Preserving the Past: The Rebirth of the Schoolmaster's House and Barn

Jane Fremon
On Sunday, December 4th, Princeton Friends School hosted an event to celebrate the launch of a long-awaited renovation of the Meeting’s 1781 Schoolmaster’s House and adjacent 19th-century barn.  Upon its completion in the fall of 2017, the Schoolmaster’s House will serve as the “front door” to the property, containing an attractive meeting room, a reception area and admissions office, and administrative space for the business office, development office, and the head of school. The Barn, raised out of the flood plain and restored both inside and out, will house a facilities work space and garden storage on the first floor, and modest office space above. 
 
A few days in advance of the celebration, Princeton’s Town Topics ran a front-page story about the renovation project. 

At the event itself, Head of School Jane Fremon delivered the following remarks to those assembled:
 
This year marks three decades that Princeton Friends School has been in operation.  For my colleague Nancy Wilson and me, who have been here since the school’s founding, thirty years often feels like a very long stretch.  But what’s become so very clear – especially this year, as we’ve been exploring more deeply the history of this piece of land – the Princeton Friends School that we know today is thus far only a small chapter in the long story of Quakers in this place.  And as this project that we’re launching today further reminds us, the PFS of today is only a small blip in the history of Quaker education on this site.
 
There are many F/friends among us today who know a great deal more than I do about the history of this place, the Quaker Settlement at Stony Brook.  History never spoke to me in my own schooling, even growing up – as I did – in this historically rich town of Princeton, taught as it was primarily through lectures and textbooks that viewed the past primarily through the lens of “the winners.” And so this year I’m learning right alongside our PFS students as we explore the Central Study theme of Roots & Routes.  During this first half of the year – the Roots half – we’ve been learning about the geology and geography of this mid-Atlantic region of our continent, its first Lenape inhabitants, the original six Quaker families who established the Quaker Settlement at Stony Brook, and the role of the Battle of Princeton in the American struggle for independence.  We’ve visited and been visited by our new neighbors at the Historical Society of Princeton, right next door at Updike Farm, John Kelly has captivated us with stories of the early Quakers in this place, we’ve spent time deciphering the lettering on gravestones in the burial ground and graffiti on the backs of the meetinghouse benches, and we’ve taken field trips to the New Jersey State Museum, Pennsbury Manor, the Old Barracks in Trenton, and Washington Crossing State Park. 
 
As a result of digging into the past on this site – both literally and figuratively – many of us are coming to know so much that we never before knew.  But by opening our eyes to all that is just beyond our everyday awareness and concern, we’re also recognizing that there is so much that we will never know about this place in which we spend our days.  Who was buried beneath the unmarked gravestones in the burial ground, and what were their life stories?  Who carved those words in the meetinghouse floor that read, KNOCK EM STIFF 1777?  Who was John Tisdale, who left his initials and his full name, in beautifully handcrafted lettering over the course of a number of years in the 1830s, on the backs of the meetinghouse benches.  And how did he ever get away with this?  Who was supervising him, anyway?  And what is the story behind the musket ball that one of our current 8th graders brought into school this past week to show, explaining that she had found it a few years ago while digging in our woods during recess one day?  
 
This, for me, is the most thrilling aspect of digging into our history here – coming to this deeper understanding that so many lives have been lived in this place, for centuries, and that we are part of a history that continues to unfold in this particular corner of Princeton.  At a time when young people – when all of us, in fact – are so narrowly focused on what is right in front of us, I can think of no greater gift we can give our children – the next generation – than this broader view of history and a recognition, in our bones, that we are actually participants in the unfolding story of place, whether this place, or any other place that the routes of our lives takes us.  We are so fortunate to be here.
 
And now, a few words about the history of our Schoolmaster’s House.
 
After settling here in the late 1600s, Quakers initially met for worship in one another’s homes.  In 1709 Benjamin Clarke deeded this property – 9.6 acres – to the Society of Friends for the purpose of establishing a burial ground and eventually building a meetinghouse.   The meetinghouse was originally constructed in 1726.  No doubt inspired by William Penn’s vision of a “holy experiment” in Philadelphia to provide an education infused by Quaker principles to children of all religious backgrounds, both genders, and more, by the mid-18th century schooling was happening here at Stony Brook as well.  In his research at Updike Farm, Don Stryker last year unearthed a 1745 contract between Stony Brook Friends (Clarke and Olden and others) and a Mr. Lewis Charles Faneuil, a schoolteacher, to teach four calendar quarters in the span of one year, commencing August 1745.  Tuition was 1 pound 4 shillings, but poorer families could instead supply an agreed-upon amount of firewood in lieu of tuition.  In 1781 the Schoolmaster’s House was built to provide family housing for a teacher, and for 19 years thereafter, classroom space as well.  In 1800 a one-room schoolhouse was erected next to the meetinghouse to accommodate the “scholars.”  This building remained on the site until it fell out of use fifty-plus years later and was ultimately torn down in 1901.  Interestingly, however, a mid-19th century photograph of this schoolhouse shows an ash tree growing right up against the building, the same tree that stands at the top of the parking lot today.  And even today, in the asymmetrical shape of that ash, in the dearth of any low branches on one side of the tree, we see evidence of the long-ago presence of this original one-room schoolhouse.
 
With the move of the College of New Jersey to Princeton in 1756 and the gradual shift in the religious landscape from Quaker to Presbyterian, the Friends Meeting at Stony Brook declined and was laid down in 1879.   There is ample evidence, however, that the Schoolmaster’s House continued to be occupied over the decades, around the turn of the century by an Italian immigrant family by the name of Ronalo who lived rent-free in exchange for maintaining the property in some fashion, and by other tenants, both before and after the Meeting was re-established in the 1940s.  A woman by the name of Della Sweeney Williams, interviewed for an article for The Princeton Recollector in 1976, reported having lived in “what they called the Schoolmaster’s House by that Quaker Church.”  She recalled the two or three times a year that “people would come – Quakers – and go there.  And Brother and I would go and sit on one end corner of the porch and listen.  But they had very quiet church; they didn’t do a lot of singing and talking and things.” While scoping out the New Jersey State Museum last summer, my colleague Donna Raskin and I met a retired paleontologist who, when he learned that we were from Princeton Friends, explained that he had lived in the Schoolmaster’s House while he was a grad student at Princeton, many decades ago.   Just now I spoke with Tarry Truitt, who remembers visiting the Schoolmaster’s House as a child, in the 1960s, as her father – founding PFS trustee Tom Truitt – carried out maintenance work on the building to keep it in shape for the tenants.  Finally, I too recall, in the early 1980s, attending a very quiet and “Quakerly” New Year’s Eve gathering in the Schoolmaster’s House, hosted by the then-tenant, a member of Meeting. 
 
Fast forward then to 1990, three years after the founding of PFS, in which year Princeton Monthly Meeting and PFS entered into a lease that granted the school the use and care of the Schoolmaster’s House.  In the 26 years since then the building has been the home of the Beginning School, the art room, and administrative offices of all sorts.
 
About fifteen years ago it became clear that despite the various improvements that had been carried out on the property since 1990, a major renovation of the Schoolmaster’s House was in order, and given the 1990 lease agreement, this was to be the School’s responsibility.  Time does not allow a full recounting of the process that began well before the construction of West House to “do right” by this historic building.  Suffice it to say that when Michael Robertson returned to the School’s board of trustees for a another six-year shift, now seven years ago, he was asked to take on the clerkship of the School’s Facilities Committee and to see this renovation project through, a project that even then was long overdue.  Little did we know, seven years ago, of the scope of the work that still lay ahead of us.  But here we are today, thanks to the tireless efforts of so many Friends and friends.  For six years Michael shepherded the project through Facilities Committee and the School’s trustees with the invaluable help of staff members Chrissie Knight, Don Stryker, and Pete Jaques, and drawing on the counsel and expertise of Committee members John Borden, Mark Leuchten, Julie Capozzoli, Marcia Willsie, Laura Hawkins, and others, and most recently, Nestor Arroyo and Tom Pinneo.  Throughout this process we were supported by members of the Meeting’s Trustees and Property Committee, clerked recently by Tony Capozzoli and Dave Hingston, who collaborated with PFS trustees and administration in clarifying understandings between the School and Meeting regarding this shared property.  By last year we had entered into a relationship with Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner of Historic Building Architects, whose stellar reputation in town allowed us to move, if not quickly, at least relatively smoothly through the approval process with the Historic Preservation Commission. And after selecting the Trenton firm Dell-Tech as our builder, whose flexibility allowed us to secure the final necessary funding before moving forward, we then muscled through the securing of necessary building permits. Which brings us to today’s celebration, choreographed so beautifully by our Development Director Lisa Ham and her sidekick Sarah Moore. 
 
But none of this, of course, could have led anywhere had we not received unbelievably generous financial support from a handful of donors whose names I will not list today, but whose contributions will be appropriately acknowledged at the completion of the project.  Today I must say, however, that we are all indebted to these F/friends for their clear vision of the importance of this project in preserving a critical piece of Princeton’s history, their realistic understanding of the expense of historic renovation projects of this sort, and their remarkable generosity of spirit.  All of us who value the legacy of the Quaker Settlement at Stony Brook, and Friends education on this site, are forever grateful to you.
 
Before closing, we have one final item of business...
 
It was in early November when it became clear to the PFS trustees that we had secured enough funding in gifts and pledges, targeted specifically for this renovation project, to responsibly enter into a contract with Dell-Tech builders.  The fundraising for the project is not complete, however, as it is our intention to raise an additional $300,000 between now and the completion of the renovation, in order to establish an endowment that will ensure the building’s upkeep and maintenance forever into the future.  We can’t afford to let the building fall into disrepair ever again, and so we hope to bring many more F/friends into the circle of supporters for this project.  Please let Lisa Ham or me know if you would like to be part of that circle.
 
With that, I hope to see all of you here again about a year from now when we celebrate the completion of the renovation and have the opportunity to walk through this “front door” of our meeting and school.
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A progressive, Quaker day school welcoming students in Pre-K through 8th grade to our historic Princeton campus nestled in the woods.