(March 4, 2016 | Princeton, N.J.) – In a letter to the Institute for Advanced Study’s Board of Trustees, a national coalition of historical and conservation organizations has asked the Institute to halt destruction of Maxwell’s Field, one of the most significant battlefield properties in the nation. On this site, Gen. George Washington staged a pivotal and daring charge against the British Army to win the 1777 Battle of Princeton. The Institute for Advanced Study, an international research organization unaffiliated with Princeton University, is moving forward with plans to construct 15 faculty houses on this hallowed ground, which has remained pristine open space for more than two centuries.
“Together, our organizations respectfully and formally request that the Institute for Advanced Study cease development and pursue alternate building locations for the faculty housing project slated for Maxwell’s Field,” the nine organizations ask in the March 1 letter. “In this, we are joined by our members and thousands of concerned Americans who have weighed in on this issue through petitions, letters and phone calls to New Jersey lawmakers and the Institute itself.”
Coalition members recognize the crucial need to advocate for the Princeton battlefield, a rare and iconic Revolutionary War site that maintains much of its integrity and wartime features. The core of the battlefield has seen almost no permanent alteration to its terrain since the eighteenth century. As a result, research of sightlines, troop movements, locations of key roads and even original artifacts may still be studied and pursued. Although a portion of the battlefield is preserved within Princeton Battlefield State Park, other key land where fighting occurred – including the 22-acre Maxwell’s Field property owned by the Institute – remains unprotected.
“The Institute is making a terrible mistake by proceeding with its plans to build faculty housing on Maxwell’s Field,” remarked Jerry Hurwitz, president of the Princeton Battlefield Society. “Historians agree that this property witnessed one of the defining moments in American history, one that should be taught in classrooms around the nation. We encourage the Institute to work with us to find alternatives.”
A landmark mapping study funded by the National Park Service (NPS) confirms what historians and preservation groups have repeatedly said about the Maxwell’s Field property: it was the scene of the dramatic charge by Washington’s Continental Army that transformed a likely American defeat at Princeton into a decisive victory. Part of the property is designated a National Historic Landmark. Because of the importance of the battle to the outcome of the American Revolution, NPS has labeled the battlefield a Priority I site, its highest designation. Fewer than 1 percent of Revolutionary War battlefields have received this classification.
Archaeological research conducted over the last 20 years reinforces arguments by NPS and historians that Maxwell’s Field was at the heart of the battle. Dozens of artifacts have been recovered as part of these studies, including grapeshot, lead musket balls and bayonet fragments, which clearly demonstrate a line of battle directly on the Institute’s property.
“It is difficult to overestimate the historic significance of the Maxwell’s Field property, and the impact of the dramatic events that transpired there,” noted Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History. “The site deserves to be preserved as a place of education and quiet reflection, in honor of the soldiers who participated in Washington’s famous charge.”
The letter also notes offers by coalition members to work with the Institute to identify alternatives that would enable it to secure faculty housing elsewhere. In particular, the letter references an offer by the Civil War Trust, a national battlefield preservation organization, to purchase the Maxwell’s Field property: “In an earnest effort to assist the Institute in finding alternate venues for its faculty housing, the Civil War Trust, a Save Princeton Coalition member, has offered to acquire the Maxwell’s Field tract for $4.5 million (more than $1 million above the appraised value of the property). This goodwill offer still stands.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has identified Princeton Battlefield as one of its National Treasures, a select portfolio of sites around the country where the National Trust works to find a preservation solution, and also as one of its America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2012. Stephanie Meeks, president and chief executive officer of the National Trust, remarked: “The local and national preservation community has banded together to urge the Institute to stop the bulldozers, and avoid insensitive development at this national treasure site. Princeton battlefield is extraordinarily rare, as an intact Revolutionary War battlefield. The construction work being carried out on the site threatens irreparable damage to this fragile resource.”
Environmental interests amplify the calls to halt destruction of the battlefield. “We need to preserve Maxwell's Field. It’s not only historic, but there are significant environmental concerns at the site. The area around the battlefield is largely developed. It’s becoming an island in a sea of sprawl. We believe that the project should be halted and the land should be preserved,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Our nation’s historic landmarks are critically important, and our open spaces are vital as well. We have a duty to act as responsible caretakers of these lands, and conserve them as places of exploration and enjoyment. We are in a new battle to protect this battlefield.”
The Cultural Landscape Foundation has included Princeton battlefield in its Landslide list of nationally significant cultural landscapes that are threatened and at-risk. “Princeton battlefield is significant and irreplaceable in telling the story of the nation’s struggle for independence,” said TCLF president and CEO Charles A. Birnbaum. “The site is part of our national patrimony and deserving of great care and stewardship.”
Jack Warren, executive director of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati, also underscored the unique importance of this intact Revolutionary War site: “Princeton is one of the few battlefields where Washington commanded the Continental Army that we have any hope of preserving. Without this land, the battlefield will be forever compromised and an opportunity to create something great for the American people will be lost.”
The Save Princeton Coalition encourages those who want to preserve the battlefield to express their concern directly to the Institute for Advanced Study’s Executive Director Robbert Dijkgraaf by email firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at (609) 734-8000. To learn more about the Save Princeton Coalition, visit saveprinceton.org.
The Civil War Preservation Trust became the Civil War Trust in January 2011; the Civil War Trust became a division of the American Battlefield Trust in May 2018. Campaign 1776 was created in 2014 as an initiative of the Civil War Trust; in May 2018 it became the Revolutionary War Trust, a division of the American Battlefield Trust.
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