Greensboro is a community that enjoys a strong education system, a healthy transportation network, and a vibrant center city. Though we face challenges in terms of the economy and social balances, our outlook is bright as grassroots initiatives translate community strengths into innovative solutions.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look to other places for references or inspiration. One city that shares some of Greensboro’s characteristics is Princeton, New Jersey.
Like Greensboro, Princeton (image, right) enjoys a rich history that echoes our own. The Borough of Princeton was founded in 1813 (Greensborough was founded in 1808), though it was settled much earlier. Both communities saw conflict during the American Revolution, the Battle of Princeton in 1777, and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781. Both communities have their National Historic Landmark Governor’s Mansions: Morven in Princeton (now a museum), and Blandwood in Greensboro (also a museum).
Princeton is notable for having a particularly active and attractive downtown of mixed architectural themes. At first glance, the heart of the town is focused on Palmer Square, a collection of buildings that apparently date to the earliest settlement of the village and centered around a grand full service hotel known as the Nassau Inn. Within these apparently ancient buildings (image, right) are 40 upscale shops and restaurants featuring a blend of locally owned stores and boutiques and global brands that are only known in the largest markets in our state such as Brooks Brothers, Kate Spade, Ralph Lauren, and Urban Outfitters.
Although Palmer Square might exude the charm of one of America’s most historic town centers, it was in fact built in 1937 to compliment nearby Princeton University and serve as a focal point for the community. Some of the primary lessons of Palmer Square might be helpful for Greensboro to witness as our center city enters an era of high growth.
Placemaking When philanthropist Edgar Palmer embarked on constructing his new town center, downtown Princeton’s architecture was notable, though not particularly distinguishable from any other town in the region. Palmer Square was designed by architect Thomas Stapleton using inspiration from historic Colonial towns such as Newport, Philadelphia, and Annapolis. The initiative intended as a redevelopment project in the same sense of New York’s Rockefeller Center. Sadly, the prime central property was the home of several African American families who were relocated several blocks away.
Reviving our country’s Colonial-era architecture was popular during the 1920s and 30s as preservation initiatives in Charleston and Williamsburg were just gaining traction. Palmer and Stapleton tapped into the Colonial-era history of Princeton and developed an architectural theme that was quaint and enjoyed a human scale. Although the theme was revisionist, it was also place-appropriate to an east coast town. Whether the complex was built in Colonial Revival style, or Art Deco, a united architectural theme provides a unified sense of place.
As a centerpiece to the project, Palmer and Stapleton capitalized on a 1756 inn that had been located nearby known as the Nassau Tavern. The old tavern was razed, and the new hotel, named the Nassau Inn, was constructed as the heart of Palmer Square in the style of the surrounding project. The new hotel (image, right) took design queues from historic sites including a grand fireplace, beamed ceilings, and the “Yankee Doodle Tap Room” to create a center point for the community. The hotel was an immediate success, and today Palmer Square and the Nassau Inn are considered the heart of Princeton.
Greensboro has leveraged the power of placemaking in the preservation of historic streetscapes such as South Elm Street, and the establishment of new places such as Southside. Future developers in central Greensboro will increasingly fuse new development with historic preservation in dynamic and sophisticated ways to enhance our unique sense of place rather than destroy the old to make way for the new.
Details Make the Difference The Colonial Revival style was chosen for Palmer Square, a logical choice for an east coast development. Here in North Carolina, similar choices were being made in comparable cities such as Chapel Hill along Franklin Street, and adjacent to Old Salam in Winston-Salem. The advantage (and challenge) in using the Colonial style was its detail.
Colonial architecture includes a host of hand crafted features that range from wood-shingle roofing and copper gutter to shutters, bay windows, and even hand forged hardware and light fixtures (image, right). However, Colonial Revival architecture does not have the market corned on architectural details. Here in Greensboro, Halvorson Design of Boston tailored a new town square for the Gate City that contains details such as use of local brick and Mount Airy Granite, the use of local native plants such as sycamore and pine, and collaborative works of regional artists including a fountain and fencing by Jim Cooper, and fired-clay works by Fred Johnson. Through the use of local materials and hand-crafted features, both Palmer Square and Center City Park feature details strongly rooted to their community, and create an engaging location that draw people to enjoy spending their time.
Mixed Uses From the beginning, developer Edgar Palmer sought to create a community in the heart of Princeton that allowed residents an opportunity to work, socialize, and reside in one place. Architect Thomas Stapleton designed the project to accomplish this by providing residential space above or near shops and within walking distance of established workplaces. In addition, with the Nassau Inn as a center point, visitors to Princeton enjoy a destination hotel located adjacent to shops and restaurants. Overall, the Palmer Square development touched back on mixed land use more familiar to the eighteenth century than mid-twentieth century America. Such mixed use projects have been reintroduced to downtown Greensboro along South Elm Street and in College Hill, where citizens enjoy a walkable environment that does not depend on ownership of a car.
Palmer and Stapleton were not solely utilitarian with their overall development plans. The project, said to echo Rockefeller Center in New York, features public space in the form of a urban square (image, right) sporting fashionable park features of the period: a bronze sculpture mounted on limestone bases (in the case of Princeton, the university’s mascot tiger), roses, and shade trees. Palmer Square’s creators knew what Captain Basil Fisher learned here in Greensboro with the development of Fisher Park in 1902: the dedication of generous public space results in stronger land value of surrounding property.
Like Princeton, Greensboro has a great city center. When Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune visited the Gate City in 2007, he stated “…if your building is third rate, then your company’s image will be third-rate. And if your city’s buildings are third-rate, then the image of your city will be third-rate. And if the image of your city is third rate, then how on Earth are you going to attract the most desirable people—“the creative class,” as Richard Florida calls them? You won’t. You’ll be a provincial backwater. You won’t be fully equipped to move into the 21st Century.”
Future Greensboro development projects must adhere to strong design principles as witnessed in Princeton’s Palmer Square, or any other community that has pride of place. Like Palmer Square, projects must work to “fit-in” with the surrounding character of the community. Attention must be paid to details that demonstrate that Greensboro is not a third-rate community, and future projects have the opportunity to blend uses and spaces in creative ways as we have already seen in Southside and South Elm Street. Princeton’s Palmer Square has a great deal to teach us, but great models also exist in our own front yard.