#b#Note: This event has been postponed to Saturday, November 10, due to Hurricane Sandy.#/b#
While Princeton is a town steeped in history, that history does not have to exist just as words on a page or in monuments and paintings. On Saturday, November 3, the Historical Society of Princeton’s 11th Annual House Tour — an event that has become an unofficial tradition and an important booster for the society’s educational programs — will provide a rare opportunity to see history take shape in a very personal way that shows how people once lived and how we live today.
On tour day five homes, each possessing a distinctive, rich statement on Princeton’s past and a unique vision on architecture, interior design, and landscaping, will open their doors at 10 a.m. to tickets holders. Participants will then have the chance to explore these houses that tell some unusual stories about Princeton’s history in the most intimate terms possible: from the experience of living it.
Since diversity is key, the tour will not just be a procession of 19th-century estates, though the matchless Victorian mansion, Guernsey Hall, and the residence at 200 Mercer Street might certainly fit that description. Other featured houses — Quarry Street House (a shockingly innovative modernist experiment), the Joseph Olden House (the stone cottage that is an ode to the power of renovation), and Boxwood Cottage (which possesses an astounding outdoor life in a series of intricate gardens) — have their own claims to uniqueness.
Ticket holders will receive a booklet with background information about each residence as well as a map and parking information. They will then be free to make personal interests their guide and from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. tour this year’s “Fabulous Five” in any order, lingering as long as they please at residences that particularly capture their fancy. Volunteer docents will be available at each house to field questions and provide additional information.
What is so special about the way houses reflect history?Historical Society of Princeton executive director Erin Dougherty replied with an enthusiasm perceptible even in print: “The love of history in our town is very strong, and we live with history; it is embedded in our daily life, and the life of history is so often tied to a place.”
What can magisterial, sweeping residences could tell us about the past in a way that matters to us today? House Tour chair David Schure has a response, “The example of how we once lived is not static. It is also an example of adaptability over time.”
And it is true: A house is the demarcation of space where people live; it provides a record of what people required in the past, and what they need now.
One residence on the tour, Guernsey Hall on Lovers Lane, serves as a particularly dramatic example of how houses can bear witness to needs changing over time. Built in 1852 for Judge Richard Stockton Field, the Italianate-style Victorian mansion, originally named “Fieldwood,” once contained 42 rooms on an estate spanning 40 acres. The residence featured marble fireplaces in every main room. It also contained a three-story tower, hexagonal chimneys poking from its tin roof, and a breathtaking octagonal center stair hall surrounded by a winding staircase. The space rises 40 feet above, capped by a dome.
By all rights, it seems that Guernsey Hall should be a museum or the home of an owner with vast sums of wealth. But through the decades the structure’s grandeur proved more of a disadvantage than anything else. Professor Allan Marquand bought the residence in 1887, christening it with the name it retains today. At that time it had no electricity. Additionally, those numerous marble fireplaces lacked a furnace, and the sprawling mansion had but one bathroom with no tub. It was not until 1912 that each bedroom would have one.
Across years and decades, the mansion was bought and sold. When it resurfaced on the market in 1970, the unwieldy, impractical residence proved a hard sell. Though a prospective buyer did appear, he intended to destroy the historic building. The buyer didn’t get his way, but Guernsey Hall did not stay the same either.
William Short, an architect who testified against that buyer, envisioned a plan to save the residence and converted it into five luxury condominiums. They are still used as such today, making Guernsey Hall more than a case of dramatic architectural intervention. It is a lesson in the power of adaptive use, in how preservation of the past and the needs of the present need not collide.
As if to show just how tightly historic places are linked to people and their own stories, consider another home on the tour, the Joseph Olden House at 130 Stockton Street. Built in the 1760s, the structure — originally a one-room stone cottage — was renovated by the very man behind Guernsey Hall’s modern update, William Short. He revamped the cottage as a personal project and adopted it as his own private residence.
House tour participants will also get a peek at unprecedented innovation of different sorts as well. Quarry Street House seems an architectural rebellion, yet it garnered a 2012 design award. The home was designed and is inhabited by architect Marina Rubina, who wanted to test affordable, sustainable high-quality residential architecture. Visually, the home is an exciting break from traditional styles, a fanciful juxtaposition of basic shapes and angles.
But appearance is not the only thing that is surprising about Quarry Street House. It was prefabricated, its pieces made in a factory by Future Home Technologies Inc. Produced in three weeks, Quarry Street House was installed in one day.
Quarry Street House is not a simple modernist experiment, though. It also retains a link to tradition. Its dimensions echo those of more conventionally designed houses in the neighborhood; the porch and front yard are built to maximize neighborly interaction. Even the dramatic carport takes its cue from the traditional driveway format.
Indeed, the very concept of a prefabricated house is not a crazy postmodern dream; the Sears Roebuck catalog was selling mail-order homes as early as 1903. Compare Quarry Street House to another featured residence, Boxwood Cottage on Quarry Lane. Dramatically different in appearance, Boxwood is likely “prefab” as well, a product of the Sears Roebuck catalog. That touchstone is worth bearing in mind while touring these two homes. Sometimes innovation becomes “historical” in unexpected ways.
Both Quarry Street House and Guernsey Hall are dramatic examples of how residences, either through time or design, have a special relationship to history. Yet, the tour is not just about “insides.” The architectural structure of a home is only part of a residence. Outdoor space is just as important.
Landscape architect Holly Nelson, whose home was featured in the 2011 House Tour, has a portfolio that includes prestigious Princeton landmarks such as Westland Mansion (former residence of President Grover Cleveland) and the Updike Farmstead. Yet as a practitioner who characterizes her work as often “extending living space outdoors,” she says she is often forced to do battle with history. As Nelson points out, in centuries gone by there was a different attitude towards the outside world and an emphatic separation from it.
Such thoughts must have been on her mind when she stepped in as landscape architect to update the residence at 200 Mercer, the Colonial Revival home built in 1896. Nelson’s work there reveals how renovation can help historic homes embrace the inspirations that informed their creation even more wholly.
With a facade that makes it immediately identifiable, 200 Mercer has a huge lawn and a porch with columns. Nelson, who made the trenchant observation that front lawns are a feature that “make the least sense and still they are there,” did not remove the lawn, but rather played up to tradition. The entrance to Mercer was also not changed. Rather, its idiosyncrasies were embraced: two columns were added to the original two columns that framed the porch, which was extended.
Moreover, Nelson made sure that the outdoor world of the home be organized around sprawling lawns, adjusted to complement the house. She moved the pool from a cramped position to a place that marks the end of the lawn, where it sits in the shade of a sculptural Tulip tree. A woodland garden runs beneath the tree’s winding branches. Upon arrival at 200 Mercer, viewers will see not only an impressive residence, but one where new conceptions of where the “indoors” begins and ends have played a remarkable role, altering the very sense of space.
In short, the House Tour will present a unique way of thinking about history, of making it “real” in a way no placard could. These residences embody not only what people used to desire and require, but reveal what they still desire as well as what they no longer require.
Ultimately, though, the Historical Society of Princeton’s House Tour is an occasion for exploration. It encourages its participants to indulge their own interests. You do not need to be an amateur historian to find something to get excited about here. Whether you love architecture, interior design, gardens or are just interested in living spaces, the House Tour, like so many of the residences it features, will prove eminently suited to the needs of those who will “inhabit”: the participants.
House Tour, Historical Society of Princeton. Saturday, November 3, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. House Tour homes are located at 200 Mercer Street, 100 Quarry Lane, 28 Quarry Street, 68 Lovers Lane #1 and 130 Stockton Street. $45. Rain or shine. www.princetonhistory.org or 609-921-6748 ext. 105.
House Tour tickets are $45, though Historical Society of Princeton members may purchase them in advance for $40. Tickets may be purchased on the day of the tour at the Historical Society’s headquarters at Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street. Tickets may also be purchased at any of the homes on the day of the tour. Participants may pay with cash, check or credit card at the Bainbridge House; cash or checks are accepted at other locations.