Princeton’s Stately Mansions

Photography by Robert Manella, Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty

The First in an Occasional Series

by Anne Levin

Back in the late eighteenth century when the Rev. John Witherspoon was the sixth president of Princeton University, he was known to end his work day at Nassau Hall when he saw a light in a front window of Tusculum, his 
country house and tenant farm located just a mile to the north. According to a local legend, one of Witherspoon’s daughters would light a candle in that window, letting her father know it was time to close up shop and head home.

It’s a charming story. Whether or not it is true, it is hard to imagine Witherspoon being able to see clear from Nassau Hall all the way to what is now Cherry Valley Road. But Princeton was rural and open when Tusculum was built back in 1773 (Witherspoon lived there from 1779 until his death in 1794). Thanks to dedicated custodians and substantial investment by its owners over the years, most recently in the mid-1990s, Tusculum still exists as a private home.

The estate is among several historically significant properties nestled in and around Princeton. Thanks to sensitive preservation and, in some cases, adaptive reuse, once-grand estates like Tusculum, Maybury Hill, Drumthwacket, Edgerstoune, and Constitution Hill survive today.

In this initial installment of an occasional series exploring these unique properties, we visit Tusculum and Constitution Hill, a distinctively different estate built just over a century later.

Photography by Robert Manella, Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty

Constitution Hill

Considered an outstanding example of the work of the Philadelphia firm of Cope & Stewardson in the Tudor Revival Style, Constitution Hill stands on what is considered Princeton’s highest point. Cope & Stewardson are known for their design of Blair Hall on the Princeton University campus, as well as 19th century Collegiate Gothic buildings at the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College.

The architects were commissioned in 1897 by New York banker Junius Spencer Morgan, a nephew of the financier J.P. Morgan, to build a mansion with accompanying stables/coach house and elaborate gardens. Morgan knew and loved Princeton because he graduated from the University in 1888. He became a generous donor to his alma mater as well as an important art collector.

His estate was built on land originally owned by William Penn. Called Constitution Hill because New Jersey’s first state constitution was signed in a former farmhouse on the site that had been owned by the Stockton family, the house was designed in Jacobean style. Morgan and his young wife, Josephine, were known for their extravagant style of entertaining. They had three daughters.

The property was handed down through generations and ultimately converted to a condominium. Its elaborate detailing has been preserved. While modern houses have been built surrounding the original mansion, the ambiance of the turn of the century estate has survived.

Photograph Courtesy of T. Jeffrey Clarke and Michael Slack

Tusculum

The Rev. John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, is said to have entertained George and Martha Washington and other notables of the time at Tusculum. Witherspoon named the estate after a villa outside ancient Rome owned by the orator, Cicero. Occupants in ensuing years included well-known Princeton families named Stockton, Pardoe, and Pardee, who between them added three wings to enlarge the original, stone Colonial Revival dwelling.

When Princeton University graduates Tom and Avril Moore bought Tusculum in 1996, they hired Princeton architect T. Jeffery Clarke to renovate and enlarge the house. Clarke replaced some additions and added others, finishing with a grand total of 8,000 square feet and 24 rooms.

In 2006, the Moores sold 35 of Tusculum’s 82 acres to what was then Princeton Township for $2.9 million, said to be just under half its market value. Aid also came from Mercer County, New Jersey’s Green Acres program, Friends of Princeton Open Space and D&R Greenway Land Trust. No development can take place on the preserved, historic grounds. The remainder of the property was placed on the market and finally sold at auction to another private owner in 2013.

Twenty acres surrounding the house are listed on The National Register of Historic Places. The Tusculum estate boasts a building considered to be one of the best examples of early-19th-century barns in New Jersey.