summer by teaching tennis, the rules defined him as a pro, and the college canceled his funding.
“I got to know different people, cultures, and parts of country,” he says of his college experiences, but although he enjoyed reading history and literature and did well at things that interested him, in the end he earned no degree.
Although Thompson had been deferred from the Korean War because he was in college, once the war was over, he went to the draft board and asked to be drafted. When they questioned his motivation, he responded, “I don’t want people to think I’m afraid to be in the army.” And when asked why he didn’t volunteer, that was easy — you’re in for four years if you volunteer and only two if you are drafted.
Thompson completed eight weeks of basic training and then advanced basic. At that point enlistees who pass the physical go on to one of the combat divisions. But because Thompson has a condition called “sleeping eye,” he went to clerk typist school to prepare for office work.
To motivate the students, says Thompson, they were told that the higher their class ranking the better their choices would be among available postings. The minimum requirement was 25 words a minute, but Thompson made it to 27 or 28, which gave him a choice of Hawaii; New York City; Washington, DC; Japan; or Europe. “I ended up in Germany and had the best time of my life,” he says.
In 1955 and 1956, he was assigned to the sports office. The army had requisitioned resort hotels in the Alps during the postwar occupation of Germany, and Thompson’s first posting was at Garmisch, where the 1936 Olympics had been held before the war. Soldiers used the hotels for “leave and rest,” as it was called then, and were able to stay for $2 to $3 a night.
Thompson decided he would try to learn to ski well enough to serve on the ski patrol for the army. Skiing lessons were cheap — only 4 marks or $1 an hour. To the ski instructor’s surprise, Thompson told him he wanted lessons “all day, every day.” The instructor was thrilled, says Thompson, and the feeling was mutual, because Thompson was getting a week of ski lessons for $40. At the end of the week Thompson’s skiing was good enough to be able to manage the rescue toboggan used to fetch fallen skiers. That plus a first-aid course got him a job on ski patrol.
His life in the army consisted mostly of tennis and skiing, and the only thing that got in the way of this blissful existence was Thompson’s penchant for fighting. His first fisticuffs got him moved to Bertesgarten, where Hitler had a summer house. Then when he had differences with his commanding officer, he got moved to a tiny place near where King Ludwig II had built his “crazy, fancy castles.”
Thompson also would get in trouble back home in Princeton. Consider the bit of mischief at the Peacock Alley Bar in the basement of the Peacock Inn, which he and his cronies started haunting about age 17. His friends were teasing him, saying, “Don’t talk to Thompson,” so he picked up the round table they were sitting around, made a mess, and got kicked out for a week.
A few years later, in about 1960, he ended up owning the Peacock Inn for three months. “I bought it just for fun,” he says. “I hang out there; why not own it?” But he mismanaged it so badly that he lost a lot of money and had to shut it down. “I was buying my friends free drinks, and it was lots of fun, but it was not very profitable,” he says. When he sold it, though, he made a $15,000 profit, and he remembers someone telling him, “It’s a good thing you’re a good realtor, because you’re a damn dumb restaurateur.”
Thompson’s leisure activities continue to this day to lean in the direction of risk taking, adventure, and a willingness to continually challenge himself. For example, Thompson has ridden motorcycles all his life. “Motorcyclists like to do crazy things,” he says, explaining how he used to ride up the highway with one foot on the seat and one in the air, blinking his lights, blowing his horn, and clapping. “I was putting on a show,” he says, admitting, “It was not very smart.”
Last summer he hit an oil slick and fell off. Although he wasn’t hurt, he didn’t have the strength to lift the cycle off of him and had to wait for two young guys in the next pickup. But he is still riding.
He also did timber racing, which is like steeplechasing — point-to-point races among landed gentry, who would say to one another. “I’ll race you to yon steeple, take any route you want.” At the Essex Hunt Club in Far Hills he would join in fall and spring fundraising races. “My name is the last one on a cup at the Essex Hunt Club, he says. His last race was down in Virginia, where he was seriously hurt. “I thought I could do anything,” he says. “I was on a relatively green horse instead of a proven one, and I ended up in the hospital with a broken arm, my nose flattened, and on the critical list.”
Thompson decided to learn polo, not so safe a sport either, at about age 40. “Someone said they needed a player next Sunday,” he remembers. He told them, “I don’t know how to play,” and the response was, “Stand on the field, and get out of the way when someone gets too close.” He did a clinic at Yale over two three-day weekends and became one of the better players.
On Thompson’s farm he has a practice polo field, and at the Hillsborough Country Club, which he owns, a regulation one. The country club holds a charity game every year in June for Alzheimer’s, which grosses over $400,000. But after having been “bucked off and run over” four years ago, Thompson, now 76, doesn’t play anymore, even though he guesses he probably could. Then he adds, “But what the hell would I want to do this for at my age?”
Both Thompson and his oldest son raced sleds, head first, at St. Moritz, Switzerland, achieving speeds around 80 miles per hour. Twenty-three years ago his son was featured on the “ABC Wide World of Sports” as the fastest American of all time at that point (Thompson notes that technique and sleds had improved, which is why his time was higher than previous records).
“It’s in the family,” says Thompson. At age 50, he won the 45-and-over race. “I beat the others by a decent amount of time,” he says, “but I was never really good like my son.” Thompson’s younger son also sleds and was the best beginner out of 40 or 50 two years ago.
Thompson tells of going back to sledding at the young age of 72. “It frightened me to death,” he says, “and it took four or five days to get close to where I was. It was like playing polo — not that I can’t do it, but I know will get hurt and don’t mend as easily.” And yet he persevered. On his first try, his fear left him 20 seconds off his best time from years ago, but at the end he was only three seconds off.
For the last four years Thompson has lived with Grace White, a woman he had met about a decade ago, but got reintroduced to when a friend suggested he invite her for lunch. They met at Lahiere’s and “fell in love,” he says. “I’ve never been happier.”
Thompson lives in East Amwell on a 7,000-square-foot farmhouse on the slope of the Sourland Mountains at a confluence of three farms. His oldest son lives in the bottom house, he lives in the upper one, and his second wife lives in the third.
Thompson is not too worried about the current recession, because his land and the majority of his buildings are in a 15 to 20-mile radius of Princeton. He would have been more concerned if he had invested in an inner city, where investors are being hurt. “People in this area haven’t been affected,” he says. “It may happen, but it hasn’t yet.”
He is, after all, a risk taker by nature. He quotes an article by a friend and former doubles tennis partner Shawn Tully, then writing for New Jersey Monthly, “Thompson uses leverage as if he were moving the rock of Gibraltar with a crowbar.” The article went on to say that if Thompson had $100,000, he would put $10,000 down on 10 different things and borrow as much as he could. Tully, who later became a reporter then executive at Fortune magazine, concluded, “I never saw anyone as willing to take risks.”
Thompson adds philosophically, “I didn’t have anything when I started. If in five years I had to start over, I would do it, and it wouldn’t break my heart or break my spirit.”
You might say he has a lot of stick-to-itiveness. He will do whatever it takes to endure. Thompson, in fact, plans to be in Princeton for a long time. Although the Stocktons and Gulicks have been here twice as long as his family, he likes to kid about the Stocktons, who sold Morven: “You may have come over 150 years earlier than the shanty Irish, but I don’t think you have your house.
“There’s such a turnover in the modern age,” he concludes. “You have very few people living in a family house over 100 years. We never moved out.”
Thompson Realty Co. of Princeton, 195 Nassau Street, Princeton 08542. 609-921-7655. E-mail: email@example.com