Several days before I met Michael Graves for an interview on March 4, he sent me an abbreviated guidebook to his hometown. I spent a day-and-a-half rambling around Princeton, N.J., doing my best to check off the items on his list — one by one.
A lot of the tour involved me standing in front of a house and trying not to trespass or alarm the neighbors. I started at his residence, the Warehouse, which Italian stonemasons had built in the 1920s to store the belongings of Princeton students awaiting new dorms. I stepped over a rolled newspaper and gingerly walked up the long, icy driveway lined with trees. Blocky shapes tumbled together into a cohesive whole. The baked-earth-colored exterior warmed the frozen landscape like a Tuscan sun. A thin branch was artfully arranged over the front door. Graves spent decades renovating the property, but I did not notice any record of change. His home appeared timeless.
A few streets away on Mercer Street, Albert Einstein had spent the final 20 years of his life in a prim white house with black shutters. The physicist requested that preservationists did not turn the home into a museum after his death. However, the 19th-century property did garner two of the country’s highest distinctions (National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmark) as well as two Nobel Prizes by association (residents Frank Wilczek and Eric Maskin). When no one was looking, I touched the gate, just in case genius is contagious.
Prior to moving to Pennsylvania Avenue, former Princeton and U.S. president Woodrow Wilson resided in a smaller white house on Library Place. He later hopped over to the Edward S. Child-designed Tudor Revival home next door, and then turned a corner to another Tudor on Cleveland Lane. I checked all three homes (from my legal spot on the sidewalk) and did not see any signs declaring that the “The Schoolmaster Slept Here.” Perhaps he slept incognito.
When I entered my first Graves building, I may have let out a little squeal of delight. The Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, named after the actor and civil rights activist, demonstrates the architect’s signature flourishes: barrel shapes, blue-glazed bricks, and circular and patterned windows. An art installation of sustainable shelters occupied the Graves Terrace.
I asked the employee at the front desk what it felt like to work in a Michael Graves original. She apologized for not being from Princeton and recognizing the local connection. But she said that the building didn’t feel like an office. As proof, she waved her arm around the airy space flooded with natural light and geometric forms.
After she returned to her position, I wandered through the two-level building decorated with art on the walls and windowsills. I stood in the barrel and peered through a panel of windows, experiencing Graves’s design from the inside out.
Here is Graves’s list of places to see in Princeton, including his comments on their historical and personal significance:
The Warehouse (44 Patton Ave.). My home, which was built in the 1920s by Italian stonemasons to house the belongings of Princeton students. I began renovating almost 40 years ago.
Albert Einstein House (112 Mercer St.). His home from 1936 until his death in 1955. The house was built in the mid-19th century and has been home to several Nobel Prize winners since. Einstein asked that it not be made into a museum or anything like that, so the home is still occupied and you cannot visit the interior.
Robeson Center (102 Witherspoon St.). Designed by Michael Graves & Associates.
Palmer Square (off Nassau Street). Conceived by Edgar Palmer, heir to the New Jersey Zinc Co. fortune, in 1929 and designed by Thomas Stapleton. The project was delayed until 1936 due to the Depression.
Yankee Doodle Tap Room (10 Palmer Sq.). The tap room, in the lower level of the Nassau Inn, is home to the largest Norman Rockwell mural in existence.
McCarter Theatre Center (91 University Pl.). I attend performances here on a regular basis throughout the year. It was built as a permanent home for the Princeton University Triangle Club. They continue to perform there to this day.
Woodrow Wilson’s homes. Woodrow Wilson had several homes in Princeton in addition to Prospect House. He lived in three additional homes. The first, at 72 Library Pl., was built by Charles Steadman in 1836. Then Wilson had architect Edward S. Child design the Tudor Revival house at 82 Library Pl. And, finally, he lived around the corner at 25 Cleveland Lane.
Institute for Advanced Study (1 Einstein Dr.). The grounds, also called the Bamberger woods (Louis Bamberger was one of the two IAS founders), are open to the public.
Canal Walk/Lake Walk at the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park (145 Mapleton Rd.). During the winter, residents skate on Carnegie Lake. It’s not very accessible, so I don’t get too far on this walk, but the Princeton section of the canal is one of my favorite places to visit any time of year.
Terhune Orchards (330 Cold Soil Rd.). This farm makes the best pies in the area and great apple cider donuts. They have a pick-your-own area, or just buy their fruits and vegetables at the store.
Princeton University campus . Famous for its landscape, it is a wonderful place to walk. My nurse, Min, and I have a few favorite places to visit there.
Nassau Hall, Princeton University. It is the oldest building on campus, built in 1756. During the Revolutionary War, it was possessed by both American and British troops. In 1783, when Princeton was the capital of the early United States, it was home to the entire government. Get your picture taken at the Henry Moore sculpture on the right side of Nassau Hall. The inspiration for the work, “Oval with Points,” may have been an elephant skull the scientist Sir Julian Huxley gave to the British sculptor.
Princeton University Art Museum. Founded in 1882 and houses over 92,000 works of art.
Alexander Hall. Designed by John McCombs Jr., the home of the Princeton Theological Seminary was started by the Presbyterian Church in 1812.
Princeton University Chapel, Princeton University. Designed by Ralph Adams. In 1920, a fire destroyed Princeton’s Marquand Chapel. When a fundraising effort raised $2.5 million, the university hired the Boston firm, Cram & Ferguson Architects, to design the new chapel. Ralph Adams Cram, the university’s consulting architect since 1907, designed the new chapel as well as Campbell Hall, McCormick Hall and the Graduate College.
Conte’s Pizza (339 Witherspoon St.). A few blocks from the Robeson Center. Owned by Ciro and Tony Baldino since 1982. I like to go for the mushroom pizza and the glass-block bar.
Mediterra (29 Hulfish St. on Palmer Square). Owned by Carlo Momo and Leslie Dowling, who also own Eno Terra, Teresa Caffe and the Terra Momo Bread Company. This is my favorite place to eat in Princeton.
Thomas Sweet (183 Nassau St.). Wonderful ice cream. There is also a location on Palmer Square.
Halo Pub (9 Hulfish St. on Palmer Square): A great place for homemade ice cream and frozen hot chocolate.
U store (114-116 Nassau St.). This is the Princeton University store.
Labyrinth Books (122 Nassau St.). My favorite bookstore in Princeton.
Carter & Cavero, Old World Olive Oil Company (27 Palmer Square W.) One of my favorite places to buy great olive oil.
Nassau Inn (10 Palmer Sq.). It is right in the middle of town, and you get a real Princeton experience.
Peacock Inn (20 Bayard Lane). Lovely, and a bit farther down Nassau Street.