The “Old Town Topics” Building
By Linda Arntzenius
Photographs Courtesy of the Historical Society of Princeton
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. The building had been empty since the Town Topics newspaper moved to its new location on Witherspoon Street in 2007.
The renovation has brought the building into the 21st Century without disturbing the wooden architectural elements that ornament the façade and the dormer windows in the roof. A new three-story addition to the rear, a residential duplex, maintains the original’s brick construction.
Dating to 1878, when its address was One Nassau Street, the building has been put to a variety of uses over the years. Incredible as it seems, the change of address came about when the entire structure was moved some 60 feet back from Nassau Street to make way for the War Memorial in 1914. At that time, Priest’s Drug Store occupied the ground floor and, according to a contemporary account, the move was so smooth that not a drop of water spilled from a glass on the counter inside.
It is thought that the Priest’s remained in the building until 1944, but the building’s history during the thirties and forties is a little murky. The 1938 Polk City Directory for Princeton, has the Turk’s Head Restaurant listed at 4 Mercer Street.
Donald Pillsbury’s grandfather owned three area restaurants including the Turk’s Head (or Turkshead) and The Pillsbury. According to Pillsbury family lore, the family restaurant was housed in the former Town Topics building during the Great Depression. “It closed when the cook found better work by enlisting in the military for the war,” says Mr. Pillsbury, whose grandmother, Martha, may also have run an eatery from the same building. Martha’s Kitchen is listed at 2 to 4 Mercer Street in the 1932 Polk City Directory for Princeton. By 1935, however, the directory shows Martha’s Kitchen having moved to 20 Bayard Lane and Newlins Dining Room occupying its place at 4 Mercer Street. The latter may have been replaced in turn by the Swiss Inn in 1942.
What is known for sure, however, is that Town Topics moved into the building in 1950, four years after the newspaper was founded by Princeton University graduates Donald Stuart and his brother-in-law Dan Coyle, together with Don’s wife Emily (known as “Cissy”) and Dan’s wife Mary. The newspaper continued as a family business until it was sold to the current publisher Lynn Adams Smith, architect J. Robert Hillier, and a small group of investors in 2001 by Don and Emily’s son, the late Jeb Stuart.
In 2007, Mr. Stuart recalled: “From the early 1950s until 1973, my aunt Mary Coyle was office manager at Town Topics. At that time, Mrs. Priest, the wife of the owner of Priest’s pharmacy, lived on the second floor. She was an old lady and infirm and had a nurse with her all the time. Every now and then, Mrs. Priest would fall out of bed and the nurse would call my aunt to have her come up and help the old lady back into bed again.” It has been said that the ghost of Mrs. Priest still falls out of bed occasionally. Perhaps the new residents will keep an ear cocked.
The days of ticker-tape news releases, cold type and hand-pasting in the composing room are a far cry from today’s digital publishing and yet many of the old-timers at Town Topics have fond memories of 4 Mercer Street, even though it was cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer, its linoleum was cracked, its paint was peeling and its electrical supply was grossly inadequate for the needs of computers whose cables snaked along corridors and garlanded doors and windows.
It’s good to see this beautiful old building restored and getting ready for new tenants and another century’s worth of stories, ghost or otherwise.