An Oxford square, Colonial American Village, Belgium town, and an ancient Indian temple may seem like faraway places, but thanks to some regional architectural sleight-of-hand they are closer than you think. And while they do not show up in a travel brochure, they are fun destinations for a day trip — “faux-cations” — to places that evoke other lands, cultures, and even eras without leaving home. So let’s get going.
Hankering for a trip to Jolly Old England? Head over to the Princeton University campus to soak up its authentic imitation English Gothic architecture.
Although Princeton started adopting the Gothic style in the 1890s, the movement heated up in the early 20th century. And if anyone can serve as the neo-Gothic poster boy it is American architect Ralph Cram, the university’s supervising architect from 1907 to 1929.
Cram was more than passionate about Gothic architecture and felt it was one of the highest of spiritual and artistic expressions.
“By building in the Collegiate Gothic style,” wrote Cram at the time, “Princeton was committed to the retention for all time of that collegiate style of architecture which alone is absolutely expressive of the civilization we hold in common with England and the ideals of liberal education now firmly fixed at Princeton.”
His flames were fanned by Woodrow Wilson, Princeton president from 1902 to 1910, who told the Princeton Alumni Weekly that “Gothic architecture has added a thousand years to the history of the university, and has pointed every man’s imagination to the earliest traditions of learning in the English-speaking race.”
The match that ignited their imagination can be summed up with the term Oxbridge, an actual word merging the names of the two oldest universities in England: Oxford and Cambridge.
As Princeton University materials put it, “By so consciously copying Oxbridge models in stone and mortar, Princeton, as an educational institution, was asserting its academic legitimacy and status. Princeton’s quadrangles were powerful visual statements that the university considered itself on a par with the oldest centers of learning in England.”
Part of the reason for the university wanted to brush up on its English roots was a change of a student population and attitude. A more affluent, Episcopal, and less Presbyterian — or Scottish heritage — student body was arriving and “the Anglican influence on the campus must have made the choice of English models all the more appropriate,” notes university materials.
But for Cram it was more than that and as a past Princeton University Art Museum exhibition on the college’s architecture noted, “Cram championed a return to the architecture of the Middle Ages as a way to combat the evils he saw in modern society, which recently had been ripped apart by war and revolution in Europe.”
At the center of New Jersey’s England is Cram’s Princeton University Chapel, a miniature version of one of the architect’s most prominent works, St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, the world’s largest cathedral.
The design of the chapel reflects traditional Gothic approach and consists of four parts that form a cross. Its interior includes oak paneling from Sherwood Forest in England (where Robin Hood lived) and glass windows colorfully depicting historical figures and scenes from literary classics such as Dante’s “Divine comedy” and Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur.”
Step outside the chapel and on one side is the 1948 tower of Firestone Library, the last Collegiate Gothic building created on campus. On the other side is a courtyard with a copy of the 16th century Turnbull Sundial from Corpus Christi College at Oxford.
Then let the eyes and feet wander around the dormitories and passageways modeled on the Magdalen Tower and other Oxford landmarks. And across campus and Alexander Road, there’s the Graduate School designed as “a place reminiscent of medieval splendor” and fitted with Gothic-styled dormitories, a garden wall incorporating original stonework from Oxford and Cambridge, and Princeton’s most prominent Gothic landmark, the Cleveland Tower with its 67-bell carillon (providing free concerts on Sunday afternoons).
While how the buildings got there may have some interest, it is the viewing that makes it worth the trip. So what to look for?
Gothic architecture reflects the 12th and 13th century efforts to create towering structures without heavy wall loads. Instead of piling up walls of rocks, the designers used flying buttresses and other supports to shore up high walls of stained glass and patterns of spires and arches.
Although the word Gothic comes from the French and Latin and historically connects to a fifth century German speaking group, architecturally it represents an approach that isn’t “classical” or geometrically balanced designs found in Greek and Roman temples and early 20th century banks. Instead the Gothic employs an organic use of shapes and tensions.
While American author and Princeton alumnus F. Scott Fitzgerald calls it “the loveliest riot of Gothic architecture in America,” British philosopher Bertrand Russell equated it to “as much as Oxford as monkeys could make it.”
Nevertheless, with its battlements, pointed arches, leaded glass, bay windows, and gargoyles – including one of Cram’s face at the entrance of the chapel – the Princeton Gothic is worth a look.
Time Travel Back To Colonial America
For those still holding a grudge over 18th century British taxation without representation and want to make Colonial American great again, there are two nearby options.
The first is downtown Princeton’s Palmer Square. This is where visitors can find rows of shops all sporting the early 20th century reinterpretation of Colonial America – part of a movement that was brewing as the university was busy going British.
As the Historical Society of Princeton tells it, “The Palmer Square development was the dream of Edgar Palmer, heir to the New Jersey Zinc Company fortune. Palmer’s plan, which he announced in February of 1929, called for the creation of a new municipal center in the heart of Princeton. The design, prepared by architect Thomas Stapleton, was part of the Colonial Revival movement taking place in America at that time.”
A lengthy and costly on and off again process, Palmer Square’s transformation wasn’t completed until the 1980s when stores and townhouses were added on the north and east sides of the square.
Some of stops today include the Bent Spoon ice cream shop, Olsson’s Cheese, and the Nassau Inn where in the appropriately named Yankee Doodle Tap Room you will see another artifact of the era: Norman Rockwell’s mural of Yankee Doodle himself, painted in 1937.
The Colonial Revival movement originally started with the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. There visitors seemed to renew their faith in the still new nation by embracing an architecture that many saw as outdated and obsolete.
Accordingly, the decades up to around 1940 witnessed Americans reclaiming their Americanism by imitating an era that used symmetry and balanced proportions – ironically in a general style named Georgian, for the series of British kings named George.
As the National Park Service says in explaining the movement, “The goal of Colonial Revival was to evoke sentimentalism regarding the early history of the United States.”
Unfortunately, the case of Palmer Square, this evoking of a romantic American past included the harsh practice of building on the former homes of relocated Princetonians of African ancestry.
About 20 miles north on Route 27 and a quick trip on River Road heading into Piscataway is a Colonial village and its town square. And while there are some actual period buildings to be seen at this stop, East Jersey Olde Town is neither old nor a real town.
Owned and operated by Middlesex County, the town’s history is connected to that county’s office of arts and history and one of its members, the late Joseph Kler.
A physician and history enthusiast, Kler spearheaded the efforts in the late 1970s to establish a village comprised of a “collection of original, replica and reconstructed 18th and 19th century structures. While most of the buildings have been relocated to the site, others were constructed here. They represent the vernacular architecture typical of farm and merchant communities, once found in central New Jersey. The village functions as an educational model, dedicated to teaching the history, traditions, folk arts and craftsmanship of the people who lived and worked throughout the region,” according to county press information.
Today the village offers free educational workshops, seminars and lectures, in-service training for teachers, exhibitions, concerts, storytelling session, community gatherings, and other projects. Costumed history interpreters are on hand to share information on the buildings and various daily practices.
While one location romanticizes the late 18th century and the other mixes and matches buildings to evoke the era when the state was known as East and West Jersey, both locations celebrate the classical or balanced design that dominated the East Coast colonies. It’s one that favors simple, clean, and elegant lines with little or no decoration and frequently employs an arrangement of large glass windows to create a sense of lightness and clarity. After all, this was the Era of Enlightenment.
Belgium and France? Oui (in Hamilton)
If English Gothic and Colonial American are not your cups of tea and you would rather escape to a French styled café to philosophize about architecture over a glass of wine, then take a trip to the Gallic-inspired buildings at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton Township. That’s where visitors will find a small European village housing Rat’s Restaurant, Toad Hall Shop and Gallery Artisan Boutique, and offices and artist studios.
While a 19th century Belgium Village was the original concept that inspired GFS founder and artist Seward Johnson, there are several reasons that these buildings visually speak with a noticeable French accent.
First it sets a tone. As Johnson told a New York Times reporter just as the restaurant was opening in early 2000, “I lived in Paris for a year, and I saw that French people mix their culture with their food. They have places to eat, places to sit and ponder — they have bathrooms! If you bring in a good restaurant, you bring in people with cultivation, and that is good for us.”
They also provide a visual reference for Johnson to celebrate his love of impressionist artwork and the French locales that inspired them. That includes the town of Giverny, where famed French Impressionist painter Claude Monet lived, created, and painted lily pad ponds and elegantly curved Japanese bridge.
According to the 1994 final instruction to architects regarding the village, that connection became more and more important to the “idea” of the village: “Mr. Johnson visualizes the development as having the look and feel of Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny,” and quotes the artist and Johnson & Johnson heir as adding, “It is to have the feeling of a country house turned into an inn, and look like it has been there forever.”
The Hamilton French building and landscape also provide the proper backdrop that gives life to Johnson’s sculptural-interpretations of French Impressionists paintings. That includes Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877” and Vincent van Gogh’s “Tarascon Stage Coach,” both greeting visitors as they approach the restaurant and the gift shop. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party,” Edouard Manet’s “Argenteuil,” and Claude Monet’s ‘Woman with a Parasol” are waiting nearby on the other side of the buildings. Other period interpretations seamlessly emanate from this visual anchor to the rest of the park.
GFS project manager Bruce Daniels says the buildings were specifically designed to house a restaurant; the Atlantic Foundation, the organization that provided funding for the grounds; and apartment-work studios for artists, including one for Johnson.
“One thing I don’t want it to look is institutional. I think that I would hate to see a modern building because I think it would look institutional,” says Johnson in the instructions. “(The buildings) should not be the same as the sculpture park buildings. They should have a different and individual character, but still work with the Grounds For Sculpture structures,” continue the instructions.
Interestingly the proposal was won by Brian Carey and AC/BC Associates, the contemporary-oriented firm that had won the GFS park design competition in the 1980s.
Daniels says Carey refocused his approach and visited Giverny (in northern France) and Monet’s studio. “So what Carey designed for Seward is very close to that. When (Carey) set the model down. Seward was amazed and said, ‘This is what I want.’ And Carey received the contract to design everything except the restaurant interior.
“The original idea was to create a dining and meeting space for the artists working at the atelier and patrons, and according to final instruction letter, Johnson says he wants “the spirit of the place to be artistic and bohemian . . . not slick . . . something like the Soho Bar in Trenton [now defunct], a place where regulars come, like a neighborhood bar in New York.”
That contract was given to the Philadelphia design firm DAS and involved hands-on participation by Johnson.
Daniels says most of the 36,600 square foot “village” is made of cinder block and concrete from New Jersey, but other elements are imported from France. That includes some of the building’s limestone and tile and Rat’s Restaurant’s zinc bar and Bonnet range – that $225,000 French import required keeping a wall open during construction and closing it after the stove was installed in the building.
“I think we spent something over $12 million,” says Daniels about the expenses of the original development of the village starting in 1997 and continuing to the open of Rat’s Restaurant on January 4, 2000. After that came the Dance Pavilion in 2000; the Gypsy Wagon front entrance in 2001; and the Toad Hall Shop & Gallery in 2002.
Overall the Belgium-French design is connected to pleasing arrangements and symmetry, even country houses embraced the use of traditional natural elements such as plaster, stone, glass, and slate. The earth toned structure reflects elements of an older and simpler elegance and creates a smooth connection to both an English Garden (a seemingly freer approach rather than the highly geometric structured design associated with French Gardens) and a waterscape, a Japanese element Monet employed in Giverny.
The result, as one writer about Giverny noted, reflects the French 18th century delight in the artificially natural. And as another writer writing on Belgium architecture notes, the building created outside the restaurant — originally designed as a dance hall but now used for events — reflect the popular Belgium preference for extensions or outbuildings.
Yet there is more. Johnson saw the approach “as sort of a theme park of the subconscious where there will be echoes of things that we all know, like Monet’s bridge . . . You pick up these things from your unconscious, and so you feel at home right away for a reason you can’t describe. I see this project as a work of art.”
India in Robbinsville – At the BAPS Mandir
The BAPS mandir – or temple – in Robbinsville is only about 10 miles away from Grounds For Sculpture, but its architectural roots are 7,000 miles away in India. And with the living tradition being handed down for over a 1,000 years and brought to the United States, there is nothing really faux about this extraordinary addition to the region’s landscape. But its authentic cultural presence in New Jersey fits the bill for a quick slip to India.
BAPS stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha. The name mixes the town where the religious group’s first mandir was built, the name of a significant and revered deity, an ideal devotee to that deity, the person who inspired the formation of the spiritual group, and the word for organization (sanstha).
One of 3,850 such complexes around the world, the Robbinsville mandir began being built in 2010, was inaugurated in 2014, and reflects the region’s growing presence of people from or connected to India.
It is reported to be one of the largest mandirs in North America attracts an estimated 1,000 visitors per week. The structure measures 12,000 square feet and is 42 feet tall.
As an article in U.S. 1 on September 6, 2017 noted, “While visitors are enjoying the mandir today, construction for additional facilities is also underway. That includes a visitor center to house small exhibitions on Indian history and culture. The final phase of the project entails a larger mandir, with an expected completion date of 2021. The entire complex will encompass more than 160 acres.”
The work-in-progress’ budget is unclear, but the Times of Trenton reported an initial $18 million spent when the mandir opened in 2014.
The marble construction that began in India and reassembled in New Jersey follows Hindu architectural traditions and reflects the ideas of duality and harmony, the movement of time, and the flow of creativity. At its heart is a chamber where the spiritual and physical worlds meet and energy radiates outward in all directions.
The Robbinsville mandir has 40 spires, 10 domes, 98 carved pillars, and carvings of symbolic animals, sacred figures, and ceiling and floor designs.
Tour guides and materials are on hand to help explain some of the imagery, which includes animals, spiritual teachers, and devotees. But look for elephants, symbolizing royalty, strength, divinity, fertility, intelligence, and power, and peacocks, associated with wisdom, wealth, and joy.
It will all make you feel like you’re in another land or dimension, just as it and all the other destinations mentions were designed to do.
If You Go
Princeton University, www.princeton.edu/meet-princeton/visit-us
Palmer Square’s headquarters is 40 Nassau Street, Princeton. A directory of shops and stops can be found at www.palmersquare.com.
East Jersey Old Town Village, 1050 River Road, Piscataway, Wednesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, noon-4 p.m. Free. 732-745-3030 or www.middlesexcountynj.gov/Government/Departments/BDE/Pages/East-Jersey-Olde-Towne-Village.aspx
Grounds For Sculpture, 126 Sculptors Way, Hamilton. Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (extended hours Friday and Saturday to 9 p.m. through September), $10 to $18. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, 112 North Main Street, Robbinsville. Open daily. Free. For more information, 609-918-1212 or baps.org/robbinsville.