Musical Buildings

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Still known to many in Princeton as the “old Town Topics building,” the imposing 19th-century brick edifice at 4 Mercer Street was restored by its owner, Princeton University, in 2013 and will see new use as apartments for faculty and staff on the second and third floors and office space on the first floor.

Princeton has a rich history of moving houses, churches and other architectural landmarks

By Ilene Dube

The year was 1868. A few heads must have turned when the house with colossal columns, reminiscent of a Greek temple, arrived by barge in Princeton Basin. From there it traveled up Alexander before settling into an orchard on Mercer Street. The owner, the Rev. George Sheldon, had inherited his family’s Northampton, Mass., home,  and when a builder gave the thumbs up to moving it more than 200 miles, the 1830s wooden structure was disassembled, freighted through Connecticut to New York City, then shipped up the Raritan and barged along the D&R Canal.

These days, moving a building is rare—there are power lines, plumbing and other obstacles to contend with—but in the 130 years following the move of the Sheldon House, nearly 200 buildings were moved in Princeton. Everything from elegant Victorians and stately Colonial Revival homes to modest workers’ cottages, outbuildings, clubhouses and boarding houses were pulled by horses along soaped-up wooden railroad ties, and later by trucks pulling the structures along steel beams. Churches, pharmacies, a rectory, a theater and even a school were relocated. Some were moved twice, two were moved three times and three came to Princeton from other states.

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The home of Albert Einstein, at 112 Mercer St.

Historic and architectural value made a building worthy of moving. It was often cheaper to move a house than to build anew.

A lot of this game of musical chairs with buildings happened because Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary were expanding their campuses. The university would give houses away under the condition that the new owner move them. And as land on Nassau Street became more valuable, older houses were moved to make way for more stylish ones—a sort of precursor to the tear-down concept.

The home of one of Princeton’s most famous residents, Albert Einstein, at 112 Mercer Street, was moved to its existing location from Alexander in the 1870s. Einstein lived in the Greek Revival-style house with a Victorian porch from 1936 to 1955.

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Iconic Colonnade in Princeton Battlefield State Park. 

Another famous landmark, the Ionic Colonnade in Princeton Battlefield Park, was once part of the facade of a Philadelphia mansion, designed in 1836 by architect Thomas U. Walter, who later worked on the U.S. Capitol. When the house was torn down around 1900, the Colonnade was moved and incorporated into Mercer Manor, on the site of the 18th century William Clarke House, around which the Battle of Princeton was fought. When Mercer Manor burned in 1957, the Colonnade was moved to its present location.

The 19th-century brick edifice at 4 Mercer Street, known as the “old Town Topics building,” was originally located at 1 Nassau Street, where it was built in 1878. In 1914, to make room for the War Memorial monument, the entire structure was moved back 60 feet. The building was home to Priest’s Drugstore at the time, and the story goes that the move went so smoothly, a single drop of water didn’t spill from a glass.

Town Topics occupied the building from 1950 until 2007, when Princeton University, the building’s owner, made plans to move its Office of Community and Regional Affairs to the first floor, and faculty housing on the second and third floors. What are the impacts on moving buildings a century later? The basement needed to have additional beams and supports installed, according to Director of Community and Regional Affairs Kristin Appelget.

On the Princeton University campus, Corwin Hall, erected in 1951 and originally known as Wilson Hall, had to be moved 100 feet, to a site between Wallace and Robertson Hall, to make way for the then-new Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The building weighed seven million pounds, and the New York firm of Spencer, White and Prentiss spent two months preparing for the move, which used hydraulic jacks to push the building along 12-foot steel tracks. The move itself took only 12 hours, and then another three months to secure it in its new foundation. To view archival footage of the move, visit http://bit.ly/2di4VLl.

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Architect Max Hayden moves his home (above) in Hopewell’s Mount Rose hamlet to a quieter site on Cherry Valley Road.

In more recent times, architect Max Hayden moved his home in Hopewell’s Mount Rose hamlet to a quieter site on Cherry Valley Road. Some have jokingly referred to the busy intersection of Carter and Cherry Valley roads as “Mount Max,” because the architect also bought the former Mount Rose General Store in 2002 and converted it to his offices (the property is now for sale). Hayden has worked on such restoration projects as the Grover Cleveland house, the Drumthwacket Coach House and the Morven farmhouse, as well as new construction. He is an old hand at moving buildings, having moved two tiny cottages, formerly located at the Brookside Motel on Routes 518 and 31. With no plumbing, the 12-foot-by-12-foot cottages were moved on a flatbed truck in 2004, then craned onto the property behind the old general store.

Hayden’s home, in which he lives with his wife, Jennifer, and two children, was built in 1850 by Reuben Savidge, original owner of the general store. Hayden bought the property in 1984 when he was single. In the mid 1990s, when he wanted to put on an addition, he observed a neighbor move his house to gain further distance from the road. It gave another neighbor the idea to swap the corner lot, which Hayden needed for his addition, in exchange for the move. This was a relatively easy move, Hayden recollects, because no power lines were in the way.

When his son, Max, and daughter, Caroline, came along in 2004 and 2006, the family sought a safer yard in which they could play. They looked at other houses, but Hayden had an emotional attachment to this one. It reminded him of his grandparents’ home, an old farmhouse with a front portico and a widow’s walk. As a child, he experienced a double loss, first when half the property was taken by eminent domain to build an exit ramp for Interstate 78. Later, he watched the house itself smolder in a fire. “My heart sank, and I’ve always sought to re-create that house,” he says. “I’ve known since I was five that I wanted to be an architect.”

Hayden’s parents owned the historic King George Inn, once a stagecoach stop, in Warren Township, and when Max was a teenager his parents moved a caboose into their backyard to serve as a cabana.

To move his house, Hayden and his family, as well as half their belongings, decamped to temporary quarters in October 2006. Their home was pulled by a tractor, leap frogging onto steel plates so as not to sink in the ground that never froze that year—until it was time to dig for the foundation. And then it rained into March and April. The other half of their possessions, including everything in the attic and a corner cupboard, moved along with the house. The house moved well, one of the biggest problems being all the mud dragged onto the pumpkin pine floors. But by July 30 the family moved in, with only a few cracks and the kitchen floor an eighth of an inch lower.

“We have a full basement now,” Hayden adds, for the utilities and laundry room, “and the neighbor is 500 feet away.” (The neighbor at the prior site was seven feet away.) “The road is 400 feet away. We kept the orientation so the same south sunlight comes in as it used to, but having a different view took getting used to.” In 2007, a family room was put on.

After adding all the costs to moving his house, Hayden says it was still less than it would have cost to build anew. “It took a year, plus three months for the addition, which is the right amount of time for a custom home.”

And the emotional toll? “It was harder for Jennifer, with two small kids. She is very glad to be off the road and loves the house and the property. We had lemons and made lemonade but boy the price of sugar has gone up! But it’s good for every architect to go through this and appreciate what we put our clients through.” When the project was complete, Hayden rented a bus to shuttle visitors who wanted a view.

Beyond moving a building to a different position on a property, the era for moved buildings may have come to an end. In 2013, when the university began to make way for its new Arts and Transit District, it offered seven properties along Alexander Street, some dating to 1860, free for the taking—provided the new owners would actually take the houses somewhere else. After receiving 1,000 inquiries, there were no takers. The houses were demolished.

The Sheldon House at 10 Mercer Street remains a reminder of Princeton’s rich history of moved buildings.

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Beatty House, at 19 Vandeventer Ave., originally stood on Nassau Street opposite Brainbridge House and was moved in 1875 to make way for the expansion of the university campus. 

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72 Library Place, built in 1836 by Charles Steadman and considered one of his best by Constance M. Grieff, author of Princeton Architecture (Princeton University Press, 1967). Leased by Woodrow Wilson in 1890, it was originally sited between Mercer and Stockton streets and moved circa 1880. 

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Rockingham, headquarters for George Washington during the Princeton session of the Continental Congress in 1783 and later a boardinghouse for quarry workers, was moved three times, most recently in 2001. It sits on a 27-acre property on Kingston-Rocky Hill Road adjacent to the Delaware and Raritan Canal, and is open to the public year-round.