This article was originally published in the November 2018 Princeton Echo.
Historic homes and neighborhoods have recently enjoyed — or, perhaps, been subjected to — a wave of renovations. Princeton presents notable examples. The Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, a long-time African-American enclave with official historic district designation, is the site of renovations and repairs but also teardowns of 19th-century homes to erect modernistic structures on the lots (“Princeton’s battle between historic preservation and urban insertion continues on Green Street,” September 2016).
One Witherspoon-Jackson district house with especially historic connections is the two-story frame home at 20 Green Street, between Witherspoon and John streets, with a backyard that borders Paul Robeson Place.
Substantial for its time and place, tall with pleasing proportions, the house may have been based on plans found in one of the popular architectural pattern books of the later 19th century.
It was once a boarding house where African-American visitors could dine and sleep in an era when white-owned hotels were closed to them. Its most famous known guest was believed to be Booker T. Washington, the leading teacher and orator who advocated liberation through education, who was even photographed with fellows in front of the building. Its owner in the early 1900s was Bertha Hill Brandon, an activist in the black community whose Friendship Club gave out educational scholarships and sponsored concerts by great African-American performers, including Princeton-born Paul Robeson.
But having stood vacant for some 30 years, the house at 20 Green Street appeared ripe for a tear-down, and it was presented as such in its initial marketing: A chance to buy the small but desirable lot, big enough for a desirable house within a short walk of everything in downtown Princeton. The initial listing price was $835,000.
The tear-down concern was understandable: Boxlike, modernistic homes (now assessed at nearly double the value of their older neighbors) have been erected at numbers 11 and 12 Green Street. Another nearby example of the urban insertion trend is 16-18 Quarry Street.
At this writing RB Homes is applying for permission to demolish the old house at 11 Quarry Street for new residential construction. Founded by Roman Barsky, who opened a Princeton office at 152 Witherspoon in 1995, the firm has successfully built traditionally styled homes in town. Nearby examples include 46 and 48 Wiggins Street, and 16 and 18 Jefferson Road. But these are three-bedroom, two-car garage homes: It remains to be seen what the Barsky firm proposes for the cramped 11 Quarry lot. (RB Homes did not respond to a request for comment.)
Meanwhile, Jeaninne and Robert Honstein quietly acquired 20 Green Street (the property was listed as sold in 2017 for $525,000). Then they actively communicated with neighboring home owners that they planned to retain and renovate the old house. The Honsteins sought variances allowing them to add a family room with fireplace and master bedroom on the back; build an unconnected one-car garage in the lot’s back corner; install a central air conditioning unit; and to cover part of the backyard with a patio, thereby increasing the impervious ground coverage.
Their outreach and transparency had a salutary effect. Considerable local support followed. On August 20 the concept was enthusiastically endorsed by the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission. At the Zoning Board hearing on September 26 neighbor Yina Moore (also a former Princeton Borough council member and mayor) said that “the entire neighborhood is excited about the effort and care” of the Honsteins’ proposal. “It’s more than salvageable,” Moore said, “and it also has historic values. Having people coming and living in the community, not just investing in it, is very important.” The board approved the project by a unanimous vote.
Why do the Honsteins, who now live in the neighborhood of the Institute for Advanced Study, want to move right into the center of things? “My husband and I would like to grow old in the downtown,” Jeaninne Honstein explains in an interview several weeks after the zoning board hearing. And once the Honsteins were shown 20 Green Street by a real estate broker, the added joys and challenges presented by the home became additional inducements.
“That house needs care and attention,” Honstein says. “I’ve wanted to do an old home renovation. So I was not intimidated by the project or by the condition of the house.”
Jeaninne Surette grew up in New England and Robert Honstein in New Mexico. Their paths crossed at the University of Vermont on the very first day, in calculus class. They graduated with B.S. degrees in civil engineering in 1977. They have a son and two daughters, now ranging in age from 28 to 38 years, who grew up in Princeton and retain a love for the town though they have all since moved away.
Robert worked for a time at RH Development Company in Cranbury, before leaving with its owner, Randy Hack, to become a principal at PRINCO, the Princeton University Investment Company, which manages the school’s endowment. He later founded his own investment firm, with many clients among universities and other non-profits.
Jeaninne has become an acclaimed painter and member of the National Association of Women Artists. Of late she has been working in metal sculpture, also with success: In 2016 she received the Council of American Artists’ Society Award for Excellence in Representational Sculpture for Bronze (www.jhonstein.com).
In response to their active outreach to Green Street residents, Jeaninne Honstein says, “People were so kind in the neighborhood, very supportive.” Some provided memories of the house and their families’ connections to it. “I hope to have a lot of time to dig deeper into its history.”
“It’s a courtesy to let your neighbors know what’s coming,” she continues. “The neighborhood is their home, too. Little things impact people very easily.”
This is especially true, she notes, in the Witherspoon-Jackson district, with its small lots and narrow, one-way streets. Any construction impacts residents in a way that’s often less problematic in neighborhoods where the houses are buffered by open space on most sides.
Besides courteous and honest communication, what advice would she give to anyone contemplating the purchase and renovation of a Princeton historic house? “The biggest challenge is to have a lot of patience,” Honstein replies, emphasizing that the zoning regulations need to be looked at carefully. She expresses sympathy and concern for present owners of such houses, especially older persons on fixed incomes. Of course, the materials and labor home improvements are costly; but there are also the frequently forgotten costs of applying for zoning variances.
“It’s not only the fee scales,” Honstein says, “but the pages of documents you need to present. Some home buyers will hire an attorney with experience in this process, but that’s very expensive.”
Max Hayden, the Hopewell-based architect who is handling the 20 Green Street project, reveals another rarely recognized difficulty in doing renovations in a neighborhood like Witherspoon-Jackson. “The zoning code was adopted in the 1940s,” says Hayden. “They didn’t write it for this neighborhood.” The drafters of such zoning codes, Hayden believes, “were trying to put a suburban aesthetic on what were really urban lots.”
And the consequences? Numerous requests for zoning variances, especially involving building setbacks from property lines. In the case of 20 Green Street, says Hayden, “more than half the width of the house” would be within the now-mandated setbacks: “It doesn’t have usable yard space.” And that’s an issue for a plan which includes a backyard patio and even a gate in its backyard fence.
Paul Robeson Place did not exist in the 1800s. Green Street backed onto what was then the alignment of Jackson Street. But in the 1950s most of Jackson’s humble old houses were deemed “blighted” and removed. Before this attempt at urban renewal there “was just a fence between neighbors,” says Hayden. Now there’s a fence along the south edge of the Green Street lots facing directly onto Paul Robeson Place — across from the four-story, nearly $2 million-valued townhouses now standing on the upper boundary of Palmer Square North.
Garages in the backs of Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood lots were not originally an issue, Hayden notes: Indeed, they helped provide additional privacy between homes. But now garage construction is also subject to the setback zone restrictions.
If all this wasn’t enough complication, at some point a bedroom/bathroom was added to the back of the house. “Judging from its concrete block construction,” says Hayden, a painful wince entering his voice, “it was probably added in the 1940s or ’50s. In addition to being completely out of proportion to the original structure, its low shed roof was not maintained. It just rotted away.”
Hayden hopes that by January, 2020, the entire process will be happily competed. “This is one of the nicest houses on the block and I’m glad to see it refurbished,” he says. “Houses like this are repositories of peoples’ memories and lives.”