During the last weekend in May, when Princeton’s Class of 1950 celebrates its 60th reunion, a group of these men will slip away from the champagne toasts and catered dinners and drive a mere 10 miles to a blighted forgotten neighborhood that couldn’t be more of a contrast to the starched Brooks Brothers elegance of Princeton if it tried. These men, now in their 80s, will grab hammer and drill and help build a house in East Trenton. Over half of the 1,650 housing units in this once-industrial section of the city were built between the two World Wars (just as the members of Princeton’s Class of 1950 were being born) and are now, not to put too fine a point on it, aging out.
Who could persuade these guys to put down their Veuve Clicquot and Cuban cigars and get dirt under their fingernails for a few hours? One of their own, that’s who. After graduation David McAlpin, now 82, took the road less traveled. He attended Union Theological Seminary; became a pastor who dedicated his career to helping the less fortunate, many of them African-Americans; and, at about the time most of his classmates were getting ready to permanently dust off their custom-fit Callaway drivers and putters, established the Trenton chapter of Habitat for Humanity in 1986. There he has spent the last 24 years making that most basic and resonant dream of families everywhere — owning their own home — a reality for those for whom that dream remains achingly elusive.
Where do the seeds of this kind of philanthropy come from? If you were to research the McAlpin family, which dates in this country to the early 19th century, boasts more than 30 Princeton graduates (and counting — one of McAlpin’s granddaughters is a member of the Class of 2009), and includes far more than a few drops of Rockefeller blood, you would find he seems the right person to ask.
The story of the McAlpins begins in 1836, when an entrepreneurial 20-year-old, David H. McAlpin (McAlpin’s great-grandfather), whose parents had come to America from Ireland only a few years before his birth, opened a cigar store on Catharine Street in New York City. It was the little cigar store that could, for over the years it expanded into several branches and eventually grew into the firm of John Cornish & Co., tobacco manufacturers. A few years later McAlpin bought out his partners and established the firm of D. H. McAlpin & Co., which was sold at the time of his death in 1903 to another tobacco concern reportedly for about $2.5 million. During his life, McAlpin, one of 11 children, was also the director of several banks and insurance companies and was a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. He was also a Presbyterian elder and a supporter of the Union during the post Civil War era.
One of his sons, David Hunter McAlpin Jr (McAlpin’s grandfather), graduated from Phillips Academy and Princeton University, Class of 1885. According to his obituary in the New York Times (January 21, 1934) he became a doctor and professor of gross pathology at Bellevue Medical School but eventually left active practice to dedicate himself to the administration of the McAlpin estate and to social and charitable work. He married Emma Rockefeller, the oldest daughter of William G. Rockefeller and niece of John D. Rockefeller Sr. Emma’s sister, Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, provided in her will the funding for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
His son, David H. McAlpin (McAlpin’s father), graduated from Princeton in 1920 and Harvard Law School in 1924. He served in both World Wars and was a Navy Commander from 1942 to ’46. He was a special assistant to the Attorney General in Washington and then became an investment banker. But his passions were photography and conservation. His love of photography began in the 1930s when he acquired several photographs by Ansel Adams. He endowed the first chair of photography in the country at Princeton, called the David H. McAlpin Professor of the History of Photos and Modern Art, currently held by Anne McCauley. According to Joel Smith, curator of photography at the Princeton University Art Museum, in 1971 McAlpin donated over 500 photos from his personal collection, which became the seed of the museum’s photography collection that now includes 30,000 photographs. His last gift to the university was to fund a department at the museum, the Photography Study Center, which also carries his name. He died in 1989 at the age of 92.
“I was very much aware of my father’s life as a philanthropist,” says the slightly built, immensely soft-spoken McAlpin in an interview in the Anne Reeves Studio of the Arts Council of Princeton, where Habitat for Humanity will hold a fundraiser, “No Place Like Home,” on Friday, April 30. The older McAlpin, says his son, was involved in the founding of the Museum of Modern Art. He sat on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera. He was an elder of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York and Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton. He sat on the board of the Union Theological Seminary for 18 years and was a trustee at Princeton as well as the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. In the area of conservation he founded the Stony Brook Watershed Association in Princeton and the Conservation Foundation, based in Washington, and was a trustee of the New York Zoological Society.
McAlpin’s parents divorced when McAlpin was five years old. He lived with his mother and two sisters, and his father maintained a residence in Princeton. “In the ’30s he spent most of his time in New York and had an apartment there,” says McAlpin. His mother, Nina Underwood, was the founder and proprietor of the Clothesline, a women’s apparel store in Palmer Square from the 1930s through the ’60s but she was also an activist. “I remember she was a leader in the soup kitchen movement during the Depression,” says McAlpin, who attended Miss Fine’s School and Princeton Day School, then Deerfield Academy. In the ’40s she married Thorn Lord, who was the chairman of the Mercer County Democratic Committee from 1949 to 1965 and a candidate for U.S. Senator in 1960. (McAlpin’s father also remarried.) “She was heavily involved in political affairs,” says McAlpin. “It was her example and her compassion which were the primary influence in my choosing of my calling.”
He says he has two vivid memories from his years at Princeton University that also influenced his calling to go to seminary. “One was a course by Paul Ramsey in the history of theology in which he spent a major part of the course teaching about the meaning of Agape love,” says McAlpin. “The subject of a number of writings of theologians during the turn of the 20th century, Agape love is the concept of selfless love as opposed to filial love or love based upon commonality. The idea that God loves each living person without regard for their worthiness is the meaning of Agape love that spoke to me, and that ‘we love because God first loved us.’”
The other memory took place in his junior year, when the department of religion brought in Stephen Neill, an Anglican missionary, bishop, and scholar from Scotland, as a speaker. “He touched my heart and confirmed what I was already leaning towards. I had been leaning towards the ministry and it became a calling and then a decision,” says McAlpin. “He communicated the Love of God to me in private conversation more than his lecture.”
He earned a master of divinity in 1953 from Union Seminary. “It was not until my father was aware that I had a calling to the ministry, while I was at Princeton, that he joined the board of Union,” says McAlpin. In 1952 he met his wife, Joan Rockefeller, daughter of Avery Rockefeller, at the wedding of a mutual cousin in Greenwich. Their engagement was announced in the New York Times, as was their wedding, also in Greenwich, in 1953.
The couple settled in Princeton. McAlpin met with Benjamin Anderson, the minister of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church and, says McAlpin, “a very active leader in all matters concerning the welfare of the African-American people.” Anderson had recently founded a migrant ministry in Monmouth County and invited McAlpin to assist him both at that ministry and at Witherspoon Church.
“Here I was, somebody who did not really grow up in the church — from a very,” he hesitates, looking for the right word with a slight grimace of humility at the expression of the understatement, “prominent family — and I was candidating at churches that were looking for a minister. That, like any job search, is a very stressful place to be. So (Anderson’s invitation) was very affirming.” After a year at Witherspoon McAlpin was invited to become associate pastor. “I assisted at services, was in charge of the youth program, visited in homes in the community, and got involved in organizations that were working to overcome racial prejudice during those years when there was a very active involvement in breaking down housing discrimination,” says McAlpin. “There were two major thrusts. One was exposing discriminatory practices in real estate as African-Americans began buying and living in houses in neighborhoods that were previously all white. The second was establishing an integrated housing development in the township.”
He became involved in two integrated housing developments, Glenacres in West Windsor township off Alexander Road and Maplecrest at Dempsey and Walnut Lane in Princeton; many of the original owners still live there. In 1955 he and Joan rented out their house on Laurel Circle and moved with their four children to Detroit, where McAlpin served as a pastor and “became involved in civil rights and interracial affairs and religiously oriented low-income housing organizations.” Their two sons David, now a partner in the architectural firm Fradkin McAlpin in New York, and Loring, an artist who works for Ted Muehling, a jewelry designer in New York, graduated from Princeton. Their daughter Ann has been an outdoor education expedition leader and is now raising a son in Colorado. Their daughter Janet creates and directs performances in movement theater, manages a performance theater, and is raising a son in Vashon, Washington.
The McAlpins stayed in Detroit until 1970 when, McAlpin says, he “came back to my roots.” The Laurel Circle house was too small for a family of six and through a childhood classmate of McAlpin’s, Jimmy Laughlin, who had gone into real estate, found a rambling old brick farmhouse built during the Revolutionary period — the first brick house built in Somerset County — on Opossum Road in Skillman. McAlpin still lives there with his second wife, Sally, whom he married in 1995. (Joan died in 1991.)
Before he left for Detroit McAlpin had been invited to become a member of the Presbytery of New Brunswick’s Committee on Social Witness. (The Presbytery is located on Parkside Avenue in Trenton, and encompasses central New Jersey). “At that time the East Trenton Presbyterian Church (at the corner of North Olden and North Clinton avenues),” says McAlpin, “had declined and the Presbytery was trying to figure out what to do with the building." They eventually established a community center called the East Trenton Center in the building.
When he returned from Detroit, McAlpin says, “I got involved in supporting affordable housing in Trenton. In the early ’80s there was a new movement among Presbyterian churches to do something about affordable housing.” One area project was to renovate the house next to the East Trenton Center, which belonged to the Presbytery. During that renovation, says McAlpin, a constituency of about a half dozen churches, 30 to 40 people, put their heads together and asked, what do we do next?
“The constituency became persuaded that an organization that was ecumenical, including all Christian and non-Christians in collaboration, was necessary as a strong base for an effort that would be sustainable,” says McAlpin. “I had come to know about Habitat for Humanity and had taken work groups to Nicaragua. We decided to organize a Habitat chapter in Trenton. A key person (in that effort) was Richard Morgan, a math teacher at Trenton High and an active Presbyterian elder.”
The East Trenton Center, smack in the middle of a neighborhood that desperately needed affordable housing, became the first local sponsor of the new Habitat chapter, quickly joined by St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church next door, as the first local church sponsor. Ten years later the non-profit East Trenton Center Corporation fell apart, and the Presbytery was looking for another organization to take responsibility for the building and community center. Habitat for Humanity-Trenton stepped up to the plate and eventually established the East Trenton Collaborative (ETC) with several organizations and individuals including Better Community Housing of Trenton, a subsidiary of Martin House Foundation; CityWorks, a nonprofit commercial developer; Isles; the City of Trenton; HomeFront; and residents of East Trenton.
ETC’s purpose is “to eliminate all substandard housing in East Trenton and to bring economic development opportunities to the neighborhood.” The area’s decline following World War II began when factories, warehouses, and stores started moving to highway locations and to the southern United States, resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs and thus disrupting hundreds of families. According to the 2000 census, median family income in the neighborhood is $18,895. According to Habitat’s summer 2009 newsletter, the chapter has set a goal of eliminating all substandard housing in East Trenton over the next 20 years. Nearly 30 percent, or approximately 500 housing units, are vacant and 57 percent of the non-vacant homes are renter occupied.
“Our primary mission is to assist low-income families in substandard housing to have a decent home in a decent community,” says McAlpin. “That involves identifying families who are needy, who are employed or are receiving regular income sufficient to enable them to pay the cost of owning a home, and who are capable of partnering with others, who can take a responsible role in working with other people.” (Families must contribute 500 man-hours of sweat equity in the building of their house.)
“Then we have to find properties where we can build or renovate houses. Up to this point Trenton has been a community where we could find these properties at a low cost. Then we need to have the funds to pay the cost of building the house with most of the labor volunteer. Some is professional — the engineer, architect, electrician, plumber, and some other skilled people are not volunteer. I think of it as a four-legged family: money; properties; the workers, both volunteer and professional; and low income families.”
From beginning to end, McAlpin says, it takes about two years to build a house. The first year is eaten up by the family’s application approval and finding an address. In the second year the building takes place — that can actually take more than a year.
Habitat for Humanity-Trenton has built more than 80 homes in East Trenton. McAlpin says the very first family just completed paying off their 20-year mortgage. “They were responsible and hardworking,” says McAlpin. “She was a single mother with several children. At least two of them were teenagers and helped build. I kept up with them for many years.”
When each family moves in, Habitat throws them a housewarming party. “We don’t go away after that because we don’t want to have street gangs roughing up the kids,” says McAlpin. “We don’t want someone with a pistol or drug dealers breaking down the door or coming into the house to escape someone chasing them. So we have to be involved in building communities as well as houses. We have been working to develop an inter-agency collaboration to make this a viable community.”
This collaboration is the aforementioned ETC. “Every week we have a food pantry that provides both fresh produce and packaged foods to hundreds of families in a wider area. We have a learning center with an after-school program and tutoring, and that’s going to expand. We have an overflow shelter for the winter (the city of Trenton’s only back-up facility to the Trenton Rescue Mission). We have community activities like the Easter egg hunt, with 40 or 50 kids. We host weekly Narc-Anon meetings.” A new project is called ReStore, an operation that accepts donated building materials, using some for Habitat houses and reselling what’s not needed for low prices.
McAlpin says one of Habitat’s lifelines is the corporate community. “They are essential partners in this whole ministry in enabling Habitat to accomplish its mission.” He says two of the most active corporations in the last year or so have been Credit Suisse (on College Road East) and Wachovia Bank’s Trenton branch, both of which have not only given money but also send groups of employees on a regular basis to volunteer on building sites. “This is something that we call our team building program,” says McAlpin. “One of the benefits to the participants is developing their relationships with people outside of their work settings and learning to work together as a team.”
Some volunteers get so jazzed by the experience they go on to become committee members or trustees of Habitat. “We are always looking for people who have the motivation and the desire to serve at those levels,” says McAlpin. “We have a need for almost every skill and talent that exists, not just building. We have a need for people to help us work with applicants through the application process. We have a need for people who have the capability of coaching family partners once they are admitted to the program, who can help us improve our information technology, who can help us develop our volunteer program, who can help us set up our ReStore. We need people who can write. I could go on forever.”
For those who have building skills, Habitat is always looking for people who can help partner families learn the skills that make them helpful as volunteers on the construction site and people who can take the responsibility of leading construction crews.
Rita Nini, Habitat’s development coordinator, says several other corporations also offer funding and employee volunteers, including Parsons Brinckerhoff (an engineering and construction management firm in Carnegie Center), Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novo Nordisk, J&J in Skillman, Merrill Lynch, First Fidelity Investments in Princeton, Prudential Fox Roach in Hamilton, and Computer Associates in Ewing. She adds that the Trenton Thunder and the Trenton Devils send their front office employees to volunteer and that, for the first time, the Thunder players are coming to work on a site on Wednesday, April 28.
She says Educational Testing Service provides the perfect example of a corporation going above and beyond. More than 900 employees raised $117,000 to fund the cost of a new home. The employees and their families also contributed the labor needed to help build the house, which is on North Clinton Avenue. “What’s important about the ETS story,” says Nini, “is that its employees gave their own money, not corporate. Not only did they give their money, they gave their time, every Wednesday and some Saturdays.” Churches and college students, including students from TCNJ and Princeton, also send volunteer groups to the construction sites.
McAlpin remains a Habitat for Humanity board member and is in charge of church relations but his philanthropic commitments don’t end with Habitat. He has also served as trustee and president of the New Jersey Association on Correction; the Princeton Blairstown Center, which provides experiential education to inner city youth; and the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association. He is currently a trustee of the Historical Society of Princeton and Union Theological Seminary.
At first blush it may seem like McAlpin’s career path deviated markedly from the stereotypical choices of other Ivy Leaguers from privileged backgrounds, who we think all race to Wall Street or become the CEOs of major corporations. But in fact, McAlpin says that in his era at Princeton, there was not a heavy emphasis on these career tracks. “Guys from my class went into education, medicine, and the law. Yes, there were guys who went into business, but it wasn’t that kind of high-flying momentum you see now.”
Whatever professional choices his classmates made McAlpin has every reason to be thankful for them: The Class of 1950 (in conjunction with the class of 2005) has chosen Habitat for Humanity-Trenton as its Reunion Community Service Project and advance donations will pay for supervision and materials on Thursday, May 27, when classmates will work together to build a new home in East Trenton. The Veuve Clicquot can wait.
At the April 30 fundraiser poet Paul Muldoon will read a poem, “The Order of the 2X4,” which he has written about the deep meaning of a safe home for all human beings. He says: “It strikes me that Habitat for Humanity, like PEN America, is one of those few organizations which has a very clear objective which it actually seems to meet. Poets are not joiners in the ‘forming alliances’ sense, but they are joiners in the sense of ‘craftsmen whose occupation is to construct things.’ That’s why I wrote ‘The Order of the 2X4.’”
No Place Like Home, Habitat for Humanity, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, 609-393-8009. habitatta.org. Benefit to fund the construction of homes and to help revitalize East Trenton. Entertainment, silent auction, raffle. Register. $100. Friday, April 30, 6 to 9 p.m.