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.

Unless

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

located

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

furniture

— 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

Society,"

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

furniture

will remain in storage. We will reach out to the community for help

with storage, conservation, and our long-term plan for a permanent

display."

Translated that probably does not mean volunteers showing up with

paint stripper and wire brushes but rather it means money —

probably

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

appreciate

as much as a brain in a jar.

In any case, this furniture is a good start and may provide the

critical

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

Robeson."

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

focussed

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?


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