This story was originally published in the May 2017 Princeton Echo.
If you are a residential builder or developer you may have already looked at the property at the corner of Witherspoon and Green Street. It’s a fixer-upper, to say the least. The existing house is probably three structures cobbled together over a 150-year period. Its most recent use was as a boarding house for day laborers. And it sits on a 35 by 95-foot lot that could accommodate a single family house of up to 1,922 square feet — no zoning variance required.
If you’re a developer that’s a formula for another teardown — two other properties just around the corner on Green Street now contain ultra modern “urban insertions.” But if you’re a history-minded citizen you know that the property in question, 110 Witherspoon Street, is also the birthplace of Paul Robeson. Economics notwithstanding, this property must not be torn down.
Ben Colbert, president of the board of the nonprofit Paul Robeson House Foundation, has heard the arguments for tearing down the house from various developers around town. But Colbert also knows the history of the house, where Robeson was born in 1898 while his father served as minister of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.
What Colbert did not know was the extent of the renovation and reconstruction effort that would be necessary to bring the Robeson birthplace to usable form. “We went in fairly naive,” says Colbert, who lived in the neighborhood for a few years when he first moved to the area to take a job with Educational Testing Service. “Now we have the challenge — and it is a challenge — of renovating it.”
In facing that challenge Colbert and the others involved in the Robeson project have been able to draw on a little appreciated characteristic of the Witherspoon-Jackson’s community: its ability to find within itself the resources needed to survive. As Kathryn Watterson writes in her forthcoming compilation of oral histories of neighborhood residents, “I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton,” the long segregated community had no choice but to make do within their own boundaries and become “an island of ingenuity” (see Leading Off, page 5).
The goal of saving the Robeson House is requiring just such ingenuity. Among the Witherspoon Jackson neighbors who have joined the board of the foundation is a Princeton-trained architect who runs an historically sensitive construction company. Kevin Wilkes is the man to whom Colbert defers when he is asked to discuss the particulars of the Robeson renovation project.
Contrary to all the dismal economics presented by the developers, Wilkes sees an intrinsic value in the Robeson house, even beyond its role in history. It’s a house “with resonance,” he says, that “once harbored such a sense of place. Tearing it down was never a consideration.”
Now the Paul Robeson House of Princeton Foundation is readying plans for a formal fund-raising campaign, which could begin as early as this fall or possibly next spring. Colbert believes the goal will be about $1 million, most of which would go for the physical renovation, the remainder to launch the activities that the foundation hopes will become part of the building’s operations. The foundation envisions space for offices, public meetings, and a gallery and history center that will be accessible from the street level. And it hopes the house will continue to play its historic role of providing affordable short-term housing to those in need.
Wilkes and his fellow volunteers have now begun exposing some of the house’s bones, the guess is that one part of the house dates back to the mid-1800s. In exploring the wood frame house, Wilkes discovered three “truss bents” or structural braces that suggest part of the structure may originally have been a barn. “It’s a pretty hefty frame for a residence,” Wilkes says, “and it’s probably one reason why it hasn’t suffered more decline and decay.”
The different styles of foundation design suggest to Wilkes that the property underwent four or five different construction phases. The original foundation — 18 to 20-inch thick sections of red shale stone that probably came from a nearby quarry (Quarry Street is one block away) — needs to be re-pointed but is otherwise in good shape. Not surprising to Wilkes’ experienced eye, the original foundation has stood up better than the eight-inch cinder block sections added in the 20th century.
The work on the house — and some of the memorabilia found within it — may provide some historical insight. By the late 19th century the house belonged to the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, and the Rev. William Robeson, who was born a slave, moved there with his wife and children in 1879, when he was appointed pastor. Paul, the youngest of seven children, was born there on April 9, 1898. The family’s oldest son, William Jr., was then a high school senior. An envelope that fell from the second floor when a piece of ceiling was being removed tells the story of Bill Jr.’s status in the Jim Crow town of Princeton. The envelope contained a trolley pass between Princeton and Trenton, permitting Bill Jr. to attend high school in Trenton — the one in Princeton was for whites only.
“It was a like a hand from the past making itself known,” says Wilkes. “People say that Bill Jr. was the smartest of the Robeson children. He’s the one that [Princeton president Woodrow] Wilson would not allow into Princeton.” From Trenton High Robeson Jr. enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and eventually earned his M.D. from Howard University College of Medicine.
In 1900, after serving for 21 years, Rev. Robeson, an outspoken critic of the segregated town, was forced out of his position at the Witherspoon church by some white financial supporters of the church.
The house at 110 Witherspoon Street was transferred to private ownership and became the “first residence” for many migrant workers, domestics, and laborers who came to Princeton for employment. “The house is a window into the lives of these people,” says Wilkes. At one point in the 1920s or 1930s, the house may have contained as many as 10 bedrooms. “That would coincide with the Depression,” says Wilkes. “Possibly the owners really needed the income” from tenants. And laborers then, as now, were no doubt in search of affordable housing.
The attic was divided at some point into three small bedrooms. “The space is largely unchanged from the 1960s,” says Wilkes. “And we will probably preserve it ‘as is’ to document what life was like at that time for an African-American day laborer.” The space is now only accessible by a steep stairway, and putting a code-compliant stairway in would require a major intrusion on the second floor. Because of that the space could be shown only on special tours.
Because of segregation that prevented blacks from using the restaurants, retail stores, and service providers in the “uptown” area of town, the Witherspoon Jackson neighborhood had to have its own retail shops and service businesses. Wilkes says that houses on corners often would have some commercial component. The Robeson house at the corner of Witherspoon and Green had a basement that opened out to the Green Street side.
Wilkes believes that the basement entrance can be re-opened and the space converted into a gallery that could house historic artifacts and mementos of the Robeson family as well as the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood.
The house eventually was owned by the Taylor family. In around 2005 Mrs. Taylor was in her 80s. She decided to move to Boston to be near her son. That’s when Ben Colbert got involved. Originally from Georgia, Colbert studied at Savannah State College, joined the admission office at the University of Georgia (which was under orders to integrate its student body), and eventually ended up being hired by the College Board and Educational Testing Service, relocating to Princeton, and joining the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church.
Even though Colbert had been on the front lines of the civil rights movement when he was growing up in Georgia, he knew little about Paul Robeson, who had been blacklisted in the 1950s and lived in relative obscurity (in Philadelphia) until his death in 1976.
But by the time the house went on the market in 2005, Colbert and other members of the church knew its historic significance. They negotiated the purchase of the house for $450,000 from Gladys Taylor, who continued to live there until 2008. After she moved out the church continued to make living quarters at 110 Witherspoon available to those in need of temporary housing. (The $170,000 balance of the mortgage was paid off in 2015 when the Presbyterian Church Synod, reviewing the circumstances of William Robeson’s dismissal as pastor, decided to assist the restoration effort.)
Wilkes entered the scene as both a neighbor (he was living on Maclean Street) and as an architect and builder experienced in reclaiming old buildings. Raised in Manhattan, Wilkes first came to Princeton as an architecture major at Princeton, Class of 1983 (and received his master of architecture degree from Yale in 1991). He was one of the principal organizers of the Writers’ Block and Quark Park temporary art installations on what was then a vacant lot on Paul Robeson Place. His firm, the Princeton Design Guild, provides architectural services pro bono and construction work at a reduced rate for the Paul Robeson House. For a while Wilkes even lived in the house. “I wanted to see of there were any spirits inside it,” he says with a laugh. “Nothing spoke to me. But I do know the house like the back of my hand.”
Lots of homeowners faced with a prolonged renovation such as this one would begin to lose enthusiasm for the project. Not so for the Robeson House people. “What has surprised everyone,” says Colbert, “is how successful we have been.”
For information on the foundation visit its website, www.ThePaulRobesonHouseofPrinceton.org.
For information on supporting the renovation effort e-mail Colbert: email@example.com.