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
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
house. He’s piled up the doors and windows and flooring and siding
and structural elements neatly in the yard, and covered them with
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
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
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
tractor-trailers that shake the ground as they scream down the
the house merely seems another victim of weather, neglect, and a
too close to an increasingly busy road.
Obviously the product of some significant time and
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Dodging traffic and tourists on Nassau Street, surveying
office parks and shopping malls along the highway, it’s hard to
the Princeton of 150 years ago, when the old yellow house was probably
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
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
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
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
that owned these early Princeton-area mills: Blackwell, Griggs,
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
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
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
Named for the aqueduct that carried the canal over the Millstone River
at Scudder’s Mills, Aqueduct developed quickly after the Scudder
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
left at the curve and crossed what are now overflow ponds from
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.
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
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
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
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
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
perfectly at home among the piles of 19th-century lumber. "You
take it apart piece by piece and do it in an organized manner."
Sounds easy, looks hard. The old yellow house is very big. Any doubt
that what is going on here is a huge demolition project —
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,
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
as a freshman."
But while many of his classmates at Memphis State and later in
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
Hollingsworth would later combine that love of structural systems
with his interest in computer programming. He created a software
based on the popular drafting program AutoCAD, that generates
computer models of buildings composed entirely of prefabricated
"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
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
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
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
it would be possible to move a house to Memphis. But it doesn’t
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
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
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
structure. Not surprisingly, as an architect who specializes in
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
August 31 deadline for having the house gone from the site,
recently hired a crew of six to help him get the job done.
"You just can’t get this kind of material anymore,"
says of the structural timbers, some of which measure nearly a foot
around. "Any house today is built of pine. Here the smallest
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
efforts to reassemble the house, he says. Because each timber was
carved by hand to attach specifically to just one other timber,
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
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.
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
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,
moved to Minnesota, ending the couple’s previous joint-custody
"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
have the house stay in Plainsboro," says Bob Yuell of the
Historical Society. "But it’s good it’s not going to be torn
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,
And that’s wise, says Jerry Ford of the architecture firm Ford,
Mills, and Gatsch, whose offices are just across Mapleton Road from
the old yellow house. Rather than viewing the house’s move as a
disconnection from its history, Ford sees the move as part of a
"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
[now the home of the Bonner Foundation] was shipped by canal barge
from Massachusetts. People used to move things a lot more than they
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."
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.