Princeton, NJ: A Fine Small Town

Alexander Hall, one of the many beautiful buildings on the campus of Princeton University. Pa
Alexander Hall, one of the many beautiful buildings on the campus of Princeton University. Pinaki Chakraborty photos.

Princeton, NJ: Famous Residents and History on Every Corner

By Esha Samajpati

“So, are you guys thinking of studying or working here?” inquired our waitress, as she took our order of drinks and appetizers at Princeton’s Mediterra, a restaurant which I gathered is popular for its wine-list. With the usual line out the door, you can bet we hit the right spot.

Her eyes wandered to the street map of Princeton that we had laid out on the table. She seemed surprised when I said “No, we are from Connecticut…here for a day…to see the art galleries and the historical sites.”

That’s when I realized — not many people visit Princeton in central New Jersey without a reason. For most people, it’s a place to study or settle down in. By virtue of being equidistant from New York and Philadelphia, this college town almost always makes it to the top 10 when it comes to “Best places to live in America”.

Mediterra Restaurant, a popular dining spot in downtown Princeton, NJ.
Mediterra Restaurant, a popular dining spot in downtown Princeton, NJ.

Downtown Flavor

Across the street from Mediterra lay Princeton’s upscale shopping district,  Palmer Square. The absence of a mall in the town coupled with the fact that it was a weekend, clearly made for a very busy day in the square. Walking further down we came upon Nassau Street, lined with bookstores, cafes and a great movie theater.

Up till now everything was just as I expected from a college town…students from diverse backgrounds, an eclectic mix of cuisines, boutique shops and an easy laid-back charm. Almost like a slice of New England.

As the April sun beat down on us, the queue at the The Bent Spoon in Palmer Square West seemed more and more enticing. Sure enough, we each got two scoops of creamy cold ice-cream and excused our way out of the crammed store. Remember to carry cash if you go there for they don’t accept cards.

Few people know that this modest town served as the nation’s capital for four months in 1783 and was home to prominent states-persons including two US presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland, and and many notable scientists, writers, artisans and scholars.

Passing the inviting windows of Kate Spade and many more in Palmer Square, we made our way to the Princeton Battle Monument on Stockton Street and from there to the Princeton Battlefield State Park on Mercer Road. The wide open space is a Princeton landmark, with the Greek style columns way in the distance, like in England, and it’s a picnicking spot for the ages.

Sadly, it’s threatened by a development by the Institute for Advanced Study to expand their office and mar the open park so the future is not clear as of this writing in 2016.

The iconic collonade in Princeton Battlefield State Park, designed by Thomas U. Walter.
The iconic collonade in Princeton Battlefield State Park, designed by Thomas U. Walter.

Well, choosing history over shopping was a wise decision. It was like a refresher course on a chapter from America’s War for Independence, the kind that reflects the spirit of this great country.

Hallowed Ground

Inscribed on the towering Battle Monument are the words “Here memory lingers to recall the guiding mind whose daring plan outflanked the foe and turned dismay to hope when Washington with swift resolve marched through the night to fight at dawn and venture all in one victorious battle for our freedom.”

On January 3, 1777 General George Washington and his troops not just won the Battle of Princeton but changed the course of history. Morale was boosted, new strategies were developed and allies were formed.

As my fingers grazed the pillars of the colonnade, I let my mind wander to another time, another place, when a battle was fought on the very field that stretched before my eyes. Minutes from there lay the Battlefield State Park and Thomas Clarke House, where General Hugh Mercer breathed his last.

Blair Hall is the University's first Gothic dormitory. photos by Pinaki Chakraborty.
Blair Hall is the University’s first Gothic dormitory.

Across the street stood a colonnade amidst a mass of green grass, beyond which we found a circular stone patio and a tablet dedicated to the men who died in the Battle of Princeton. Engraved on the tablet are verses from the poem Princeton (1917) by Alfred Noyes, who was a visiting professor at Princeton University.

“Hey, how are you guys doing?” smiled a boy as he walked by…jolting me back to reality. It was close to noon and I looked up to see a group of guys tossing a ball around, a young couple soaking up the sun with iPods tucked in their shorts totally oblivious to their surroundings while a Labrador lounged nearby with its tongue hanging out.

So there I was, back to the present-day Princeton, about to visit one of America’s renowned ivy-league colleges. Chartered in 1746, Princeton is the fourth oldest college in the nation.

Princeton University Campus

African drum-beats and a distinct tang of hot-dogs greeted us as we entered the college campus spanning over 500 acres of Gothic structures, sculptures and greenery. A volley-ball game was in progress in one corner while some of the students sat cross-legged on the grass with their laptops and lattes. Posters for music festivals, work-shops and barbecues were tacked on every board in sight.

By the way, Russell Crowe shot for the Academy Award winning film “A Beautiful Mind” on this very campus. The film’s story is based on the mathematical genius and emotional disorder of Nobel Laureate, John Forbes Nash, who happens to be on the Princeton faculty to this day.

While my husband tried to capture the architecture and ambience within the campus with his newly-acquired wide-angle lens, I happened to step into the 82-year-old University chapel. As I opened the door and led myself in, I was overcome by a sense of awe… never-ending rows of pews lined beneath the stained-glass windows graced the inside of what I believe is the third largest University Chapel in the world.

Al fresco dining at the upscale Blue Point Grill in downtown Princeton. Photo: JM restaurants.
Al fresco dining at the upscale Blue Point Grill in downtown Princeton. Photo: JM restaurants.

I stood transfixed for quite some time, captivated by the serenity and beauty of it all. Back on the grounds, we walked by buildings covered in deep-green ivy, the kind you see clinging to the walls of castles in fairy-tales.

Home to some of the brightest minds in the world, Princeton has witnessed centuries of learning and progress.

Speaking of great minds, Albert Einstein was one of the University’s first residential professors.

Amazing Architecture

My favorite was the Alexander Hall with its steep gabled roof and quirky features. It is known to be the last High Victorian Gothic building constructed at Princeton.Designed by the who’s who of American architecture, the campus has expanded and evolved over the years.

Although the buildings boast of a predominantly Collegiate Gothic style, some of them range from Georgian and Greek Revival to the Italianate Revival and Post-Modern.

Occupying a place of pride on the campus is Nassau Hall, a national historic landmark, which has withstood years of renovation, fires and even cannon-balls. When Nassau Hall was completed in 1756, it housed the entire Princeton University, then known as the College of New Jersey. Although intended as an educational institution, Nassau Hall served as a hospital, a barrack and even as a military prison during the Revolutionary War.

Inside the University Art Museum at Princeton.
Inside the University Art Museum at Princeton.

Princeton University Art Museum

Though donations are welcome, there is no entry fee for the University’s Art Museum, which houses over 72,000 works of art ranging from ancient to contemporary, from all over the world.

Instead of rushing up and down the two levels, I chose to stick with the work of Andy Warhol in the Modern Art section. Much to my delight, his Blue Marilyn was on display and I chose to spend the better part of the hour in that section.

When browsing through a museum on a tight schedule it is advisable to stick with your favorite artist than whizz past artifacts in a mad rush to cover every item on display. As the day came to an end, we bought a souvenir from the museum gift shop on our way out and set off for home.

Princeton University in a Nutshell

For an overview of the entire University, you could avail of the student-run Orange Key guide service which offers year-round, one-hour tours of the campus.

Playing a crucial role in the American Revolution and blending cultural influences from all over the world comes easily to Princeton, a town whose present is every bit as interesting as its past.

It’s considered one of the best places to live in the US for many great reasons…so the next time you’re buzzing by on the NJ Turnpike, take exit 9 and check it out!

Helpful Links for visiting Princeton:

Where to stay:
What to eat:
Where to shop:
What to see, historic sites
Princeton University Tours

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