Palmer Square: A Look Back

Baker’s Alley in Princeton, looking south toward Nassau Street c. 1925. A historic African American neighborhood that was demolished to make way for Palmer Square. (Photo courtesy of Historical Society of Princeton.)

By Taylor Smith

The September 28, 1928 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW) announced that “Plans for a gigantic program of reconstruction in the heart of Princeton, to cost several million dollars, have recently been made public by Edgar Palmer ’03, President of Princeton Municipal Improvement, Inc. This development will affect the section on Nassau Street from Upper Pyne Dormitory to the Second Presbyterian Church. The area to be reconstructed extends as far as Quarry Street, four blocks to the north of Nassau Street, and is bounded on the east and west, respectively, by Witherspoon Street and Quarry Street.”

Edgar Palmer.

PAW goes on to describe: “In place of numerous old wooden houses and tenements which are not only unsightly but which also form a great fire hazard, there will be two large apartment houses of the ‘garden’ type.”

The municipal square model was not everyone’s ideal. Significantly, the plan involved the removal of Baker’s Alley and the relocation of the majority of Princeton’s African American community to Birch Avenue.

Longtime Princeton resident Shirley Satterfield is an expert on the history of African American life in Princeton. “My family is six generations in this neighborhood, and I love this neighborhood,” she says.

Satterfield describes Palmer Square as Princeton’s first example of “urban renewal.” When asked to characterize the effect of Edgar Palmer’s plans on the African American community, Satterfield states, “It wasn’t a hardship for us, it was a movement for us.”

“A lot of our families were domestic workers and they didn’t talk about discontent to the children,” she adds. “In those days, a lot of people didn’t complain.”

Construction photos courtesy of Palmer Square Management.

Palmer Square as we know it today was originally a dream of Edgar Palmer, heir to the New Jersey Zinc Company and a 1903 graduate of Princeton University. Modeled on Thomas Stapleton’s construction of Rockefeller Center, Palmer Square would re-route all commercial traffic towards a central town square. The plan also called for a new municipal center; a hotel; playhouse; post office; and retail, office and residential spaces in a Colonial Revival Movement style, as suggested by Stapleton, the project’s architectural mastermind.

While Edgar Palmer first conceived of the idea for Palmer Square in 1906, the project did not move forward until around 1929, at which time Palmer became president of Princeton Municipal Improvement, Inc.

Construction on Palmer Square began in earnest in 1936, but it was not completed until well after Palmer’s death in 1943. In fact, Palmer was only alive to see less than half of his plans realized.

Local newspapers had much to say about the Palmer Square project. The front page of the February 15, 1929 edition of The Princeton Herald was emblazoned with the headline, “TOWN IMPROVEMENT WILL COST MILLIONS.” A variety of sub-headlines noted, “Nassau St. Properties Between Upper Pyne and Second Church Involved in Development Affecting Huge Area in Heart of Princeton” and “Destruction of Nassau Inn May Be Regretted Later, Mayor Warns.”

John Grier Hibben

Palmer was well known to local residents by 1929. Chief among his early contributions to Princeton University was his donation of the funds for Palmer Stadium. The event was reported in the March 29, 1914 edition of The New York Times: “Edgar Palmer of Rye, N.Y., a Princeton graduate of the Class of 1903, has offered to build and present to Princeton University for the use of the Athletic Association, a stadium costing $300,000 and seating 41,000 persons. This announcement was made by President John Grier Hibben this afternoon after a meeting of the Committee on Grounds and Buildings of the University, at which the architect’s plans were approved.”

In addition to Palmer Stadium, Edgar Palmer’s donations included funds for the University Cottage Club, an organization co-founded by J. Frederick Talcott, Princeton Class of 1888, successor to the influential New York textile company, James Talcott Inc. In the mid-1930s, Palmer commissioned artist Norman Rockwell to paint the large mural still featured in the Yankee Doodle Tap Room in the Nassau Inn.

The precedent for Palmer’s generosity was set by his father, Stephen Squires Palmer, himself a Princeton graduate and strong proponent of the sciences. Palmer Physical Laboratory was a gift from the senior Palmer, who served as a trustee of the University from 1908 to 1913. The Laboratory provided two acres of space for the Physics and Electrical Engineering departments and was considered to be the leading University research facility of its kind. According to Princeton University’s website, Palmer reasoned that the gift was of the “absolute necessity of extending Princeton’s usefulness in the field of science and of placing her in a position where she can respond to the demands that will be made upon her.” Much later, Palmer Physical Laboratory served a key role in the Manhattan Project’s weapons research during WWII.

The will of Edgar Palmer benefited the University further. Upon his death at his home on Bayard Lane, the trustees of the University received majority ownership of Princeton Municipal Improvement, Inc., which at the time was valued in the millions. As a result, the University acquired ownership of the company’s buildings on Palmer Square and Nassau Street, including numerous shops, apartments, offices, the playhouse, and more. 

Construction photos courtesy of Palmer Square Management.

Breaking Ground

The first phase of construction on Palmer Square was completed in 1937 with the new Nassau Inn situated in the town square. Originally built in 1756, the Nassau Tavern had been located at 52 Nassau Street and played host to many students and famous guests, including Judge Thomas Leonard, Paul Revere, Robert Morris, and Thomas Paine. Buildings on Palmer Square West and around the corner leading onto Nassau Street were finished in 1941, just two years before Palmer’s death.

Other historic events in Palmer Square history include the installation of the Bronze Tiger Memorial in 1944 (in memory of Edgar Palmer), the planting of the Norwegian Spruce in the late 1940s, the building of One Palmer Square in 1963-64 and the Chambers Street Garage in 1985, the Hulfish Street development in 1989-92, and the completion of The Residences at Palmer Square.

Jamie Volkert, director of marketing at Palmer Square Management, says, “Thomas Stapleton’s architectural design is classic and timeless. Palmer Square West looks much as it did when the doors first opened in September 1937.”

Volkert adds, “Seventy-five years later, in 2012, the Residences at Palmer Square opened their doors, and Palmer’s vision was complete. Palmer Square continues to prosper and remains a pulse of the community, celebrating its commitment to serving visitors and the community alike.”

Witherspoon-Jackson

The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, where many African American residents were relocated by the Palmer Square project, was officially designated as Princeton’s 20th Historic District in 2016. The desire to preserve and educate the public on the neighborhood’s historical significance is coupled with a modern-day need to provide town residents with housing. J. Robert Hillier, PU Class of 1959, GS ’61, and a Princeton Magazine shareholder, renovated the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children — which moved to Quarry Street in 1908 — in 2004, transforming the building into an apartment complex named after Howard B. Waxwood Jr., the school’s former principal during the period known as the Princeton Plan, the Princeton Public School’s movement towards an integrated school system. The building is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Satterfield worked with Hillier and community organizer John Bailey to launch the Witherspoon-Jackson Heritage Tour, which focuses on 29 sites in Princeton that are significant to the town’s African American history. The Heritage Tour includes three sites that were listed in Victor Hugo Green’s The Green Book, a travel guide for African Americans in the United States that indicated which hotels and restaurants they could visit during the time of Jim Crow laws. The Green Book was published from 1936 to 1966.

“When Paul Robeson came back to sing, he couldn’t stay in the Nassau Inn, he stayed with Albert Einstein.” Satterfield continues, “We knew where we could or couldn’t go.”

The desire to preserve and perpetuate diversity in Princeton is of the utmost importance to many of its residents, past and present. As written by Cornel West in the foreword to Kathryn Watterson’s I Hear My People Singing, “This historic town looms large in the founding and sustaining of the American Republic, and it houses one of the world’s great institutions of higher learning – Princeton University. Yet in my thirty-four years of association with this town and university, I have always identified with and been fascinated by the vital and vibrant black community in Princeton.”