New Life for Historic Bainbridge House

June 2019

Anyone walking along Nassau Street in recent months will have noticed a construction fence and a great deal of activity at number 158, known as Bainbridge House, one of the few remaining eighteenth-century structures in downtown Princeton. The construction is occasioned by  a partnership between the Princeton University Art Museum and Princeton University to preserve and restore the building and return it to service as a compelling public venue. Following extensive preservation efforts, the restoration of its historic fabric, and the replacement and upgrade of its systems, Bainbridge House will reopen in late summer 2019. Known as Art@Bainbridge, the building will feature a space for installations by emerging contemporary artists in its ground floor galleries. The galleries will also serve as a convening space for Museum programs, small community gatherings, and prospective partnerships with the house’s neighbors, including the Princeton Garden Theatre and Labyrinth Books. Bainbridge House’s upper floors will house the Art Museum’s Education Department.

The origins of Bainbridge House date to 1766, when  Job Stockton (1734–1771)—a wealthy tanner, grandson of  an early English settler to the area, and cousin to one  
of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Stockton—built it along the primary thoroughfare of the young village. Almost all of the 1766 structure remains, including some of its original wall paneling and its fireplace mantles, doors, and staircase. Designed in the Georgian style, so called for the four British monarchs (George I, George II, George III, and George IV) who reigned between 1714 and 1830, Bainbridge House is notable for its symmetry and restrained ornament as well as its storied history. Perhaps  its most important moment in history came when it was made available as lodging for members of  Congress in 1783. In June of that year, American troops had surrounded the State House in Philadelphia, demanding back pay and the resolution of other grievances. Although the mutiny was short-lived, Congress President Elias Boudinot quickly adjourned and reconvened the Congress in Princeton, where he had family and professional connections. Bainbridge House is thus one of a handful of structures which stand as silent witnesses to that brief moment when Princeton and Nassau Hall served as the capital of the  young nation.

Bainbridge House also had a role to play in one of the few surviving narratives of the life of an enslaved person  in Princeton—a man named Prime—and his successful battle for freedom. Absalom Bainbridge leased the house from the Stockton family and made it his primary home  and medical office from 1774, during which time he owned Prime. Bainbridge left New Jersey and joined the Royalist cause as a surgeon for the British army, and his property, including Prime, was later confiscated by American officials. With the hope of gaining manumission, Prime joined the Revolutionary Army after which he engaged in a drawn-out legal battle and once more lost his freedom. He ultimately became one of three enslaved New Jersey men freed by act of the state legislature as a reward for military service during the Revolutionary War. 

Izzy Kasdin, executive director of the Historical Society of Princeton, has written that Prime’s “is a story of remarkable perseverance, one that should figure as prominently on Nassau Street as the name of his master.” Indeed, the name of the house comes from the Bainbridges, although not Absalom but rather his son, William, who was born and lived there briefly from 1774 to 1777. After the Revolutionary War, Absalom settled in New York City, and young William trained as a seaman. He would go on to serve in the US Navy under six presidents beginning with John Adams, eventually taking on the role of Naval Commissioner. He is perhaps best known for his victory at sea during the War of 1812 when, as commander of the USS Constitution, he captured the British Royal Navy’s HMS Java off the Brazilian coast, one of the significant American naval victories of the war that may have helped earn the ship the nickname “Old Ironsides.”

Later, Bainbridge House became a boarding house for Princeton University students in the nineteenth century, and the University has owned the building since 1877. In the twentieth century, the house served as a vital center for the community, first as the Princeton Public Library for more than fifty years. From 1967 until 2015, Bainbridge House  was home to the Historical Society of Princeton, which left in late 2015 to concentrate its activities at Updike Farmstead, although their weekly historic walking tours will continue  to depart from the House. The Art Museum is honored to continue this historic structure’s tradition as a warm and welcoming amenity for the community.