Tag Archives: Battle of Princeton

Good news for Princeton preservationists

The Institute for Advanced Study’s plan to build additional faculty housing at the Rev War battlefield has hit a snag.  A state regulatory commission has blocked the proposal because of its proximity to a local stream.

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Historic preservation is overrated, says a guy who really needs a fact checker

Eli Lehrer wishes the National Trust for Historic Preservation would get out of everybody’s way.

While nobody disputes that certain areas do deserve preservation or the Trust has done good work in protecting them them [sic], many places on the 2012 list have little to do with actual history and much to do with a busy-body attitude that seeks to diminish private property rights and waste tax dollars on dubious “preservation” efforts.

Judging by his op-ed, I think Lehrer’s main criterion for whether a site merits protection is that it be deemed worthy and interesting by none other than Eli Lehrer:

Many courthouses in rural Texas (another item on the list of “national treasures”) are in poor shape but it’s not clear why they’re of any national significance — most have hosted nothing beyond workaday civil and criminal trials and few are architecturally distinguished. There’s no reason why Texas taxpayers should do what the trust wants and shovel millions more into “protecting” them if their own counties don’t see a value in doing so. Likewise, there’s no reason why a building that once housed a gym where boxer Joe Frazier trained is of any importance at all: while Frazier himself does have importance to sports history, it’s not typical or expected to preserve sports figures’ practice sites so tourists can visit them. They just aren’t very interesting. The same goes for utterly ordinary corrugated steel warehouses in the Port of Los Angles and an unexceptional small town in Ohio. Nothing truly historic happened in either place.

Personally, I might give his opinions more weight if he wasn’t such a sloppy and uninformed commentator.  Citing the controversy over proposed housing at Princeton Battlefield, Lehrer claims that “local busybodies still want to prevent Princeton University from building some housing in any area near the battlefield because they believe, among other things, that soldiers en route to the battle marched across it.”  In fact, it’s not Princeton University that wants to build the housing, but the Institute for Advanced Study, which is completely independent of the university.

More importantly, the Princeton Battlefield Society has identified the portion of the field in question as core battlefield land.  Indeed, the very PBS document to which Lehrer links in his “local busybodies” quote identifies the parcel as such.  Is it too much to ask that an op-ed writer read a little about the subject of his piece, especially that he read the documents to which he refers directly?

Lehrer also writes that the Princeton battlefield is “already a state park.”  The implication that historic sites are out of harm’s way once they receive designation as a park betrays ignorance of a seemingly obvious point.  Such sites do not contain all the historic ground relating to a particular event.  They only contain what preservationists and agencies have been able to acquire.  The existence of a battlefield park only means that part of a given battlefield has obtained protected status, not that all the ground on which the battle took place is within the boundaries of a park.  Even land within park boundaries is not immune from the traffic congestion, ruined viewsheds, and other problems that come with encroachment.  In some cases, parcels of historic parks aren’t even contiguous, but instead are separated by other parcels of land over which park agencies have no control.

Preservation doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  We can have informed, reasonable discussions about this stuff—but we can’t do it with people who don’t really know what they’re talking about.

Princeton Battlefield. By Daderot (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Princeton Battlefield is back in the news

It had the unenviable distinction of making the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the eleven most endangered sites in the country.  Here’s an article out of Philadelphia about the ongoing tussle over proposed housing on the battlefield.

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Princeton Battlefield Society sues to stop construction

From Planet Princeton:

Opponents of the Institute for Advanced Study’s plan to build faculty housing have filed a lawsuit to block the project, arguing it will destroy the site of Washington’s counter-attack in the Battle of Princeton, the historic battle that changed the course of the American Revolution.

The lawsuit, filed in Mercer County Superior Court by the Princeton Battlefield Society, also claims the project is barred under the terms of a 1992 settlement agreement between the Institute and Princeton Township.

“The development, intended to provide housing for 15 faculty members, will completely obliterate the Battlefield site that has remained untouched for the last 235 years,” said the group’s attorney, Bruce Afran. “The Institute housing plan will destroy what is probably the most significant Revolutionary War site left in the United States, along with critical archaeological and historical evidence.”

The suit alleges that the construction, intended to build housing for 15 Institute faculty members, is barred under the terms of a 1992 settlement that the Institute reached with Princeton Township that was intended to preserve the Battlefield site from future residential development.

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Re-fighting the Battle of Princeton

There’s a dispute going on in Princeton, NJ over a parcel of land that may or may not be a critical piece of the Jan. 3, 1777 battlefield.  Enlisted to speak for those wishing to build on the site is Dr. Mark Peterson, who argues that the case is not as clear-cut as opponents of the project suggest.  For all I know, he may be right about that.

I do, however, think he’s wrong when he invokes precedent as a guide to current behavior:

 Dr. Peterson suggested there are other ways to memorialize historic events, in addition to preserving the land from development. He pointed to several sites that were important in the Revolutionary War, but that have since been developed and do not reflect the way they looked in the 18th century.

In Lexington, Mass., where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, the bodies of the American militiamen who died were buried in cemeteries scattered around the area, he said. But many years later, the bodies were disinterred and reburied next to a monument that was placed on the site.

A plaque at Cambridge Common, which also figured in the Revolutionary War and which was the site where Gen. Washington took command of the Continental Army, is part of Harvard Square. Land has not always been set aside as “sacred ground,” Dr. Peterson said.

This reminds me of an argument I used to hear in support of the Gettysburg casino.  There’s plenty of schlock around the battlefield already (as this line of reasoning went) so it makes little sense to freak out over a single gambling resort.  I’ve never found this persuasive.  One could just as easily make the same argument about natural resources: People used to clear-cut forests with merry abandon and shoot down every bison in sight, so what’s the big deal?

Lousy stewardship of historic ground in the past shouldn’t be a license for us to proceed carelessly today.  If anything, it should serve as a cautionary tale.

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