Questions trouble drivers cruising Mapleton Road toward Academy Street in Kingston, once the home of world-famous Princeton Nurseries. Along George Washington’s 1777 route to winter quarters, land is scraped and raw. Why? How did this once-decrepit Princeton Nurseries house earn its selling price of nearly $1 million? What is the fate of this cluster of peeling Princeton Nursery dwellings? Lined up like Monopoly houses, they stare with Hallowe’en-hollow eyes at bared soil.

What exactly is Maple Town Associates, announced upon a gleaming gilded sign? Does this company fully honor this site of the storied nurseries, founded in 1913 by William Flemer Sr.? Can the heralded “Princeton Nurseries Village” fit in, let alone enhance Kingston and the newly opened Mapleton Preserve?

Five years ago it looked as though the serenity and historic aura of this section — from the D&R Canal and Millstone River to Route 1, and from St. Joseph’s Seminary to the village of Kingston and Ridge Road — would be destroyed by aggressive development. Crippling estate taxes on the heels of two Flemer family deaths had necessitated the sale of 488 acres to Princeton University. Activists failed to stave off the 220-unit, high-end rental community, now called Barclay Square. However, they did manage to rescue the heart of the Nurseries land and significant buildings, 214 acres of which are now set aside as Mapleton Preserve.

Kingston architect and historian, Robert von Zumbusch, admits that “it’s not all of what we wanted. But we preserved the core of Princeton Nurseries — a large enough area, with historic integrity — so that the landscape can be interpreted and its story told.”

The houses there, to be called Princeton Nurseries Village, a collection of seven turn-of-the-century homes, many of which housed Nurseries workers, are being rehabilitated by Maple Town Associates. They will be arrayed in “a Currier & Ives setting,” according to realtor’s brochures. RE/MAX’s Dawn Petrozzini offers some answers within those glossy pages; but she also proposes a personal tour. A circling osprey leads me to her from hectic Route 1 along bucolic Mapleton Road to Academy Street.

Petrozzini has worked with Maple Town Associates for more than two intense years of proposals and hearings. The Maple Town land had been purchased from the Flemer estate by Princeton University, which also owns the land occupied by Forrestal Village and everything north. (The other major landowner is St. Joseph’s Seminary, which sold part of its land to Windrows, the healthcare complex, in the early 1980s).

The activists brokered a deal: Princeton University agreed to focus development efforts on office research acreage fronting Route 1, relinquishing rights to continue development of residential acreage, including the land between Mapleton Road and the canal. It sold the historic Flemer houses to Maple Town Associates. Participants in these negotiations describe the process in surprisingly glowing terms.

To demonstrate the type of restoration that typifies Maple Town Associates (MTA), Petrozzini drives north, to a barn-red former tavern on Canal Road near Griggstown Causeway. Two years ago it was brought to useful life by Michael Sassman, who, with Dale Krieger, later formed MTA. These three dwellings throb with history, their restoration so subtle that passersby hadn’t realized that transformation was underway.

Petrozzini next circles one of their two current projects, the imposing Jebediah Higgins farmhouse, which will become an office building. Located on former Lenni Lenape territory, at Raymond Road and Route 27, the Higgins home was built in 1709. The oldest property in Franklin Township, locals consider it the oldest home in the Historic Village of Kingston, founded in 1675.

However, Petrozzini’s current focus is on prospects and projects within Princeton Nurseries Village. Stripped ground awaits this winter’s moving of two Princeton Nursery houses, until recently candidates for demolition. Once new foundations are in place, and ground sufficiently frozen, the buildings will be jacked up and loaded onto trailers. Both the D&R Canal Commission and PSE&G will be involved in moving permits. The transported houses will join those in situ, on a new road to become a quiet cul-de-sac. Trails lead from it to the D&R Canal and towpath below.

These seven classic colonials are offered from $689,900 to $999,000. Petrozzini, her husband a Kingston native, reports “healthy interest from Princeton residents, about to sell large family homes. They’re attracted by the charm of Kingston, by the fact that this is so close, and especially because it’s treed.”

Ironically, the very issues that stormed through those contentious public hearings-preservation of Princeton Nursery land — have now become major attractions. The project’s website promises “a unique preservation and restoration project situated in the heart of an approximate 250-acre park, the Mapleton Preserve, owned by the D&R Canal State Park.” According to Friends of Princeton Nursery Lands president, Karen Linder, “It’s Maple Town Associates’ business model to do things the right way. But we have to remain vigilant here, particularly on the nearby Nurseries houses with their conservation easements.”

MTA specializes in historic project acquisition and development. One of the principals, Krieger, was the son of a Brooklyn shoe product salesman. Krieger successfully used his 1972 Syracuse University degree on Wall Street. He then founded a Carnegie-Center-based money management firm, Carnegie Hill; ultimately selling it to Pitcairn Trust. He then opened his current firm, Krieger Ruderman & Company. He and his wife and their three children live in a 1720s Princeton home, which Sassman helped restore. “Mike did tremendous work in my Pretty Brook Road home,” says Krieger. Sassman then persuaded Krieger to become his partner in restoration.

Sassman’s father, and grandfather before him, owned the century-old Ridge Road homestead in which Sassman now resides. With both grandfather and father working as masons, passing their skills along to the boy, it is not surprising that work at Princeton Nurseries runs in their family. “We had a part in moving one of the Flemer houses — two times, actually,” Sassman recounts, “the one at the end of Mapleton. We’d build the foundations, then move the houses.”

Describing his unusual career track, Sassman says, “I started out as a mason, then got involved in the building. Sort of like our tavern on Canal Road — restored the footing and just kept right on going.” Disbelief intrudes, as he describes the tavern’s now-luminous stable when he undertook that project. It was “all cabled together — ready for demo!”

Mapleton’s faded and peeling workers’ homes have faced that fate ever since the Nurseries officially moved to Allentown, New Jersey. Current prospective buyers appreciate the fact that history beyond our Revolution throbs through these acres. Through them, Abraham Lincoln rode the Camden & Amboy Railroad branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad en route to his inauguration and his grave. Mercantile and horticultural history was made across these fields, below those stately evergreen windrows. Princeton Nurseries had been founded here due to the D&R Canal’s proximity, that of railroads, its “rich sassafras loam,” and abundant healthy water from the Millstone River. Straddling the 20th century, the Flemer firm would become the country’s largest and most highly reputed nursery, putting Kingston on the map.

At its height, the nurseries covered 1,500 acres. It survived grim Depression business conditions, as well as World War II, growing farm crops, cattle, fruit, and vegetables. German POWs were used here for labor. After the war, William Flemer III took over nursery production, while John W. Flemer assumed business and financial direction.

The essentially horse-powered operation rapidly evolved. Princeton Nurseries’ mechanics devised specialized digging machines and other technology to simplify moving and shipping sizable trees. Increase in demand for nursery products made it possible to drop other pursuits, allowing the Flemers to concentrate on breeding and shipping. Beginning in 1962, the Nurseries expanded to Allentown. Production soon included growing seedlings, grafting, field budding, and production of bare root tree liners. Trees bred to withstand disease and city stresses became a specialty.

The legendary Princeton Elm, the Euclid Linden, and the Sinclair Ginkgo were selected and introduced by William Flemer Jr. It was Bill Flemer III who specialized in breeding, selecting, and introducing new shade and ornamental trees. Many, such as the Shademaster Locust, October Glory red maple (earning its name this month along West Windsor’s Canal Pointe Boulevard), the Greenspire Linden, and the Green Mountain sugar maple are standards by which other clones have come to be judged. The Kingston operations were gradually phased out in the late 1990s. The entire Nurseries facility is now located in Allentown.

Meanwhile, in the 1960s, as activists pushed for better conditions for migrant workers, employers sought mentors. From the four points of the compass, they came to Kingston to learn the Flemers’ secrets of effective interaction. Nurseries’ policies far exceeded the demands made by the United Farm Workers. For example, the company had a swimming pool for workers and their families, and the signs were posted in Spanish. The determined Flemers had become fluent in their workers’ language, even traveling off-season to distant lands to visit their homes and families.

Appropriately, for this Maple Town Associates project, venerable maples surround the Village’s 11-room, 5-bedroom Sycamore House. Its slanted, “slide-down-my cellar door” brings back the childhood song, “Playmate!”. Its three-car garage was crafted from an existing building. Trademark butter-yellow clapboards and white trim were required by South Brunswick’s Historic Preservation Commission, and by the State of New Jersey. Reminds Robert von Zumbusch: “The state has easements on all those houses.”

Maintaining accurate facades is crucial to von Zumbusch, a member of the South Brunswick Township Historic Preservation Commission. But, to von Zumbusch as well as the Township of South Brunswick, “honoring this significant cultural landscape” takes precedence over all.

The son of an engineer in Montclair, von Zumbusch graduated from Columbia in 1960, where he earned his master’s degree in architecture. After stints in Boston and the Peace Corps in Afghanistan, he worked at CUH2A for 15 years, opening his own firm in 1987. Von Zumbusch and his family live in a red landmark building at the end of Carnegie Lake — the 9,000 square foot Kingston Flour Mill, which he has been restoring for more than 30 years.

Von Zumbusch describes the prospective village as “a collection of houses on an L-shaped lane, leaving the field open in compliance with the historic visual character of Mapleton Road.” Ever vigilant on matters historic and ecological, von Zumbusch also serves as vice chairman of the Joint Township Advisory Commission, of which Anne Zeman is chairman.

Although this commission is “generally pleased” with outcomes of the permit process, von Zumbusch deplores the fact that “there were far too many trees cut down where the houses will be moved — I was astounded.” He also points out that masonry inaccurately replaces original brick on both porches and chimney/fireplaces. Even so, overall, von Zumbusch repeats, “Things worked out well with the developer. They’ve been responsive,” adding that “we managed to save them some money, reducing road length and eliminating curbs and sidewalks not compatible with the rural nature of Mapleton Road.”

The road itself has been declared eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. South Brunswick Township and Friends of Princeton Nursery Lands have recently applied for a grant to move that nomination forward. If successful, it would open the door to further grants. Ultimately, two cold-storage warehouses, the propagation house, and eight greenhouses — existing but imperiled — could be restored as exhibit and education sites of regional importance. Other agencies before which MTA appeared in conjunction with this project included the New Jersey State Department of Environmental Protection, the South Brunswick Township Planning Board, the D&R Canal Commission, and South Brunswick’s Environmental Commission, as well as Kingston’s Fire Marshal.

Inside the $999,900 Sycamore House, spaciousness rules. Ceilings are high and noble. Fireplaces beckon in living room and master bedroom. Petrozzini evokes the claw-and-ball-foot tub to be installed in its master bath, wine cellar in the full basement, walk-up attic, and butler’s pantries. “Our goal is to restore the homes with respect to historic regulations, but at the same time give them a modern feel,” says Krieger.

Petrozzini praises the artful details, from moldings to chandeliers. “They are just master craftsmen,” she says. “They’ve kept original details whenever possible and tried to match them elsewhere.” One such craftsman, on hands and knees, is transforming wood floors to something resembling gold silk. The builders have included walk-in closets and true bathrooms (none being original), without intruding upon the building’s palpable history. From generous upstairs windows, one seems to inhabit a tree house. The home’s new family will arrive from Westfield, glad to be moving to “their own little village,” when they move in, in time for January school openings.

Referring to “all that red tape” of the approval process, Petrozzini describes her Maple Town Associates colleagues as “tenacious,” a word that obviously applies to all three. “Michael,” Petrozzini says, “has not just built a house. He has made a difference.” The entire process required cooperation of individuals and agencies to a heroic degree.

Sassman says that “we do a lot in South Brunswick. Most of our work with old houses is there. It is a good thing to give back to this community. What better place?” South Brunswick earns his praise for the “nice atmosphere concerning permits — not every township is like that.”

Luck accompanies MTA in their rounds. During opening hours at the Higgins house, Sassman describes “holes in the porch. I took out the metal detector, and what did I find? A copper penny from the 1700s! Right off the bat.”

Driving alongside Mapleton’s dappled London plane trees, planted by those early Flemers, I visualize Princeton Nurseries Village about to rise beyond them, like Brigadoon. At the opening of rescued Mapleton Preserve, William Flemer IV gave a memorable slide presentation. His rapt audience learned that William Flemer Jr. had planted windrows such as these upon his return from World War I. During service with the Princeton University Ambulance Corps, time after time, Flemer’s life had been saved during aerial bombardments by France’s leafy allees.

Here locals have battled to save both land and trees — to some degree, succeeding. No osprey circles as I depart. But, because of conservation, preservation, and especially, determination, the osprey can return — as have our eagles of the Millstone — to raise young in a healthy, natural habitat. As may the residents of Princeton Nurseries Village.

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