By Joe Emanski
Palmer Square is 75 years old this month, and you could say it’s only in the last decade that Edgar Palmer’s legacy has really begun to take shape.
When the first phase of construction was completed in 1937, the square only gave an inkling of the communal hub that it would become. For that matter, the final development phase of the project won’t be complete when the clock strikes 2013. And yet Palmer was looking far into the future when he started building what would turn out to be a prototype for town-center living in the 21st century.
Palmer Square as it appeared in 1937, after the first phase of construction was completed. (Photo courtesy of Palmer Square Management.)
Though Palmer has been dead for 69 years, he proved he knew how to be patient in his lifetime. The heir to the New Jersey Zinc Company fortune first conceived of what has become Palmer Square in 1906, but it wasn’t until 23 years later, when he was president of Princeton Municipal Improvement, Inc., that he unveiled his plans to the public.
The proposed features of the prospective “new municipal center” will sound familiar to anyone who has spent time in the borough: newly constructed buildings calling for a mix of retail, office and residential use; a hotel and a post office (and a playhouse).
Unfortunately for Palmer, 1929 turned out not to be a great time for grand ideas. When the Great Depression started that year, Palmer was forced to defer his dream a little longer. Construction began in 1936; the western section that faces the square was completed in 1937. One shop on that stretch that opened that year, The Silver Shop, is still in operation today.
To commemorate the occasion, Palmer Square Management has held events and contests throughout the year. There was a Kids Art Contest, a plaque dedication and an ongoing treasure hunt, and now a Birthday Bash celebration is scheduled for Oct. 7 (details online at palmersquare.com).
“The Palmer Square of today is certainly visually different than its early history which began in 1937,” said David Newton, vice president of Palmer Square Management. “But the concept of being the pulse of the community and serving locals as well as visitors has always remained the same.”
The design, prepared by architect Thomas Stapleton, is Colonial Revival. Architect Jerry Ford, who specializes in historic buildings, says Stapleton mixed old Newport, Philadelphia, Annapolis and Williamstown, and that Palmer Square is a “mini version” of New York’s Rockefeller Center.
“Both were built within the decade of the thirties, and both were designed to turn the commercial traffic in from a major road,” said Ford, who owns Ford 3 Architects, LLC in Princeton. “In the case of Princeton, that road was Nassau Street, [while] in New York it was Fifth Avenue. The early plans for Rock Center contemplated an opera house at the end while Palmer had the Playhouse movie theater. Today the square is a fine and popular example of town planning which would be impossible to duplicate today with the complexities of zoning and environmental concerns.”
Impossible to duplicate, perhaps. But towns and cities across America are developing or announcing plans to develop mixed-use projects that seek to capture the essence of what Palmer Square has become.
“Many many developers are trying to create this from scratch,” Newton said. “If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then indeed we should be very flattered.
Some are rehabilitating older districts while others are simply building town centers where none had previously existed. Robbinsville and Plainsboro, just a few minutes away, are both places where the latter has taken place.
“Everyone is basically doing Palmer Square today,” Newton said. “The concept of residential, retail, hotel, office, parking — all combined together for the benefit of the entire community — instead of being the exception, it’s now the norm.”
In fact, one place where Edgar Palmer’s vision is still being carried out is Palmer Square itself. While the area is well established as a shopping and dining district, The under-construction Residences at Palmer Square are putting the mixed in mixed use, and only when the 100 luxury townhomes and condominiums are fully built, sold and leased will the vision for Palmer Square be realized. Newton said the rentals are at or near 100 percent, but some units remain on the market for sale.
Despite the current state of the economy, Newton said, Palmer Square is a very lucky place.
“Even with the recession at its height (in 2008), we were able to keep almost full occupancy,” he said. “Every town should really be like Princeton and Palmer Square. The university provides the whole town with a cultural base that most other towns would die for. The real challenge is to avoid this town becoming a golden ghetto. The great thing about Princeton is the diversity of the community.”
Princeton University has engendered a measure of resentment from some in the community for its plans to redevelop part of campus into a $300M “arts and transit” neighborhood. The plans call for moving Princeton Train Station 460 feet farther from Nassau Street, which some community members say will create a hardship for commuters.
Interestingly, that would not be the first time the “Dinky” station was moved south. Prior to 1918, Princeton’s train station was situated another quarter mile north of where it is today.
A longer walk to the train station doesn’t sound great, but it could be worse. To build Palmer Square, Edgar Palmer and Princeton Municipal Improvement had to move people’s houses. Farther from the train station, and farther from the university, where many of the people who lived in those houses worked. The site of Palmer Square was, at the time Palmer Square was being conceived, the center of the black community in Princeton.
The homes were uprooted and rolled on logs to other parts of town, including Birch Avenue. Birch Avenue sits more than a third of a mile from Nassau Street.
“I think that, because of the Depression, it’s hard to think of Edgar Palmer in terms of his social awareness side,” Newton said. “He was very heavily criticized for heavy-handed, forced relocation of minorities living in the streets that were around Palmer Square, and you know it left an overhang of bad taste, left a lot of resentment.”
Newton says in a way, it was brave to build something like Palmer Square in the middle of the Depression, because it might have been a failure. He doesn’t discount the resentment the displaced residents felt then, or that their descendents feel now, but said that Palmer and his colleagues were in a position where they had to make difficult decisions.
“With the benefit of full hindsight it’s easy to be critical, but we’re 75 years on, and I think the benefits to downtown are very positive. The end product was good; the cost it took on families and forced relocation, and plain old racism, was immense,” Newton said.
Palmer lived 6 years after phase one was complete. The square does, after all, carry his name, and he may very well have been content knowing that one day, his notion of a town center where people could work, live and play would become a major catalyst for development at the turn of the next century.
Princeton, along with bigger cities like Kansas City, prefigured the town center-style urban renewal we see today. Princeton also showed, to anyone who wanted to see, that urban renewal was going to require difficult choices, and that not everyone will benefit equally from the decisions that are made.
Palmer Square: history and timeline
The original stretch of Palmer Square runs today from Thomas Sweet Chocolate down to Palm Place. It opened for business in 1937, which was also the year when the new Nassau Inn opened in the center of the Square.
The original Nassau Tavern at 52 Nassau St. was first built in 1756, and was used as a residence by Judge Thomas Leonard. When Leonard died in 1759, the home became a hostelry called College Inn.
The inn and taproom played host to townsmen, students and honored guests such as Paul Revere, Robert Morris, and Thomas Paine, who stayed the night more than once at the public house. In the subsequent years, signers of the Declaration of Independence as well as members of the Continental Congress were guests at the inn. At the turn on of the 19th century, new owner John Gifford changed the name to the Nassau Inn.
The 52 Nassau St. establishment closed its doors in 1937, when it had become evident that the town and the university needed a larger, comfortable, and modern hotel, which would preserve the traditions of “Old Nass” while providing suitable suites for travelers and college guests. The construction of Nassau Tavern/Inn on Palmer Square was the result.
The Nassau Inn is currently in the process of renovating 188 guest rooms, its ballroom and many event spaces.
A tunnel system under the square is still maintained and in use today. The tunnels house steam pipes which connect to the central heating plant. The original steam plant was in the building where Jazams toy store is located today. The thousands of Christmas lights that adorn the Square during the holidays are stretched out in the tunnels prior to hanging in order to check the bulbs.
Two new stores are slated to open in Palmer Square this winter: Brooks Brothers and Urban Outfitters.
1929: Edgar Palmer unveils his plan for a town center; but put on hold due to Depression.
1936: Construction begins.
1937: First Phase of construction is complete. Nassau Inn relocates to center of the Square. Shops open on Palmer Square West. Included are The Silver Shop, Skirm’s Smoke Shop, Lindle’s Cleaners and Cousins Co. Wine & Liquor. Apartments are for rent above retail shops for $36 per month.
1941: Completion of the remaining buildings on Palmer Square West and around the corner on to Nassau Street
1943: Edgar Palmer passes away
1944: Bronze tiger memorial is created and dedicated to Edgar Palmer
Late 40’s: Norwegian Spruce is planted on Palmer Square Green
1963/64:One Palmer Square is built on the corner of Palmer Square East and Nassau Street for retail and office use
1985: Chambers Street Garage is built
1989-92: Hulfish Street development includes retail, office, residential and a garage. During this time, plans for an additional residential development along Paul Robeson Place were proposed
2006: Residential plan revised; now calls for 100 units, both for sale and lease.
2009: The Residences at Palmer Square breaks ground and is scheduled to be complete in 2013.
A diamond anniversary for The Silver Shop
The Silver Shop opened in 1937, during the Great Depression, when silver traded at 44 cents.
The first owners were a local couple who had connections to a prominent jewelry store in Philadelphia, where the wife ran the silver department. When they heard of the plans for Palmer Square, they pursued opening a store.
In 1956, a Palmer Square resident named Bob Comly took over the shop. Although the shop focused on silver and jewelry prior to his arrival, Comly brought in vendors that broadened the variety of merchandise, and carried silver from all manufacturers on a made-to-order basis. Most unusual for the time was that he had a selection of new and antique items available in the same establishment.
When Comly retired in 1976, Arthur Colletti took over the reins. Colletti was one of the dealers that stocked the store with fine antiques and estate jewelry prior to his ownership.
Colletti renovated the shop and deepened the range of merchandise even further. New and elaborate merchandise was offered at the same time as rare and impressive antiques.
Current owner Sal Pitts discovered the Silver Shop in 1988. He was a frequent customer, and would travel from Philadelphia, particularly at Christmastime to buy all his gifts.
In 1998, Pitts moved to Princeton; two years later, Colletti died. Upon discovering the shop was for sale, Pitts knew he had to rescue it. He made a deal with the heirs of the estate to buy everything—the shop’s name, client list, inventory, even Colletti’s personal items, which were to be auctioned at Christie’s.
The Silver Shop is located at 59 Palmer Square W. Phone: (609) 924-2026.