Valley Road School, now nearing 100 years old, is one of the Princeton area’s last remaining historic public school buildings. The original two-story school was designed by Robert A. Schumann and built on land given to “the inhabitants of Princeton Township” by Ernest and Grace Richardson. It opened in 1918 and today includes later additions added in two phases: cafeteria and gymnasium wings were built in 1927, and a two-story classroom wing, a one-story library, a gymnasium and locker rooms were built in 1949. The Collegiate Gothic architectural style of the original Valley Road School building- particularly its three arched entrances- was inspired by buildings on the nearby Princeton University campus, and in turn inspired the design of the adjacent Mercer No. 3 Firehouse.
This well-constructed building represents Princeton’s immigrant heritage, as many of the skilled masons who built it were Italian-Americans from the village of Pettoranello in the Molise region of Italy. They used their craft to construct not only the Valley Road School but also many of the masonry buildings on the Princeton University campus. When it opened in 1918, the school became the first regional school in Princeton Township, and in 1948 it became the first integrated elementary school in Princeton (the high school had been integrated since 1915). The school was further distinguished by its innovative programs in the sciences which made it a national educational model during the mid-twentieth century.
During the 1960’s, several new elementary schools and a new middle school were constructed by the Princeton Regional School District. As a result, by the late 1970’s, Valley Road School was no longer used for education. In 1980, the entire building was renovated to accommodate Princeton Township Municipal Offices in the original building and the Princeton Regional School Board and Princeton Medical Center offices in the remainder of the building. In 1989 the School Board deeded 1/2 acre of the school property to the Mercer Engine Company 3 to build a new firehouse. The municipal offices remained in Valley Road School until 1999 when Princeton Township moved into a new, award-winning municipal complex across Witherspoon Street. The Princeton Historic Preservation Commission notes that the new Township Hall “was sited directly on the axis of the old school’s central entrance, employed the same brick and grouped the sections of the new complex to reflect the volumes of the Valley Road School.”
Currently, the older portion of the building houses municipality-related organizations that were allowed to remain in the building when the municipality relocated across the street. These include Princeton’s community cable television station Princeton Community TV and Corner House Counseling Services. However, a resolution passed by the Princeton Regional School Board on December 18, 2012, requires that all current tenants must permanently vacate the premises no later than June 30, 2013. They are in the process of moving out, which will leave the building vacant and subject to accelerated deterioration.
Six years ago, KSS Architects conducted a property analysis of the Valley Road School buildings and site for the Princeton Regional School Board. The executive summary of that study stated that Princeton Regional Schools would like to retain ownership of the property, yet more fully utilize the assets afforded by this prominent, in-town location. The study set forth several goals, among them, to use the property more efficiently, address existing building conditions, reduce long-term maintenance costs and retain long-term control over the property. Unfortunately, little has been done to properly maintain the older section of the building in the intervening years, exacerbating issues resulting from longer-term inadequate maintenance of the facility. In January 2013, a task force was established by the newly formed Princeton Council to evaluate the possible expansion of the adjacent firehouse, a move that could jeopardize neighboring Valley Road School. The report of the task force is expected sometime in May of this year.
A grassroots community group, the Valley Road School Adaptive Reuse Committee (VRS-ARC), has formed Valley Road Community Center, Inc., a 501(c)(3), to pursue a vision for rehabilitation of Valley Road School into a community center, consistent with examples such as The NonProfit Center in Boston. This model provides nonprofit tenants with benefits like affordable, stable rents, shared infrastructure, and a collaborative environment that serves both the tenant organizations and other nonprofits. In June 2011, the group submitted a proposal that included rehabilitation of the building for this use, however, it was rejected. Recent attempts by VRS-ARC to initiate a required zoning amendment have been met with opposition from the Princeton Regional School Board.
While Valley Road School would require extensive renovation for any adaptive reuse, such renovation would result in a facility that offers the community the “best of both worlds:” state-of-the-art facilities within a character-defining landmark building. The effort of the VRS-ARC to retain the current structure also represents the most environmentally sound approach: the ”greenest” building is the one that’s already built. Obsolete historic school buildings are just one of many types of resources for which communities throughout New Jersey are struggling to create new uses, a struggle which Princeton now has the opportunity to shape. Preservation New Jersey encourages the Princeton Regional School Board and Princeton’s new municipal leadership to work with local advocates to rehabilitate Valley Road School, creating a new chapter in this building’s history as a model institution and Witherspoon Street landmark, and a new model for historic school rehabilitation statewide.
Valley Road School Community Center, Inc.