National endangered designation cited by Princeton battlefield preservationists

Posted: June 07, 2012

Rarely has a piece of land been the site of such intense clashes for so long.

The Princeton Battlefield, where George Washington's army defeated British regulars for the first time 235 years ago, became the focus of renewed fighting Wednesday after being named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the country's 11 most-endangered historic places.

While the designation does not, by itself, protect the property, it provides ammunition to local preservationists and historians in the nonprofit Princeton Battlefield Society, which has opposed plans for construction of faculty housing by the neighboring Institute for Advanced Study.

The institute, where famed physicist Albert Einstein was a faculty member, won approval from the Princeton Regional Planning Board in March to build 15 housing units - the reason for the endangered listing. But the society counterattacked in Chancery Court with a lawsuit the following month and joined the National Trust in holding press conferences Wednesday in Princeton and Washington to publicize the site's endangered status.

"The Battle of Princeton transformed prospects for the American Revolution and proved to be a major turning point in the war," said Stephanie Meeks, president of the trust, which annually spotlights sites at risk of destruction or irreparable damage. "The story of our country's fight for independence is incomplete without a fully preserved Princeton Battlefield."

At the New Jersey news conference, the battlefield society cited findings from a 2010 federally funded mapping study of more than 175 original British and American accounts that, it said, show the land chosen by the institute for housing is where Washington, on horseback, rallied his army for a crucial counterattack on Jan. 3, 1777. The site is adjacent to the battlefield park, on land owned by the institute.

"The ferocious battle that followed, which was around 11 a.m., is documented in both original accounts and by British and American archaeological remains, and it is this site that is planned for development," said Kip Cherry, first vice president of the Princeton Battlefield Society.

The institute plans to build the housing, screened by trees, on seven acres of a 21-acre tract. It will permanently preserve the remaining acres as a buffer next to the battlefield park. It also has called for archaeological work to recover artifacts, interpretive markers to help visitors understand the battle, and removal of trees and brush not present in 1777.

"Our general position is unchanged," said Katherine Belyi, an institute spokeswoman. "We're glad the Regional Planning Board approved the project unanimously.

"It's been very carefully thought out to respect the area and enhances what's there," she said. "The land is ours and is separate from the park, but we would preserve part of it to make the park better."

The institute's plan, though, has been rejected by the Princeton Battlefield Society, which was buoyed by new support.

"We're very fortunate that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has selected the Princeton Battlefield's counterattack site" as one of the country's most endangered places, Cherry said. "Not only did Washington's success inspire countless soldiers to renew their enlistments, it also reinvigorated financial and political support for the war effort throughout the colonies.

"This battle, along with the Battle of Trenton [on Dec. 26, 1776] saved the American Revolution, and changed the course of world history, forever," she said.

The housing project would "radically alter the integrity of the historical landscape, burying substantial archaeological resources under some 120 truckloads of new soil, and dramatically changing the topography of the terrain, a critical element of the battle, and essential to its interpretation today."

The institute has not set a date to begin construction and no date has been set for the hearing in the lawsuit.


Contact Inquirer Staff Writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.

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