Quarry Street is a pleasant little residential block within walking distance of the heart of Princeton. It is shaded with trees, bustling with longtime neighbors, and ripe with the colonial vibe inherent to the John Witherspoon section of town.
All of which makes the duplex at 16-18 seem out of place. Here, in stormcloud-blue polycarbonate and black porcelain tile and zinc, stands a pair of conjoined houses that are every inch two centuries removed from the Craftsman-style bungalows and brick front porches lining the rest of the one-block strip. Conceived by J. Robert Hillier, founder of Hillier Architecture, now RMJM Hillier, the world’s eighth-largest architecture firm located in Alexander Park, the duplex is also every inch the embodiment of modern technology and green design. The polycarbonate that wraps Number 16 acts not only as a filter for sunlight, it also provides an inch of airspace around the house, effectively doubling its insulation; elevators carry residents and visitors from one bamboo floor to another; airy, natural-light bathrooms require no electricity for most of the day; and the zinc shell of Number 18 keeps an enormous amount of heat from being absorbed in summer.
The idea, says Hillier, was to craft a duplex with an eye toward cutting-edge energy efficiency that would be almost entirely maintenance-free. It was also to be noticeably modern. A few years ago, a badly deteriorated duplex that had housed the Ford family since 1890 sat on this site and grew to be an eyesore for neighbors who say they were glad to see it go. The property’s new owners approached Hillier with plans to have a modern house amid the more traditional brick-and-mortar houses up and down Quarry Street. What came from it is what Hillier describes as “an exploration of materials and design.”
And controversy. “When you do something artistic it raises controversy,” Hillier says. “And this is certainly artistic. It has limited appeal.”
The phrase “urban insertion” has not helped quell contention. Often associated with military infiltration, Hillier has hung the phrase neatly over his futuristic design, only he sees it as anything but threatening. To him, urban insertion refers to the injection of urban thinking and design into a neighborhood with a vacant lot, as 16-18 became when it was razed. And Princeton, which he often calls “the best little city in the world,” is a perfect place to implant such ideas, he says, because Princeton is very much an urban town.
But dismay abounds. While the duplex was built entirely within Princeton’s zoning codes, and while it has been roundly lauded in the world’s most influential architectural magazines and granted a high award from the American Institute of Architects, some people in this tiny section of town say the building is little more than a middle finger to a neighborhood that prides itself on close ties and breezy front porch chats.
One vocal opponent of the duplex is Jim Floyd, whose house at 23 Quarry Street is directly opposite. “I hate it,” Floyd says flatly. The reasons behind his blunt statement are a little more complex, but Floyd’s conversation is peppered with words like “industrial,” “big box,” and “yawning garage doors.” The duplex, he says, would be nice in Malibu, but it does not belong here.
Floyd has an intimate geographical connection to Hillier’s work. In addition to living directly across from the duplex, Floyd lives directly next to the Waxwood apartments, which sits at the corner of Quarry and John streets. Once a school and later Princeton Nursing Home, Waxwood became a 34-unit residential building after it was bought by Hillier in 2003. Hillier renovated the building with strict attention to its existing character, which itself echoed the neighborhood. Before the renovation, Hillier met with residents who, Floyd says, were impressed with Hillier’s generosity and respect. Floyd, in fact, wrote Hillier a thank-you letter.
So when the duplex at 16-18 started going up, Floyd says he felt betrayed. By the time it was finished — the construction took almost two years — he felt outright insulted.
Tom Moore, who lives a few houses down from the duplex, tries to be as tactful as he can, calling the duplex “interesting.” He does like the elevators, which can be seen from his backyard. But soon his words mirror Jim Floyd’s. “I don’t like it,” Moore says. “I don’t like the design, I don’t think it fits.” Jimmy Mack, who owns Jimmy’s Barber Shop around the corner on John Street, says he hears a lot of people say they like the Waxwood better. “I think I agree,” he says.
The main fear, barely hidden below the surface, is that Hillier’s urban insertion is the harbinger of death for the neighborhood and the ties residents have forged with each other as generations passed down the houses to their children. On a leisurely walk through the John Witherspoon section, Floyd points out nearly a dozen houses that have been refurbished, rebuilt, or renovated. All of them resemble the surrounding architecture. And all of them have front porches — or at the very least, a wide top step — which is something Floyd says symbolizes the tightness of the knit in this neighborhood. Houses here were constructed to have places to sit and talk, to greet the neighbors. Putting a duplex in with no porches, he says, shows no interest in creating a residence in tune with the street’s traditions.
He also fears that the ultra-modern house will lead to more neighbor houses being torn down and replaced with tony residences. He points to the new, Michael Graves-designed Paul Robeson Center for the Arts (the Arts Council of Princeton’s new home at 102 Witherspoon Street), barely three blocks from his house, as an example of the slow, steady encroachment of cosmopolitan thinking into Princeton’s last old-school neighborhoods. As trendy replaces traditional, he says, the last outposts of family life and “relatively cheap housing” will disappear.
Princeton-as-home belongs to both Floyd and Hillier. Both graduated from Princeton — Hillier in 1959 with an architecture degree, Floyd in 1969 with a psychology degree — both grew up here, and both have parents who were major players in the community. Floyd’s mother’s family owned 10 Quarry Street, where his 94-year-old aunt still lives, and where Floyd himself lived until seventh grade. Later, his parents built a house on Harris Road, and after returning from graduate school at the University of Rochester, where he earned his Ph.D., Floyd bought his house at 23 Quarry Street.
James Floyd, his father, served as mayor of Princeton and has been such a staple of community affairs that philanthropist Bill Scheide last month named a multi-million-dollar endowment fund at the University Medical Center after James and Fannie Floyd. The fund will help people who cannot afford healthcare.
Hillier, though born in Canada, was raised in Cranbury and Princeton by James and Florence Hillier. James, holder of 41 patents and developer of the first fully operational electron microscope, was once the director of the David Sarnoff Research Center before. He died in May, 2007. Florence, who died in 1992, ran the Flower Basket, and two other flower shops in the Princeton area. Robert Hillier first dabbled in the Princeton real estate market in 1963 and has gone on to design or redesign hundreds of properties here since. He also teaches architecture at Princeton.
While both men have a deep stake in the neighborhood, the Floyd family, across the board, does not like Hillier’s Quarry Street duplex. His aunt, in fact, said, “It looks like a barn.” But Hillier does have at least one fan on Quarry Street. Karin Hoagland, who lives two doors from Jim Floyd, likes the duplex quite a bit. At first she worried that the sliding doors without balconies might be dangerous, but after noticing the safety railings, she came to appreciate the artistry and innovation of the design.
Hillier says he knows not everyone likes his design and that he respects their points of view. But to look at the neighborhood as if it is the same neighborhood of 50 years ago is no longer practical. “People don’t sit on their porches anymore,” he says. Old neighborhoods like the one along Quarry Street were built when people walked to work or rode horse, not cars. These days, he says, we don’t pass our neighbors on horseback, we pass them “in an air-conditioned box.” And as Jim Floyd pointed out the lack of a front porch on the duplex, Hillier points out the lack of garages. No other houses on Quarry Street have one.
“The beauty of any town is the variety of its architecture,” Hillier says. “Putting a modern house in just adds to the variety.”
While Hillier does not foresee the end of Princeton’s old-fashioned neighborhoods, he does think his duplex has already spurred neighbors to positive action. He says that since the units became occupied in March — they sold for $930,000 apiece and were bought within a month of their completion — neighbors along Quarry Street have steadily been fixing up their houses. Many for the first time in a long time. “The street hasn’t looked this good in years,” he says.
As for the cost, the houses were “kind of a wash,” Hillier says. Construction took longer than expected and advanced materials are not cheap, so he did not make any real profit on the sales. But then, he says, profit was not the main force behind the houses.
The duplex on Quarry also is not the first modern house Hillier has had built in Princeton. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” he says, pointing to his designs that sit on Stewart, Ridgeview, and Westerlea roads. “This is not some new thing.”
No stranger to controversy and resistance, Hillier is in a battle with Princeton Borough’s Zoning of Adjustment (and some neighbors) over a senior apartment facility he’s designing on Greenview Avenue. An “all-green building,” the project would tear down three rental properties, a garage, and a vacant warehouse and replace them with a three-story, 14-unit apartment building for residents 55 and older.
Like those on Quarry Street, neighbors fear the building would change the character of the neighborhood and jack up property taxes. Jim Floyd, though he lives a few blocks away, is a vocal opponent of this project too, saying it is yet another sign that Princeton’s traditional family neighborhoods are on the endangered list.
Were it to get through, Hillier’s plans would introduce a fully eco-friendly building featuring the latest in green design — sodded terraces, flat side roofs with lawns, collected rainwater for use as graywater. Special photovoltaic fabric awnings are also high on Hillier’s wish list, as is an underground parking garage, helping to make the complex a self-contained neighborhood. When completed, the units are expected to sell for $450,000 to $700,000.