Exploring Princeton and its environs

February 29, 2016

In the Yankee Doodle Tap Room at the Nassau Inn, you can browse the rows of photographs of Princeton grads who went on to illustrious careers in politics, the arts, journalism, the armed forces and more.

Many years ago, I stood on One Tree Hill overlooking Auckland, New Zealand, with a Maori guide and artist, and he painted an image I will never forget. He said he could look down over the city and just peel away the modern layer and roll it up like a carpet to see the history and the landscape from a time when his people lived there.

Princeton may be about as far from Auckland as you can get, but the Maori way of looking at the city seems particularly appropriate. While the university and the town are often considered synonymous, there’s more to discover when you peel back the layers. Princeton the genius magnet, shopping heaven for foodies and preppies, central to America’s — and New Jersey’s — history and inspiration for writers and artists.

Pick a weekend and a layer to explore.

Of course, the layers are built on top of one another, and this can be a problem — start digging, and you run into connections that can take you off on interesting tangents, additional Princeton claims to fame (there are a million).

The unassuming, 16-room Peacock Inn, a little hotel on tree-lined Bayard Lane, is a case in point.

I first stayed at the inn in 2011, when I’d gone to Princeton to follow the Albert Einstein trail. Einstein stayed at the inn when he first arrived after fleeing Germany, spending 10 days there while workers finished his house.

I had no idea what lay beneath the Einstein layer. Literally, in fact. In the basement, aka Peacock Alley, was a speakeasy accessed from a side door and down a flight of stairs. When the current owners took over and renovated the inn about a decade ago, workers in the basement discovered several murals under the wallpaper. Turns out they were done by John Held Jr., a famous cartoonist and magazine illustrator of the 1920s, He was known for depicting the style of the roaring period and well known people of the time, and one of the murals stars Princeton mathematician John von Neumann, whose reckless driving was familiar to the locals. The cartoon depicts von Neumann blithely driving while reading a book.

My latest trip to Princeton, spurred by a memorable meal at the inn, let me fill in some gaps, some places I’d never gotten to last time. I only spent one night (the Peacock isn’t cheap), but got a good glimpse of Princeton’s many-themed layers.

Here are some other ways of seeing the Princeton area:



Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton: I’d heard about this museum and sculpture park in Hamilton, about 15 minutes southwest of Princeton and considered part of the Princeton tourism region, defined by the state’s tourism department as including all of Mercer County and parts of Somerset and Middlesex counties.

Grounds for Sculpture was created by J. Seward Johnson, an artist who, like Einstein, saw the big picture. His view of the universe, though, was based on nature and art. Johnson, a scion of the family that developed the Band-Aid as part of the Johnson & Johnson empire, is most famous for his giant bronze sculptures often taken from impressionist paintings.

After he was fired from the family business, he followed his calling, art, and eventually a mission: "to fill people everywhere with the emotional sustenance derived from the powerful and restorative connection between art and nature."

On the 42-acre site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds, he established what is now a whimsical, inspiring and educational indoor and outdoor museum. He acquired modern sculptures from dozens of artists, and planted every one of the shrubs and trees and other flora one sees today – specifically designed to highlight features of the artwork. His idea was to make modern art more accessible to people of all backgrounds in an informal setting. People old and young, people from Italy and from Newark, stroll the lawns and pathways, snapping pictures, getting up close, feeling the textures and calling out to friends to "come see this." I think every person I talked with said something to the effect of "I can’t believe I live right near here and have never been."

My favorite aspect of the grounds was the freedom to interact with the art, especially 3-D versions of well-known paintings. You could walk around his version of Rousseau’s "Peaceable Kingdom" and get new angles on the scene. And being able to actually curl up on the bed that has always looked so inviting in Van Gogh’s "The Bedroom" was a thrill. Set aside at least a couple of hours to visit.

More for an art-attack:

Princeton University Art Museum: Founded in 1882, with 70,000 works ranging from ancient to contemporary art. Free. If you hit the campus, you can call up artmuseum.princeton.edu/campus-art for a tour of art around the campus.



His house at 112 Mercer St. is a private residence. You can look from the sidewalk. It’s certainly low key, a two-story white house. But when you stand in front of it think about this: It was home to not one, but three, Nobel Prize winners, including the physicist Frank Wilczek (2004) and economist and Tenafly High School graduate Eric Maskin (2007), as well as Einstein (1936-55).

All three worked at the Institute for Advanced Study on (surprise) Einstein Way (Einstein never was on the staff at Princeton University, by the way). The center was started in 1930 as a place for really smart people – scholars and scientists — to pursue special research and studies, a sort of think tank. The grounds are open to the public (there’s a lake). Just driving around the main loop road is entertaining; some of the private housing is straight out of "I Dream of Jeannie."

More Einstein to find: The only permanent exhibition in the country dedicated to Einstein is in the back of Landau, a third-generation shop selling "the world’s most beautiful woolens." The shop had done a themed exhibition when the film "IQ" was being shot in Princeton in 1994, and more than a decade later decided to do something permanent. Mostly photos and copies of newspaper articles and memorabilia from people who knew him. It’s limited, but then, most traditional museums don’t sell Loden coats and Irish fisherman sweaters.



Morven Museum and Garden: Originally part of a 5,500-acre estate where the well-connected Stockton family lived for five generations; it was also home to Robert Wood Johnson and his family and served as the official residence for five governors before it was moved to Drumthwacket. The first floor features portraits, furnishings and artifacts that provide insight into the lives and times of the occupants. Tours are available, or you can visit on your own.

Temporary exhibitions are on the second floor. Currently occupying the space is "Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Couple of an Age," the first large-scale exhibition to explore the Lindberghs as a couple and as American icons with some significant flaws. Really interesting items on display, include one of Charles’ early letters from prep school and a copy of the Lindbergh-baby-kidnapping note. It runs until Oct. 23.

More angles on the past

Princeton Battlefield State Park: The 200-acre site of the 1777 battle that resulted in Washington’s victory over the British. You can also visit the Clarke House Museum, built in 1772 and used as a hospital by troops on both sides of the conflict; the Ionic Colonnade; and a memorial marking the graves of British and American soldiers. About 12 miles away is Washington Crossing State Park, which commemorates the freezing winter when the general and his troops crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey on Christmas Day in 1776.

Historical Society of Princeton: Offers two-hour walking tours at 2 p.m. Sundays, weather permitting, taking in sites around downtown Princeton and the university campus. Tours start at Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau St. Tickets are $7, available online. You can also download a self-guided tour and map of the main historic sites.



Rat’s: Because it is part of the Grounds for Sculpture operation and another J. Seward Johnson creation, it’s not surprising that the entrance looks a little like a stage set, complete with strolling couple in Victorian clothing. Within, Johnson continued his predilection for impressionism with decor designed to evoke Monet’s Giverny. Fine dining with a menu of country French cuisine, Rat’s offers lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch menus, and an extremely popular happy hour that takes some of the sting out of the drink prices; the free buffet will spoil your dinner, if you care. Remember, though, if you have dinner there, the grounds of the museum close, and if your car is parked in the museum lot, you will have a difficult time getting back to it.

Yankee Doodle Tap Room at the Nassau Inn: You should stop at the Palmer Square institution just to check out the 13-foot-long mural Norman Rockwell painted for the place, which rolls out the words to the song and a variety of characters along the back wall of the bar. You might also want to stroll along the wall of fame — a very long wall, with several rows of the Princetonians who have done good for themselves and their alma mater. Everyone stops to squint at the young faces and remark on Michele Obama’s bubble hairdo. The food is worth sitting down for. They call the place a gastropub, and it does have its foodie twists: a quinoa based veggie burger (amazing) and inventive cocktails reflecting the season. Plus 22 beers on tap.

Upstairs at the Nassau Inn, the only full-service hotel in the center city, I noticed a dachshund sitting beside his person near the front desk. Yes, the hotel is pet-friendly.

The Bent Spoon: Even in the dead of winter, the little shop at 33 Palmer Square is jammed with fans, drawn there for the ice cream and sorbets made on the premises with local ingredients that change with the seasons. There are 24 varieties offered on any one day, and they are not your grandma’s flavors: think cardamom or blueberry-mascarpone or sweet corn ice cream. Cupcakes and the newly added homemade hot chocolate are also to die for, I hear.



To start planning a getaway to Princeton, check these sites:


— Institute for Advanced Study: Einstein Drive., ias.edu.

— Landau, 102 Nassau St., landauprinceton.com/einstein-museum.

— Morven Museum and Garden, 55 Stockton St.; morven.org.

— Historical Society of Princeton. Two-hour walking tours at 2 p.m. Sundays, weather permitting, taking in sites around downtown Princeton and the university campus. Tours start at Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau St. Tickets are $7, available online. You can also download a self-guided tour and map of the main historic sites. princetonhistory.org.

— Princeton Tour Co. History via walking and tours plus pub crawls, ghost tours and Einstein-focused walks and events. princetontourcompany.com

— Grounds for Sculpture, 80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton. groundsforsculpture.org

— Washington Crossing State Park, Titusville. bit.ly/1TjpKo4.


— Nassau Inn and the Yankee Doodle Tavern, 10 Palmer Square: nassauinn.com.

— Peacock Inn, 20 Bayard Lane. peacockinn.com

— The Bent Spoon, 35 Palmer Square. thebentspoon.net.

— Rat’s, 16 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Open limited hours Thursday through Sunday in winter. ratsrestaurant.com, 609-584-7800 for reservations.


— Princeton Convention & Visitor’s Bureau: visitprinceton.org.

— Princeton Online, a community oriented guide: princetonol.com.



Associated Press