While it’s often said that a thousand words can’t match an image, the spoken and written words are better for recalling historic fact and feeling. And to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of Palmer Square, words — along with few photos — will provide the big picture.
The facts are familiar … or should be.
Edgar Palmer, heir to the New Jersey Zinc Company fortune and prominent Princeton benefactor of both the town and the university, first envisions the square in 1906. Twenty-three years pass. When Palmer becomes president of the Princeton Municipal Improvement plans for “a new municipal center” are unveiled. The vision includes a mixture of business and residential uses, a hotel, a post office, and a movie theater. The start of the Great Depression delays the project’s start to 1936. A year later the first section of Thomas Stapleton’s Colonial Revival design is finished. The square opens for business.
One of the first business to join (and now the square’s oldest) is the Silver Shop. Another long-time community institution soon makes its debut, the “new” Nassau Inn. The “old” tavern, built in 1756, was at 52 Nassau Street and had changed from home to inn. Nearly two centuries later, the need for a modern hotel forced its closure and the construction of a building that “would preserve the traditions of ‘Old Nass.’”
Palmer sees Palmer Square West and the corner on to Nassau Street complete before his death in 1943. The next several years bring the Norwegian Spruce trees, and the Tiger Memorial is dedicated in Palmer’s name.
Other milestones follow: the 1960s building of One Palmer Square, the 1985 Chambers Street Garage, 1989-92 Hulfish Street development, and the recent plans for residency units.
While that’s the factual history, memories are the things that make a place a place, and community members have been sharing them on the management’s webpage.
Princeton native and journalist Faith Bahadurian writes, “Some of my happiest childhood memories of growing up in Princeton involve Palmer Square, with Christmas Eve chief among them. We watched the tree lighting, and then waited for Santa to appear high up on the roof across from the Nassau Inn, then rushed into the Playhouse movie theater for cartoons and candy canes. After that, my brother and I crazed with sugar and excitement, my parents bravely took us out to dinner. No visit from out-of-town guests was complete without brunch at the Green House restaurant in the Nassau Inn, with those expansive windows looking out onto the square, and in the summer I remember art shows on the Square, where framed art was hung off fencing and sold to benefit various charitable programs.”
“I didn’t grow up in Princeton, but Palmer Square is one of my second homes,” writes Three Bears marketing manager Debbie Eisendraft Rolan. “When (my husband) first took me to Princeton to convince me to move out of NYC, he said Palmer Square was just like Bryant Park — it has concerts, great food, shopping, and a green you can lounge on all afternoon. We’ve been here five-plus years now, three of which we’ve enjoyed many a days with our daughter. This was the first place we took her when she was just four days old! It holds a special place in our hearts, and we hope to create many more memories here.”
Ellen Wolff of Blue Jersey Band writes what appears to be a personal history, “We met at the Tap Room at the Open Stage in the early 1980s — we got married at the Nassau Inn 1989 — we played guitar at our wedding — we still live in Princeton — we have played at many a Communiversity, and we are still playing music as Blue Jersey Band.”
Mimi Omiecinski of Princeton Tour Company includes Palmer Square on all her tours and has an appreciation of the place and the man. “I fell in love with Edgar Palmer,” she says listing his philanthropic contributions and spirit. She is also quick to say that he had little to do with naming the square after him. That was the result of a community square naming contest that offered Grover Cleveland, James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, John Witherspoon, and other prominent Princetonians as choices. But when it came time to vote, it was his name on the write-in ballot that put the Palmer on the square.
Saying that she loves the square at the center of Princeton, Omiecinski adds that her tour customers enjoy it, too, especially seeing the bricks that have the names of both famous and the beloved. It’s a place, she says, where they see tributes to Einstein, Oppenheimer, and a shop owner or long-time school principal.
The Palmer Square bricks, she says, are “a metaphor for the town. It draws home that Princeton is not the home of just intellectuals and tycoons. It’s a town that embraces every walk of life. It’s a town and gown love affair.”
Edgar Palmer, she thinks, would be thrilled.
Palmer Square, 75th Anniversary Commemoration, Sunday, October 7, noon to 5 p.m. Games, prizes, and promotional events. Richard Reiter Swing Band, 2 to 4 p.m. Free. www.palmersquare.com/events/birthday-bash.