Home of a Design Icon
By Anne Levin | Photos courtesy of Michael Graves Architecture & Design
One evening in the mid-1970s, Michael Graves and his wife were taking an evening stroll through their Princeton neighborhood when they noticed a wreck of a building tucked back behind a row of houses on Patton Avenue. Being an architect, Graves was not put off by the tumbledown state of the place.
Rather, Graves — who taught and worked in Princeton for nearly four decades and is considered one of the most influential architects of the 20th century — was intrigued. Dating from 1927, the sprawling, terracotta stucco building had once been a storage warehouse for Italian stonemasons who worked on Princeton University’s Neo-Gothic campus buildings. There were 44 storage rooms inside. A pile of trash filled the yard.
“Basically, it was public mini-storage of the 1920s,” says Karen V. Nichols, a longtime principal with Michael Graves Architecture & Design and a close associate of the late architect, who died at the age of 80 in 2015. “It was an abandoned ruin when he saw it, but he saw possibilities.”
Graves, who had studied at the American Academy in Rome and spent significant time traveling through Italy and Greece, recognized the Tuscan barn style of the old warehouse. He was enamored. “It was the light,” says Nichols. “It reminded him of the Tuscan landscape.”
Graves purchased the property and named it The Warehouse. But he had to wait until a sewer moratorium was lifted before he could set about restoring the main building. Once given the green light, he began work and moved in on his own (the marriage had ended). He set about removing the storage rooms, and added pieces of steel to reinforce the structure. Where a hand-cranked elevator once stood, he added a staircase. It was the beginning of a process that never really ended.
“He had a very rigorous mind about how to organize space,” says Nichols. “He added light in strategic places. In some areas, he used pieces of glass from old greenhouses.”
Reflecting on the process in a 2012 New Jersey Network video, Graves said, “It started out as a place to put my head down. Little by little, it got a life.”
The Warehouse served not only as Graves’ home, but was also used by the architecture firm. “He lived here pretty much alone, but used it to entertain students, faculty, and potential clients,” said Nichols. “We had the annual picnic for people who worked at the office and their families, in the yard. There were some interesting stories about it over the years.”
The architect always intended the building to serve as a place that reflected his style, his work, and his eclectic collections. Most significantly, he wanted it to be a place where others could learn. In his will, he donated three properties including The Warehouse to his former longtime employer, Princeton University. But the University turned down the gift.
A statement at the time read, “We were grateful to be able to consider the possibility of accepting Michael Graves’ properties, but concluded that we could not meet the terms and conditions associated with the gift.”
It makes sense that the three buildings ended up going to Kean University. Late in his life, Graves had helped establish Michael Graves College for architecture and design at Kean, The Union-based university paid $20 for the property, which was appraised at the time for nearly $3.2 million. Upkeep was estimated to be between $30,000 and $40,000 a year, once retrofitting for student use was finished at about $300,000.
Kean uses The Warehouse for meetings, dinners, and special events. It is also a site for research. “He always wanted it to be a study center,” says David Mohney, Kean’s dean of Michael Graves College. “I think he’d be delighted today to know it’s for the institution that bears his name.”
The Warehouse occupies a flag-shaped, tree-lined lot. Visitors approach via a courtyard, passing through a rotunda as they enter the house. The living room and dining room follow, with service rooms on one side. Steel and glass doors open on the other side to a green space topped with wisteria that, like the building, recalls Graves’ affinity for Tuscany.
A spinal cord infection in 2003 left Graves paralyzed from the waist down. Confined to a wheelchair, he had to adapt the house to his needs. “After the paralysis, Michael realized he had to do a lot to the house,” says Nichols. “He needed to add an elevator and a large shower. He had to get all the books off the floor. He removed a balustrade above the entrance. But the house has such good bones that he didn’t have that much to do to it.”
Graves regarded The Warehouse as a kind of laboratory for experiments with domestic space. The two-story, light-filled library is filled with thousands of books. Architectural pieces are displayed on tables and in surprising nooks and insets. Examples of Roman antiquity and magnifying glasses with ivory handles share space with Biedermeier furnishings. Some pieces are valuable; others he purchased at flea markets. This mix of objects from different styles and periods appears very organized, while at the same time managing to incorporate the unexpected.
Michael Graves, Still Life 2.
Graves’ own work is displayed alongside pieces from his collections of furniture and design objects. He always painted, even as his architecture practice flourished, but more so after being confined to a wheelchair. His landscapes line the walls of one room and turn up elsewhere in the house.
One of Nichols’ favorite stories dates back to about 1981, when Graves was first commissioned to design an addition to the Whitney Museum in New York. “Everyone else on the list had the interviews in their fancy apartments, but we had ours here,” she says. “It was a beautiful day. We threw open the doors and sat outside. I made a pasta primavera, I think. And then we just sat around, enjoying the talk and enjoying the day. It was very convivial. We got the job. And though it never got built, the commission was a turning point for the firm.”
The Warehouse is considered a visual gallery of Graves’ ideas. While it is not a house museum, those interested can make an appointment to visit.
“It is used mostly by students, which is very much the way Michael used it,” says Mohney. “It is pretty much intact from his life here. And that’s what he wanted.”