Room to Grow: Morven Gets a Much-Needed Modern Addition

By Anne Levin / Renderings courtesy of Morven Museum and Garden 

Imagining an addition to Morven, the historic Princeton museum that was home to a signer of the Declaration of Independence and five New Jersey governors, one might understandably expect a building in the style of the 18th-century Greek Revival mansion. But the recently opened Stockton Education Center, which adds much-needed space to the site, bears no resemblance to its grand old ancestor.

“That is definitely on purpose,” says Jill Barry, Morven Museum and Garden’s director. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s such a contemporary building!’ But Morven is a National Historic Landmark, and the guidelines say that with an addition, there can be no confusion over what is new and what is old. In fact, the highest point of the new building has to be lower than the lowest window of the old building’s second floor. Those are the rules.”

Baltimore-based GWWO Architects designed the sleek, spare addition, which adds a light-filled gathering space, a classroom, offices, bathrooms, and storage space to the complex. The idea is to bring the landscape in, and put the architectural spotlight on the original house and outbuildings, rather than in on itself.

GWWO boasts impressive credits, including The Interpretive Center for George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia. “They are very familiar with working on historic sites,” Barry said when ground was broken for the Princeton project in January 2017. “They understand that this building is not the showstopper. The mansion is the showstopper. This is the support building. It will be beautiful, but the focus is the mansion. This is for supporting programming and backup house stuff that we desperately need.”

The project has been a long haul. It was first proposed nearly 15 years ago, but it took another seven years before the New Jersey Historic Sites Council granted approval. Sent back to the drawing board after appearing before what was then Princeton’s Borough Council in 2005, the museum revised its scheme for expansion, which had originally suggested a new building in front of the historic mansion on Stockton Street. GWWO’s plan has placed the addition to the right of the house, with its rear facing the former Borough Hall (now Monument Hall).

 

 

The namesake of the new building is Richard Stockton, known as “the signer.” He built Morven in the late 1750s, before the American Revolution. The property also includes a pool house dating from the residence of Robert Wood Stockton in the 1940s, renovated as part of a $5.8 million restoration of Morven that began in 2004. Other restored buildings include the 1850s carriage house, now used for garden support, and the former ice house from 1850, which is now a gift shop.

Private funds have paid for the $6.5 million project.

On a rainy morning in late April, workers were slogging through the mud to put the finishing touches on the new building. Barry pulled on a pair of boots to take a visitor through the site, which was being prepared for a celebratory ribbon cutting, champagne toast, and preview party less than two weeks later.

A pristine-looking wood floor was being laid in the airy gathering space, which will be used for a multitude of functions. Barry noticed every detail. “The vents are in!” she exclaimed, spying a pair of restroom doors. “And the TVs! Very exciting.”

Until now, Morven’s maximum space for a lecture or other event was only about 24 people. “So we have been dependent on the generosity of our neighbors like The Present Day Club, The Center for Theological Inquiry, and Princeton Public Library for letting us use their space,” Barry said. “That meant we were at the whim of their schedules. Now, we have a place for lectures that can hold 160 or so for sit-down lectures, and a little less for luncheons and things like that. It’s a huge difference.”

Morven’s first floor is being closed over the summer to allow the staff to assemble a much more comprehensive exhibit of its history. Instead of focusing only on Richard Stockton, there will be information about families that were residence through 1982, the end of the gubernatorial administration of Brendan Byrne.

“With extra space next door, we can now focus in the main house on the first three generations of Stocktons,” Barry said. “What’s interesting about Morven is we’ve had generations of personalities, not just one person. And up until now, unless you were with a docent, you wouldn’t even know it was a governors’ mansion.”

Morven had slaves on the property, later immigrant servants, and still later, employees. Through conversations with the children of Byrne and former Governor Richard Hughes, the staff has been able to gather oral histories that will add to the collection. Byrne’s son Tom Byrne put them in touch with Wavanie Mouko, who was a cook for the family and a great source of information.

“Being able to blow these stories out and have more conversations is wonderful,” said Barry. “This new building allows us to do so much more of that.”

Morven’s status as a historic site has prevented the kinds of children’s programs that involve crafts and related materials. The classroom in the new center is designed specifically for such activities. The new building also allows Morven to free up its attic, turning crowded office space into a climate-controlled storage area.

“This whole project is so special,” said Barry. “It allows us to reach our mission so much more effectively. It is meant to be gracious, and not overwhelming to the original site. And I think that has been achieved.”