Historic Morven looks to future to preserve the past

Construction projects will complete improvement program’s third phase

By: Hilary Parker
   Historic Morven Inc., the nonprofit organization that operates Morven Museum and Garden, is looking to the future in a quest to preserve the historic experience at the Princeton estate.
   Martha Wolf, executive director of Historic Morven, said the organization eagerly anticipates beginning work on Phase III of the renovation and construction at the former governor’s mansion.
   Phase I addressed the exterior of the mansion and the gardens, and the recent completion of Phase II led to the opening of the museum galleries on both floors of the historic home to the public.
   A site Master Plan of the ambitious third phase of the project will go before the New Jersey Historic Sites Council on Dec. 15, and a subcommittee of the council is visiting Morven this morning to make observations to bring before the council at the upcoming meeting. The plan, designed by Rafael Vinoly Architects, was unanimously approved by the Princeton Borough Historic Preservation Review Committee on Oct. 18.
   "We will never do anything that detracts from Morven," said Ms. Wolf, delineating the three most important goals of the plan. The first, a continuation of Phase I, will finish the historic garden, half of which remains to be restored.
   Secondly, Historic Morven’s administration is housed on the second floor of the Wash House, above the gift shop, in cramped quarters with only one restroom for all of the employees and volunteers. Prior to the opening of the second-floor museum galleries, the administration had been conducting meetings in the historic house, but that is no longer an option. The site Master Plan calls for construction of a new administrative building to the left of the existing house.
   Lastly, the plan calls for another new facility — a visitor’s center for museum and garden programs. The building would flank Morven on the right side, toward Princeton Borough Hall, and would include a café and screening rooms for informational videos, as well as rooms for lectures and exhibits.
   "We mustn’t build something too small," said Ms. Wolf. "That’s a mistake most historic institutions make — they’re not thinking 50 years in the future, they’re thinking in the past. Morven’s concerned about the future."
   While the proposed buildings have not yet been designed, the Master Plan proposes a 2,600-square-foot administrative facility and a 5,000-square-foot visitor center. The buildings are planned as one-story glass pavilions that will not be visible from Stockton Street, and they will greatly enlarge the museum’s capacity. The Morven mansion itself is 5,055 square feet and the entire museum complex footprint is currently 8,000 square feet.
   By situating the new buildings and focusing the museum experience at the forefront of the historic property, the proposed plan will lessen the disturbance to the residential properties that neighbor the rear grounds of the estate, according to Historic Morven. In addition, the plan calls for demolishing the dilapidated pool house in the backyard, thereby having only the garden abut the residences.
   Another change that Ms. Wolf thinks will please the neighbors is the plan to reduce the size of the current parking lot by 50 percent and use the reclaimed land to expand the already existing orchard. This should address the drainage and flooding problems that have plagued Morven and its neighbors since the construction of the existing parking lot. A new bus parking lot is also proposed for the front of the property, to be surrounded by a stand of trees.
   The ideal scenario for Morven, according to Ms. Wolf, is for the New Jersey Historic Sites Council, a group of 11 private citizens appointed by the governor, to recommend that Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley Campbell approve the site Master Plan on Dec. 15. Morven could then proceed to the next step of securing schematic designs for the renovations and construction, complete the design process and break ground this spring.