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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