by Anne Levin
Historic photographs courtesy of The Historical Society of Princeton
There’s a curious thing about the man credited with creating much of Princeton’s architectural character. Charles Steadman, a 19th century Renaissance man of sorts, wasn’t a trained architect.
Known for several of the town’s symmetrically pleasing, white clapboard houses in Greek Revival and Victorian styles, as well as such public buildings as Princeton Theological Seminary’s Miller Chapel and the first Whig and Clio buildings on the Princeton University campus, Steadman was an accomplished carpenter and real estate developer who used pattern books and taught himself to build and design. But whether he actually did design all of the buildings associated with his name is a matter of conjecture.
“He was a real estate developer here. He did a lot of work and had a lot of contracts,” says Wanda Gunning, who has served on the historic preservation committees of both Princeton Borough and Princeton Township, and is an acknowledged authority on Steadman. “But he also bought designs, apparently, and he wasn’t necessarily an original architect.” The best way to tell a Steadman house is to find their original contracts. “Some of them survive,” says Gunning. “And sometimes there are contemporary references to them in books or letters.” In addition to Drumthwacket, the New Jersey governor’s mansion, one of the most popular examples of Steadman’s oeuvre is a house on Morven Place, built in 1830. It is known to be the real thing, because the original contract still exists.
What no one disputes is Steadman’s work as a builder. He is credited with Palmer House on the Princeton University campus, and the old Mercer County Courthouse in Trenton. He built Nassau Presbyterian Church after commissioning architect Thomas Ustick Walter, a “starchitect” in his day best known for the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, as designer. Steadman, who had earned $1.50 a day as a carpenter for the church only a decade before, acted as both builder and underwriter for what was then known as the First Presbyterian Church. He also laid out the interior, according to Princeton University: The Campus Guide by Raymond Rhinehart.
Steadman built the east wing of the original Nassau Inn, on Nassau Street, in 1846. Then a boarding house known as the Mansion Inn, it was razed in 1937 to make room for the development of Palmer Square.
But Steadman is best known for the houses he built—and sometimes designed—in the town’s Mercer Hill and western sections. There are the stately homes on Library Place and Mercer Street, some of which were moved from previous locations and expanded over the years. More modest homes line Edgehill and Alexander streets. Many of these were rentals. “A very popular thing to do in a college town at that time was to rent to the mothers of students,” says Gunning. “Mothers of Princeton students would come and stay for four years in the Steadman houses. There were a lot of widowed and single women living in those rentals.”
By about 1879, Steadman owned more houses than any other man in Princeton, according to research done when the Historical Society of Princeton led a tour of nine of his houses in 1974. He even named a local thoroughfare after himself. Steadman Street is now part of Library Place.
Not much is known about Steadman’s life before he came to Princeton at the age of 23. Born in Massachusetts in 1790, he quickly established himself, after moving south, as a respected citizen of Princeton. He worked as a carpenter, became a partner in lumber and dry goods concerns, and began his ventures into real estate. He was the first warden and vestryman at Trinity Church. Besides being a member of the local fire company, he found time to be a director of the Princeton Bank, and a trustee of the Princeton Preparatory School. He married three times and died in 1868.
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