Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the October 15,
2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
On Historic Preservation
Isn’t it strange what we choose to preserve — or
not preserve — from our near and distant past? Most of us can
prove the point by walking into our own basements and looking around.
Or we can look into the way Princeton is handling the legacies of
two of its most famous residents — Albert Einstein, who lived
and worked in town for the last 22 years of his life, and Paul Robeson
who was born and raised here until he was 9 and kept in touch with
family friends in town for the rest of his life.
Robeson — a man of more talents than most of us realize —
has a street (actually just part of a street) named after him and
has a bust and a plaque in front of the Arts Council building, just
up the street from his childhood home at 110 Witherspoon Street.
I am missing something, that’s it in Princeton for the all-American
football player, lawyer, Broadway star, and political activist.
Einstein would roll over in his grave (quiver in his ashes?) if he
knew that part of him did not meet its final end in 1955 in Princeton.
His brain — through some strange set of circumstances beginning
at Princeton Hospital — ended up for many years pickled in a jar
and resting on a professor’s shelf in . . . Kansas. You can follow
the yellow brick road to check that one out (and discover that parts
of the brain apparently have been returned to the Medical Center).
But in Princeton, if you want to reflect on the life of this famous
resident, you can visit a small repository of reference material
at the back of . . . a clothing store on Nassau Street. Robert Landau,
proprietor of the store that specializes in Icelandic woolens, is
the hero who has assembled the material in hopes that someday it can
be pulled together at a suitable location (U.S. 1, June 26, 2002).
Strange, but true. In Princeton it may be that the town fathers have
spent more time and money trying to preserve (and now recreate) the
historic Mercer Oak at Battlefield Park than they have to preserve
the memories of Einstein and Robeson. This is despite the fact that
in the four years since the Historical Society launched its website
(www.princetonhistory.org), roughly 60 percent of the inquiries have
been about Einstein.
But just last week the Historical Society of Princeton announced that
the Institute for Advanced Study has donated some 65 pieces of
— including Einstein’s "treasured" music stand and his
"favorite tub armchair" — that had been in Einstein’s
house at 112 Mercer Street.
The story of how the furniture got to America from Nazi Germany is
a story in itself. But to me what is more interesting is what the
Historical Society intends to do with it: "The fact that this
great man lived with these pieces every day in Princeton makes this
gift of inestimable value to historians, students, and the interested
public who will be able some day to see them at the Historical
said director Gail Stern in a press statement. "We are discussing
plans to create a long-term interpretive exhibition, including some
of his furniture, that explores Albert Einstein as a humanitarian,
scientist, and Princeton resident. In the interim, most of this
will remain in storage. We will reach out to the community for help
with storage, conservation, and our long-term plan for a permanent
Translated that probably does not mean volunteers showing up with
paint stripper and wire brushes but rather it means money —
to relocate the offices of the society to a location outside of the
Bainbridge House and make room there for an Einstein center. It will
take a lot of planning and a lot of funding, and it will happen in
a matter of years rather than months. As I have argued before, the
Historical Society could get off to a good start with the $500,000
earmarked for an Einstein statue — a tribute Einstein might
as much as a brain in a jar.
In any case, this furniture is a good start and may provide the
mass for a final resting place for the Landau material.
Now a word about Paul Robeson. If he had been white,
people might now be comparing Bill Bradley to him. As in "Bradley,
an impressive record in both sports and politics — if he had just
made it as an entertainer he would be right up there with Paul
But instead most of us just know snippets of information about this
amazing life. Some attention will fall his way in January, when the
Postal Service honors him with a stamp as part of the Black Heritage
Series. We could all learn a lot about American and world history,
the arts, and matters of race through an interpretive exhibition
on Paul Robeson. The perfect place, ironically, might be at the Arts
Council, which is fighting the residents of Robeson’s old neighborhood
for permission to expand its presence on its admittedly small lot.
Whose side would Robeson take — the arts or the neighbors?
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.