Architect Robert Hillier has purchased an eight-building cluster spanning three blocks along Witherspoon Street, between 114 and 188, leading up to his office at 190. The $3.9 million deal involves a series of residential properties and the building housing La Mexicana grocery store that lie between Green and Lytle streets.
What it means for the future of the historic neighborhood will have to wait. Hillier says that for now the properties — all occupied, most residential — will serve as investments.
“There is no preconceived plan, it’s just a good, solid investment,” he says.
However, Hillier does want to improve the condition of the properties, most of which are more run down than the houses on the side streets, and says he will develop ideas along with the residents who live in the historically black neighborhood behind his office.
Hillier’s approach to revitalizing the end of town where Paul Robeson was born and raised has received positive and negative feedback from the neighbors. Residents on Quarry Street in particular went from giving Hillier high marks on his renovations to the Waxwood building (a former school building that Hillier converted to apartments) to scorn for his ultra-modern duplex at 16-18 Quarry, which a number of residents have called a bad sign for the future of their old-fashioned, porch-heavy neighborhood (U.S. 1, June 4, 2008).
Hillier also recently received approval from the borough to convert the dilapidated structure at 153 Witherspoon into a three-unit townhouse. “We’re getting rid of the one eyesore,” he says.
With this latest investment, Hillier wants to make sure the residents are part of any design plans on the west side of Witherspoon Street. He speculates that any revitalization will combine standard residential, affordable housing, food, and retail.
A handful of retail establishments exist along this particular stretch of Witherspoon — Pelusa Travel at 114, Chapin’s Mexican restaurant at 146, Marco’s Jewelry at 148, and El Buen Gusto clothing shop at 150.
Hillier says the makeup of the businesses here is the foundation for the type of walk-around neighborhood he has been espousing for years; the kind of neighborhood that residents do not have to leave in order to buy the basics and one to which visitors would come and hang out.
Whatever his plans, Hillier hopes to spruce up what he refers to as the face of the neighborhoods around his office.
And though he did not purchase the historic Paul Robeson house at 110 Witherspon Street, Hillier says he is talking with its owners, Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, about the idea of restoring it and converting it to a museum. “The house has a lot of history, but not a lot of architectural quality,” he says.
If the Robeson property is renovated, it could be the cornerstone attraction in this part of Princeton. Mimi Omiecinski, who operates Princeton Tour Company at 98 Nassau Street, says the Robeson property is the centerpiece of a neighborhood rich in history. Beyond Robeson himself, whom Omiecinski says is as important a figure as Martin Luther King Jr. for his unwavering fight for civil rights during the McCarthy era, Omiecinski drops several names that have a connection to the neighborhoods. Albert Einstein got his hair cut at a home on Quarry Street, Count Basie used to hang out in the neighborhood, as did pioneering jazz pianist Donald Lambert.
Omiecinski says she is glad that Hillier is taking on the task of renovating a broader swath of the area, rather than doing it one property at a time. “My money is on locals like Bob Hillier investing their talents in an area,” she says.
Omiecinski also says that any true attempt to get the area revitalized will take time and informative conversation. “I believe when residents understand the historical importance of a home or area, they tend to do the right thing esthetically,” she says. “Hillier has an undeniable history of combining the most innovative architectural advancements while maintaining the integrity of a site.”
#b#J. Robert Hillier#/b#, 190 Witherspoon Street, Princeton 08540; 609-688-9999; fax, 609-688-9990.