Spring as a time of renewal and restoration is aptly reflected at 72 Stockton Street, Princeton. Owned by the Present Day Club (PDC), the historic house on the corner of Library Place was literally under wraps all winter but recently has been emerging from its cocoon — with neighbors and passersby keenly watching the large restoration project.
The house — a part of Princeton’s social fabric — was built around 1835, one of many homes in the Mercer Hill Historic District of Princeton designed by Charles Steadman — designer of numerous mid-1880 Princeton houses and public buildings, including the Woodrow Wilson house and Nassau Presbyterian Church.
“The house has always been evolving. Over the years it has been significantly altered and additions made,” says Sara Hill, Present Day Club president. “Most recently a separate entrance with restrooms and a coat room was added to the back of the building by the ballroom, which itself was added in the 1930s. The addition (by Ford 3 Architects of 32 Nassau Street) enhanced the usability of the entire clubhouse significantly by providing facilities all on one level. Jerry Ford honored the style of the original structure wonderfully.”
But water damage on the ceilings and other visible problems made it clear that the old house was in need of more than a facelift. “Even to our untrained eyes, we knew the cracked plaster signaled something that needed attention,” Hill says.
Although the cost was going to be anyone’s guess, Present Day Club engaged Historic Building Architects (HBA) of Trenton to conduct a full conditions assessment. “I have a great love of history and old buildings. They give a sense of harmony and place,” says Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner, who founded HBA in 1994. To her, buildings are the bones of a place and planning is critical to preservation.
The assessment team acted like archaeologists and inspected the house, peeled away decades of paint, probed woodwork and structural underpinnings, and analyzed the condition of roofs, basement, windows, and more. Much of the assessment was accomplished using non-destructive techniques such as ground penetrating radar and infrared.
After receiving the report, “It was time to face the music,” Hill says. “Knowing the extent of the preservation efforts needed was a wake-up call. But if you are going to do it, do it right. We have an obligation to the future members of the Present Day Club to maintain the fabric of the house responsibly and logically.”
The board determined it was vital to have an architect remain engaged throughout the project. “HBA was the logical choice to shepherd the project. They knew the house inside out and upside down,” says Hill. “The choice went beyond its reputation. Annabelle had been a speaker at the club and other members of the club had worked with her on unrelated projects. Additionally, as a women’s club, we believed it important to be able to engage a woman-owned company.”
The assessment provided the club not only with a blueprint for current preservation needs but a roadmap for future maintenance. Remediation had been broken down into areas that needed immediate attention and areas that could be prioritized for later projects.
The immediate focus was to make necessary repairs to the basic structure of the house. Radcliffe-Trenner emphasizes that if the critical work is done correctly, “the entire building is cleaner and brighter. The goal is not to make a statement but to preserve the original view of the historic structure.”
Several pre-qualified firms were considered with the main focus being on finding the best company for the complex work. Dell-Tech of Trenton was the final choice. Radcliffe-Trenner had worked with Dell-Tech on other projects in the past and the company specializes in historic rehabilitation and “surgical” renovations.
Key to the project was the company’s team of specialist craftsmen trained in restoration. The building team was sensitive to the needs of preservation projects and worked closely with HBA, at times creating work-arounds for surprises that arose. “This in-house expertise and access to the latest techniques for preservation provided cost-savings overall,” Radcliffe-Trenner stresses.
Among a handful of preservation architects in the United States, Historic Building Architects specializes in restoration and stewardship of historic, non-residential properties. The firm has completed numerous projects in New Jersey, including Iviswold Castle in Rutherford, now the campus center for Felician College, and Greenwood Gardens in Short Hills, to name only two of the most dramatic resurrections. The firm’s offices are in the restored 18th-century Emlen house on West State Street in the heart of old Trenton. The restoration and repurposing of that historic home into offices underscores Radcliffe-Trenner’s passion for the beauty and value of original construction.
Radcliffe-Trenner’s upbringing was tailor-made for a budding preservationist. She was born and raised in London, surrounded by history. Her father was an attorney and her mother worked for MI 6 — the British version of the CIA. “She was just a little spy,” the daughter says with a smile.
After receiving a BS in architecture at Dundee University in 1983, Radcliffe-Trenner specialized in conservation at Edinburgh University, eventually earning a master’s there. “I knew I wanted to be an architect but looking at an empty site and designing a building from scratch was terrifying. It also felt environmentally wrong.”
A fellowship brought her to San Antonio, where she worked for the National Parks Service as part of the Historical American Building Survey collection at the Library of Congress. After meeting her husband and settling in the Princeton area, she worked for the National Parks Service in Philadelphia and eventually chose to refine her preservation skills at the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome.
Returning from Italy with no professional commitments, she used the opportunity to launch her own firm. “My first projects were working on a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Wisconsin and on Morven” at 55 Stockton Street, she says.
HBA is well known for its innovative approach to preserving buildings. In a June, 2014, article in the Times of Trenton, Radcliffe-Trenner stated that old buildings are best honored when the public gets good, long-term use out of them, rather than turning them into museums or relics that never get visited. Currently HBA is restoring the headmaster’s house at the Princeton Friends School. “We are putting the house back to its original use. My children went to school there, and it’s satisfying to work on its preservation.”
Indicative of the firm’s innovative technology is a drone named Howie. The three-pound eye in the sky allows everyone to see details that would be hidden until scaffolding could be erected to allow workers to physically assess the situation; a very expensive approach. The team knows in advance what to expect from the high-resolution imagery transmitted live to their computers.
“Such a thorough assessment mitigates surprises as work begins and reduces the need for change orders further down the road,” says Radcliffe-Trenner. “It also allows us to buy materials in quantity to get unit pricing and takes the guess-work out of costing. Putting the time and effort into the planning helps eliminate the cost of reacting as the contractors go forward.”
To get to the heart of how a building works, Radcliffe-Trenner taps her staff’s creative side. “I tell them that the best way to see into a building is to concentrate on the practical working of the structure. For example, in order to assess whether there might be weather or water damage, I tell them to ‘be the drip.’ Start as a drop that hits the roof or wall and imagine where you would go to get down to the ground.”
Even with such diligent assessment, surprises do arise. The most notable “uh-oh” moment for the Present Day Club project occurred when work began on the front porch. “Once fascia boards were removed, it was clear the whole structure was pretty well held up by faith alone,” says Hill.
But some surprises are pleasant. “Original materials are best refurbished and reused. Wood harvested at the turn of the 20th century has a grain up to 20 growth rings or more, making it heavy and solid. Modern wood would be lucky to have three or four rings,” says Radcliffe-Trenner. For this reason, almost all the windows and shutters from the house were preserved and restored. Not only were the old frames better than new windows, the old glass with its wavers and age swirls was saved. “You cannot secure the same quality of materials today,” Radcliffe-Trenner says. “Modern construction materials do not take into account how a building moves and breathes.”
The preservation of the clubhouse is symbolically central to the aims of the Present Day Club. Founded in 1898 by several women in Princeton, including Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, the primary stated purpose is “to stimulate an interest in science, literature, art, and social and ethical culture, and to create an intellectual and social center of thought and action while celebrating women’s contributions,” Hill says. “The house serves as a gathering place to connect women from different backgrounds and professions who live and work in the greater Princeton area. Our members enjoy the benefits of belonging to a club that has a strong sense of community.” Hill continues, “The house is the face of the club to that community.”
At the turn of the 20th century, many women were highly educated but without the outlets for continued intellectual development. Women’s clubs served as study and reading centers, often housing the book collections of members. Emphasis on education and intellectual advancement dovetailed with the desire to actively engage in civic and social causes. The clubs supported social welfare aims, especially encouraging literacy by fostering schools and public libraries. The book collections often served as the beginnings of those libraries.
While many existed in New Jersey in the past, the Present Day Club is believed to be the only one surviving in this area. Trenton had been home to the Contemporary Club, founded about the same time as the PDC. The names of these clubs reveal the attitude of their founders, who focused on current events and sharing up-to-date information, says Hill.
Says Hill: “The Present Day Club is engaged in the here and now. Our aim is to present new ideas and concepts and to challenge preconceived notions. Women are relationship-driven, and what better way to exchange ideas and learn than in a social setting. Friendship and intellectual inquiry mingle.”
Far from being a club for ladies who lunch, many of the members of the Present Day Club still work. In addition, many are newly retired baby boomers who are used to the collaborative engagement of the work force.
Typical of the membership is Hill. Trenton born and bred, she graduated from Mount Holyoke College and settled in Lawrence to raise her family. In the 1960s she worked for the Citizens Research Foundation on Nassau Street analyzing campaign finance laws. She moved on to fundraising for the Friends of the New Jersey State Museum.
After retiring she joined the Present Day Club 10 years ago, attracted by the variety of programs and the chance to remain actively engaged in current affairs. Prominent authors, artists, reporters, and professors from the New York-Philadelphia region and beyond are invited to lecture at weekly lunches and evening events. It is not uncommon to have speakers who have won Pulitzer or Nobel prizes. Recent speakers include humorist and staff writer for the New Yorker Patricia Marx; best-selling author and journalist Jonathan Alter; entrepreneur and civilian astronaut Greg Olsen; and national editor of the New York Times Sam Sifton.
“The continuing viability of women’s clubs stems from the ability to provide a space where women know they are not alone in what they are thinking or are curious about. The key is adaptation,” says Hill, “and respect for tradition.”
Part of being adaptive and responsive to the needs of the members now and in the future was the preservation of the club’s house. “Because the building serves a larger population than a residential home, repairs cannot be made reactively. A more professional approach was needed,” says Hill. The renovations have been accomplished through a combination of stewardship of the club’s resources with funds put aside over time and prudent borrowing.
Preservation, re-invention, and restoration of historical buildings lies at the heart of a culture and is no more urgently needed than today. “Recycling old buildings is the greenest approach,” says Radcliffe-Trenner. “Globally we are currently seeing a wave of cultural terrorism, whole societies are having their sense of place destroyed. Sustainability is key if we are to be stewards of the past for the future.”
Hill, who will step down from her two-year term as president in June, says, “Completing the preservation project has stabilized the cost of doing business for the club for decades to come. Our board will not have to address issues piecemeal. The club has a long-range plan and can budget sensibly for the future without worrying about one crisis after another.”
As Hill puts it, “The restoration of this historic house shows respect for the forward-thinking women who began the Present Day Club and planned for the future. Our continued presence in the community is on solid footing.”
Present Day Club, 72 Stockton Street, Princeton. For more information regarding membership, Wednesday lecture and luncheons, Broadway and day trips, art exhibitions, current study group, and other programs, call 609-924-1014 or visit www.presentdayclub.org.
Tea and Discussion, Present Day Club, 72 Stockton Street, Princeton. www.morven.org. Friday, May 20, 4 p.m. Kristina Lindbergh, eldest grandchild of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, speaks in conjunction with Morven’s ongoing exhibit, “Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Couple of an Age.” Register. $50.