Time Passed It By

150 Year History

Scudder’s Mills

How It Will Be Moved

Doing It Himself

Helping Low Income Housing

Corrections or additions?

This article by Christopher Mario was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

August 26, 1998. All rights reserved.

This Old House, To Go

A little piece of Princeton-area history is moving

to Memphis. That’s right: Memphis, Tennessee, home of Elvis. A place

most of us have never seen, and probably never will. It was either

that or the bulldozer.

You probably never noticed the big old house with peeling yellow paint

at the corner of Route 1 and Mapleton Road, where the Plainsboro Road

stoplight used to be before they built the Scudder’s Mill overpass.

But a 35-year-old architect from Memphis named James Hollingsworth

did.

A structural consultant on the new Marriott Suites Hotel being built

on the site of the old Holiday Inn, Hollingsworth learned soon after

arriving in Princeton last fall that the old yellow house — owned

by Princeton University and directly adjacent to the new hotel site

— was going to be torn down. It was too close to the path of the

only possible route for the hotel’s driveway. So he bought it from

Princeton for exactly $1.

A bargain? You decide. Over the past three months, Hollingsworth

has with his own hands systematically deconstructed the

6,000-square-foot

house. He’s piled up the doors and windows and flooring and siding

and structural elements neatly in the yard, and covered them with

plastic.

With luck and lots more grueling work, by the end of this month the

house will be completely disassembled. Hollingsworth will then load

all the bits and pieces on a bunch of flat-bed trucks and haul them

to Tennessee, there to await the day when he finds a suitable piece

of land and puts it back together.

If all goes according to plan, a year or two from now — and for

a total of about $100,000 — Hollingsworth and his 13-year-old

daughter will be ensconced in a 6,000-square-foot mansion in the

Tennessee

hills. They’ll be surrounded by three fireplaces, 11-foot ceilings,

and a whole lot of New Jersey history.

Funny thing though: nobody seems to have any idea what that history

is.

Standing in front of the now skeletal remains of the old yellow house,

a visitor might at first glance find nothing particularly remarkable

about it. It stands across from the offices of the Ford, Farewell

architecture firm and the little white farmhouse that for several

years was the home of U.S. 1 newspaper. Just feet away from the

rumbling

tractor-trailers that shake the ground as they scream down the

highway,

the house merely seems another victim of weather, neglect, and a

location

too close to an increasingly busy road.

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Time Passed It By

Obviously the product of some significant time and

effort

and money when built, this appears to be yet another old house that

time has passed by, like the once-grand mansions on West State Street

in Trenton and thousands of similar big old dilapidated houses in

cities and towns across the country.

But this is one very surprising — and mysterious — old yellow

house. Nobody knows when it was built. Nobody knows who built it.

Houses built today leave a paper trail a mile long. Houses built

before

the turn of the century often do not. Zoning regulations and building

permits, which are all about paper, are a 20th-century development,

at least in this area; Princeton Township, for instance, got its first

zoning code in 1938. And title searches of registered deeds going

back more than a hundred years have a way of running into dead ends:

books lost or destroyed, deeds never registered.

Even so, it’s relatively easy to identify the construction dates of

many 19th and some 18th-century houses, according to Cynthia Hinson,

a preservation consultant whose company, Historic Preservation and

Illumination, is based in Research Park.

Those built in towns, or by prominent citizens, or by well-known

builders

often merited mention in contemporary news accounts when construction

started or finished. Still others were built in an architectural style

clearly identifiable as the product of a certain era. Many appeared

on early maps, which showed not just streets, but also buildings and

property owners’ names.

As a result, much is known, for example, about the early history of

the Greek Revival houses built in the 1830s by designer/craftsman

Charles Steadman along Alexander Street in Princeton Borough.

But the old yellow house offers no such clues. Two miles southeast

of Princeton, it was never mentioned in the newspaper. Only one map

of its area is known to exist, hand-drawn in 1982 based on the

recollections

of stories told to a woman whose mother had lived in the area around

the turn of the century as a young girl. And the house does not

exhibit

one clear style, according to Hinson.

"It’s a composite of Greek Revival and Italianate," Hinson

says of the main front part of the yellow house, noting the classical

triangular pediment above the front door (Greek Revival) and arched

attic windows (Italianate) among other elements.

(The Greek Revival style grew out of the fascination with classical

antiquity prompted by the arrival in London of the Elgin Marbles from

the Acropolis in 1806 and was dominant in the U.S. from 1830 to 1850;

the Italianate style was another English import that idealized the

informality of Italian villas in reaction against classicism and was

popular in the U.S. from 1850 to 1880.)

The mixture of the two styles suggests to Hinson that it was built

early in the Italianate period, between 1850 and 1855. This estimate

is further supported by the house’s mortise-and-tenon method of

construction,

in which very large structural timbers are connected to one another

with interlocking parts carved into the wood. Developed in the middle

ages and recalled even today in the fake timbering of Tudor-style

tract houses, this method of construction was replaced after the Civil

War by balloon framing, a method similar to the standard 2 by 4 stick

framing in use today.

"It’s definitely from before the Civil War," Hinson says.

So the best guess is that the yellow house about to move to Memphis

will be taking as many as 150 years of central New Jersey history

with it. Most of those 150 years, however, are a blank.

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150 Year History

Dodging traffic and tourists on Nassau Street, surveying

office parks and shopping malls along the highway, it’s hard to

picture

the Princeton of 150 years ago, when the old yellow house was probably

built.

In 1850 commerce moved by barge and rail rather than by truck and

car. Today’s Route 1 was a one-lane, privately owned toll road lined

with gravel but for the most part largely mud, down which cows and

haywagons struggled while the commercial traffic floated along the

Delaware and Raritan Canal just to the toll road’s north. Travelers

who could afford it rode the rails of the Camden & Amboy Railroad,

which ran parallel to the canal. Proximity to water, rather than to

Princeton University, was the region’s most attractive attribute.

Products of the land, rather than of the mind, fueled economic growth.

But even then the Princeton area was a prosperous place, blessed by

its position halfway between the first and third largest cities in

America at the time, New York and Philadelphia.

Thanks to this accident of geography, a position at the confluence

of the Millstone River and the Stony Brook, and an 1831 act of the

New Jersey legislature that granted a monopoly on overland transit

through the state for commercial traffic between New York and

Philadelphia

to a single transportation company, Princeton lay directly on the

route of both the D&R Canal, built by the monopoly after 1830, and

the Camden and Amboy Railroad, completed by the same company by 1840.

These transportation routes brought more people and more opportunities

to an area in which Europeans, first from Holland and later from

Britain,

had already been living and farming for more than 200 years.

Perched at the edge of New Jersey’s coastal plain, where the hills

begin to rise toward the Sourland Mountains north of Hopewell, the

Princeton area offered its earliest European settlers stone and large

hickory and oak hardwoods for building, a relatively moderate and

sufficiently rainy climate to support humans and livestock, soil

conducive

to growing corn and flax, and thanks again to the Millstone and the

Stony Brook, water power for milling agricultural and timber products.

Evidence of the importance of mills in the pre-industrial development

of the Princeton area economy can still be seen today in our street

names. Mills for grinding corn, processing or "fulling" wool,

and cutting timber were almost always named after the families that

owned them, and the roads that led to the mills took the family name

as well. As a result, you already know the names of some of the

families

that owned these early Princeton-area mills: Blackwell, Griggs,

Skillman,

and Scudder, to name a few.

Among the most important of these mills were the Scudder’s Mills,

which included a grist mill, a sawmill, and a fulling mill. Purchased

with 100 surrounding acres by Jacob Scudder in 1749, the mills were

powered by a dam built across the Millstone, and stood just a few

hundred feet from where the old yellow house stands today.

Descendants of Jacob Scudder sold the mills and acreage around 1836,

just after the opening of the D&R canal in 1834, and a few years

before

the first train would clatter down the Camden & Amboy tracks around

1840. These two transportation routes, along with the mill itself,

would provide the economic base for the development of a hamlet called

Aqueduct on what had been the Scudder landholding.

Canal traffic, pulled on barges by mules walking along the towpath,

moved very slowly. Early trains weren’t all that much faster: 25 miles

an hour was considered very speedy indeed. As a result, hamlets

developed

all along the D&R canal to provide services, lodging, and food for

people and animals making the days-long trek between New York and

Philadelphia.

Named for the aqueduct that carried the canal over the Millstone River

at Scudder’s Mills, Aqueduct developed quickly after the Scudder

family

sale in 1836 from a group of houses attached to the mill into a tiny

town with a general store, a wheelwright, a blacksmith’s shop, and

a number of houses lined along Mapleton Road, which at that time

turned

left at the curve and crossed what are now overflow ponds from

Carnegie

Lake to connect with Harrison Street at Logan Drive.

Thanks to its position on the major, monopoly-protected transportation

lines of the day, the mill and the town prospered. Details of the

mill’s ownership are sketchy between 1836 and 1882, but at some point

during that time an owner named Hart demolished the old Scudder’s

Mills and built a new modern mill, photos of which survive to this

day. Hart sold the new mill to Alexander Gray sometime before 1882;

after Gray’s death, it was operated first by his widow, and then by

his daughter, Isabel Gray Robinson.

According to an account by Ida Williamson Engelke, who died in 1977

and lived for a time as a young girl in Aqueduct, near the turn of

the 20th century the Gray family owned both the three-story house

at the curve of Mapleton Road, which Isabel Gray Robinson occupied

at her death around the same time, and the old yellow house, which

residents of the period called Mill House.

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Scudder’s Mills

It’s possible then that the old yellow house was built

by Hart, who had torn down the old Scudder’s Mills before selling

the property to Alexander Gray, as his own house. In his disassembly

of the house today, James Hollingsworth has found a number of very

large framing timbers that are clearly far older than the majority

of those found in the house; in addition, he found a door he estimates

is at least 200 years old propped up against a wall in the basement.

Perhaps Hart reused portions of the old mill when he built his house.

This scenario would also explain how such a large, expensive, and

detailed house would come to be built in Aqueduct, and why it was

later known as Mill House. Thanks to the canal, what came to be known

as Aqueduct Mills developed into a large commercial operation; a photo

in the collection of the Plainsboro Historical Society from about

1890 shows mill workers sitting on bags of grain emblazoned with the

"Aqueduct Mills" logo. Such an operation might well have made

Hart rather wealthy. And easy access to transportation no doubt

brought

both ideas and materials to the tiny hamlet that Hart could have used

in building his house.

These are just guesses, but we do know that following Isabel Gray

Robinson’s death, both the old yellow house and the three-story house

to its north were converted to apartments; and at some point after

1915, both buildings were sold to the Rockefeller Institute.

Officials at Picus Associates, which runs the university’s commercial

real estate operation at Forrestal Center, believe that the university

probably acquired the old yellow house and the house to its north

as part of the 1951 purchase of the Rockefeller Institute lands, which

became available when the medical research institute, established

in Princeton in 1915 and now known as Rockefeller University, moved

to Manhattan after 1948. (Much of today’s Forrestal Center sits on

the nearly 800 acres the University acquired from Rockefeller and

other sources immediately following World War II.) Until fire code

problems shut it down three years ago, the old yellow house was used

to house graduate students.

Apart from the old yellow house, very little of Aqueduct survives

today. The once thriving little town fell victim first to the to the

closing of the mill around 1900; then to the overflow ponds of

Carnegie

Lake; then to the expansion of Route 1 from one lane to two and then

three, which took out the blacksmith’s shop and a few other buildings

in the early years of this century; and finally to the abandonment

of the D&R Canal in 1933.

The former U.S. 1 building, the little white house at the corner of

Mapleton Road and Route 1 that is now the home of the MSM Regional

Council, is one of the handful of surviving structures. The front

portion of this house was purchased in 1844 by Frank Williamson, a

blacksmith and the grandfather of Ida Williamson Engelke, and is

believed

to be Aqueduct’s oldest surviving building.

The Ford Farewell offices next door are an amalgamation of at least

three Aqueduct buildings, including the George Williamson house and

the former general store.

The three-story house at the right-turn corner of Mapleton Road, now

also owned by the university and for sale, is another Aqueduct

building.

Based on its style and apparent age, preservationist Cynthia Hinson

surmises that the three-story house was most likely built around the

same time and by the same person as the old yellow house, perhaps

for a child of the owner of the old yellow house.

And now that old yellow house — perhaps built by a mill owner

named Hart, perhaps around 1850 but almost definitely between 1840

and 1860, perhaps using parts salvaged from the original Scudder’s

Mill, and perhaps once known as Mill House — this old yellow house

is about to begin a new life more than 1,000 miles away from home,

never to return.

"It’s just logistics," declares James Hollingsworth as he

stands amid the neatly stacked piles of construction materials that

surround the old yellow house today. With his long hair, wire-rimmed

glasses, and the tiny patch of beard beneath his lower lip, he gives

at least a slight impression of a man in a turn-of-the-century

photograph,

perfectly at home among the piles of 19th-century lumber. "You

take it apart piece by piece and do it in an organized manner."

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How It Will Be Moved

Sounds easy, looks hard. The old yellow house is very big. Any doubt

that what is going on here is a huge demolition project —

controlled,

planned, but demolition nonetheless — is wiped away at the sight

of a giant dumpster full of shattered plaster. And when you consider

that Hollingsworth is going to load all the bits and pieces of this

house on a truck and somehow fit it back together in Tennessee, well,

the whole thing seems just a little crazy.

"Sure, if I were to stand in the front yard and simply see a house

and wonder, how am I going to get this thing to Tennessee, I wouldn’t

have a clue," Hollingsworth says. But as an architect,

Hollingsworth

doesn’t just see a house. He sees a house and all the parts that make

up a house. A seventh-generation Tennessean whose forebears arrived

in that state at just about the time the old yellow house was built

here in New Jersey, Hollingsworth never considered any field other

than architecture. "I worked in summer construction jobs, did

drafting in high school, got a strong background in math. When I got

to Memphis State, I was already taking junior-year architectural

courses

as a freshman."

But while many of his classmates at Memphis State and later in

graduate

school at the Boston Architectural Center no doubt pondered various

architectural styles and spent their days drawing pretty pictures,

Hollingsworth developed a love for the nuts and bolts of structural

systems.

Hollingsworth would later combine that love of structural systems

with his interest in computer programming. He created a software

program,

based on the popular drafting program AutoCAD, that generates

three-dimensional

computer models of buildings composed entirely of prefabricated

metal-stud

walls.

"There are basically two traditional ways to create the structure

of a building," Hollingsworth explains of the metal-stud wall

system. "One is to create a structural skeleton and hang

everything

off of it, like an office building built with a steel frame. The other

is a system where the skin and the structure are the same, like a

concrete block building. My system combines the best of both."

Ideal for buildings that are composed of regularly repeating segments,

like hotels, Hollingsworth’s system uses walls made of metal

studs built in a factory and then shipped to the construction site

and attached to the foundation and one another. The walls themselves,

rather than any other structure, hold the building up and also create

its envelope or skin, which is then covered with sheetrock on the

inside and weatherproof materials on the outside.

The Marriott now under construction behind the old yellow house is

being built this way, although not by the company for which

Hollingsworth

developed his software program in Memphis. Just before construction

began, that company, which was going to create the metal-stud walls

in Tennessee and ship them to Princeton, was closed down by its parent

company. But Hollingsworth stayed on the Marriott project as a

consultant

to Sweetwater Construction of Cranbury, which is building the hotel,

while a New Jersey company fabricated the metal-stud walls according

to Hollingsworth’s specs.

Which explains how Hollingsworth got to Princeton, and why he

thought

it would be possible to move a house to Memphis. But it doesn’t

explain

how he’s going to do it.

"It’s not as complicated as it may sound," Hollingsworth says.

"I took a lot of pictures, drew the floor plans with all the

measurements,

spent a lot of time learning all there was to learn about the house

before I started taking it apart. It’s big, but it’s a fairly simple

structure."

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Doing It Himself

With his background in construction and working largely

on his own — "I sweat, I get dirty, I smell at the end of

the day" — Hollingsworth has carefully taken the house apart,

piece by piece. First the millwork. Then the flooring. Then the doors,

the hardware, the windows. Then the plaster, which can’t be reused

and was thrown away. The plumbing and electrical and heating systems,

all added after 1920, were also discarded.

Now in progress: removing the roof and the siding to expose the

underlying

structure. Not surprisingly, as an architect who specializes in

structural

systems Hollingsworth seems most excited about this part of the house,

the part nobody will see when it’s put back together.

"What we’ll have left then is the exposed post-and-beam structure

itself, which we will then literally disassemble," he says of

the final step before the trucks arrive. Closing in on the

University’s

August 31 deadline for having the house gone from the site,

Hollingsworth

recently hired a crew of six to help him get the job done.

"You just can’t get this kind of material anymore,"

Hollingsworth

says of the structural timbers, some of which measure nearly a foot

around. "Any house today is built of pine. Here the smallest

member

is true three by five and hardwood. It’s just so amazing working on

a project that was actually crafted by craftsmen, not just by some

guy who hired a bunch of laborers."

The hand-crafted structural system itself will guide

Hollingsworth’s

efforts to reassemble the house, he says. Because each timber was

carved by hand to attach specifically to just one other timber,

figuring

out what goes with what will be self-evident. Nevertheless, he will

label each timber according to the part of the house it came from.

Hollingsworth says that the whole disassembly project — which

he started in March and began working on in earnest in June —

will cost no more than $15,000. He’ll need three truck trips to

Tennessee

on a 45-foot flatbed at $1,200 apiece. A suitable piece of land for

the house within a 30-minute drive of Memphis will cost him about

$60,000 for 15 acres, he expects.

He plans to put the house back together himself, with new plumbing,

heating, and electrical systems, modern kitchens and bathrooms. Total

projected cost, not including the value of his own time: not much

more than $100,000.

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Helping Low Income Housing

Hollingsworth will certainly be busy when he returns home: he also

plans to start a company that will use his metal-stud construction

system to build low-income housing for the City of Memphis on 250

inner-city sites. "Once this place is shipped home, I’m going

to hit the ground running," Hollingsworth says of his low-income

housing plans. "Not with a full company right away, but with a

project of about 30 houses. I already have the relationships

established

and the plans developed and will be ready start cranking out houses

by end of September."

More proof that James Hollingsworth isn’t afraid to think big. And

he’ll be living in a very big house. "It’s going to be kind of

huge for just the two of us," Hollingsworth says of the house,

which he will share with his daughter, whose mother, a lawyer,

recently

moved to Minnesota, ending the couple’s previous joint-custody

arrangement.

"And it’s been a lot of work. But nobody wants to see a house

like this get pushed over."

True enough. But some people would much rather have

seen the old yellow house stay in New Jersey. "Of course I’d

rather

have the house stay in Plainsboro," says Bob Yuell of the

Plainsboro

Historical Society. "But it’s good it’s not going to be torn

down."

When they first learned of Hollingsworth’s plan to move the old yellow

house to Memphis, many members of the Plainsboro Historical Society

opposed the idea. But upon learning that the house could not be moved

on its site because of wetlands issues, and that moving it to another

site would have been impossible because of the way it was constructed,

opposition faded.

And that’s wise, says Jerry Ford of the architecture firm Ford,

Farewell,

Mills, and Gatsch, whose offices are just across Mapleton Road from

the old yellow house. Rather than viewing the house’s move as a

wrenching

disconnection from its history, Ford sees the move as part of a

natural

progression.

"It’s a great tradition, moving buildings," says Ford, whose

firm is well known for its rehabilitations and expansions of historic

buildings across the country. "And there are many precedents in

Princeton. The building to the left as you drive into Princeton Day

School was brought up from Virginia. The Sheldon House on Mercer

Street

[now the home of the Bonner Foundation] was shipped by canal barge

from Massachusetts. People used to move things a lot more than they

do now."

Ford notes that many old houses in the Princeton area are compositions

of two or three buildings moved from their original sites and stuck

together. Both the Ford, Farewell office and U.S. 1’s former offices

next door, which Ford also owns, are such composites.

"Typically in New Jersey, farmers would build a very modest first

house while they got their act together, and then after they’d had

a couple of good harvests, they’d build more a substantial house in

front of and connected to the first one," Ford notes. "That’s

not a lost art, but in the modern day of being able to go to the Home

Depot and buy a bunch of lumber, the prevailing notion is to bulldoze

the house and just build a new one. And that’s a shame. So I for one

am delighted to see what this guy is doing with this old house."


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