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Editorial: Bateman/Gusciora Urge Institute to Abandon Plans to Develop Princeton Battlegrounds

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Senator Christopher “Kip” Bateman and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora are urging the Institute of Advanced Study to halt plans to destroy Maxwell’s Field. IAS has refused to grant a meeting with the legislators to discuss alternative housing construction plans. 

Earlier this month, we wrote to Dr. Charles Simonyi, chairman of the Institute for Advanced Study’s Board of Trustees, and requested a meeting to discuss alternatives to the Institute’s destructive plan to build 15 faculty housing units on the historic, 22-acre Maxwell’s Field tract. On this site, Gen. George Washington personally led a counterattack that won the 1777 Battle of Princeton and helped turn the tide of the American Revolution. Our goal in seeking this meeting was simple: get reasonable people together to find a solution to the current controversy that benefits the state, the battlefield and the IAS.

Sen. Kip Bateman and Asm. Reed Gusciora are urging IAS to halt plans to develop housing on historic Maxwell’s Field. (SenateNJ)

In response, we received a letter from IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf, who rejected our offer to meet, reciting the same tired excuses the Institute has been utilizing for the past four years. It is an unfortunate tendency of the Dijkgraaf Administration that they consistently reject offers to sit down with those of us seeking to save them from themselves.

Undeterred, we followed up with a second letter, again calling on the leaders of this highly respected international center of research and knowledge to meet with us and join in taking a new step forward for the community and the IAS.

Preserving the small, tremendously historic piece of land at the center of this controversy — and keeping it open like the Princeton Battlefield State Park adjacent to it — will properly honor the sacrifices of the tough young men of Washington’s Continental Army, including some of the first U.S. Marines to fall in combat. These heroes were among the first of many millions of American fighting men who went to war to protect the rights and freedoms we enjoy today.

This is a preservation fight that should not be happening. It is obvious that this land should be preserved. The IAS persists in pushing ahead with a residential development project that has already tarnished its reputation, and that ignominy becomes permanent if the homes are built.

The bulldozers are parked on the battlefield even now, ready to finish the job. Recent news involving the IAS is dominated by the negative turmoil rooted in this fight. Instead of spotlighting the Institute’s many advancements and accomplishments, the focus remains on this draining, self-defeating controversy.

If the IAS applied its own high standards to this issue rather than the tactics of a typical developer blind to history, the bulldozers never would have arrived in the first place. When confronted with the overwhelming evidence of the historic legacy of Maxwell’s Field, the Institute time and again rejects its usual intellectual rigor and scholarly discipline, damaging its own reputation as construction moves forward.

In its effort to refute the weight of evidence of the history made at Maxwell’s Field, the IAS hired a historian, Mark Peterson — who does not specialize in military history or the American Revolution — for the purpose of disputing the widely accepted facts. Peterson blatantly exposed his bias, concluding his findings with pure political rhetoric. The historian-as-pundit argued that to save Maxwell’s Field is “to fetishize space” and falsely claimed that preserved, historic land “as often as not tends to become neglected, ignored, and forgotten, removed from the world in which life is lived.”

Peterson provided no scholarship to back up this assertion, and that’s because none exists. It’s simply not true.

In our first letter to the Institute, we named the numerous government agencies and organizations which assert that Maxwell’s Field is historic. From the National Park Service to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to our own New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, the conclusion has been the same: Maxwell’s Field is core battlefield ground, the significance of which has been confirmed over and over again.

Let the words of some of the nation’s leading historians underscore this point:
“The Institute for Advanced Study seems utterly indifferent to what occurred on Maxwell’s Field,” author and historian Thomas Fleming has written. “In my 50-year study of the American Revolution, I have come to regard it as one of the most important moments in our eight-year struggle for liberty and equality.”

“This land is as central to the Battle of Princeton as the field of Pickett’s Charge is to Gettysburg and as Omaha Beach is to D-Day,” Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Hackett Fischer, whose book Washington’s Crossing won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for history, has emphasized.

“Princeton is one of the few battlefields where Washington commanded the Continental Army that we have any hope of preserving. Without preservation of Maxwell’s Field, the battlefield will be forever compromised, and an opportunity to create something great for the American people will be lost,” Jack Warren, Executive Director for the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati, stated.

The battlefield preservation efforts at Princeton span many generations. More than a century ago, Moses Taylor Pyne, who was most responsible for transforming Princeton University into the preeminent institution it is today, helped defeat plans to build a trolley line at the storied site and purchased the core of today’s battlefield park to save it.

Longtime Princetonians are well familiar with the community’s seemingly endless struggles against the Institute’s dreams of being a developer. From 1969 to 1973, the IAS sought to develop another part of the battlefield, the Weller tract. And from 1983 to 1997, the IAS fought with Princeton over planned development of other Institute lands, arguing then against any development at Maxwell’s Field. In both struggles, the IAS and the community worked together to find suitable solutions. Every acre was saved, and the IAS was well compensated for its contributions.

Today, the struggle over Maxwell’s Field has dragged on for 13 years. As time passes, the calls to preserve the land become ever stronger. Little public support remains for the Institute. Our constituents frequently ask, “Why is the IAS doing this?” We simply do not have a good answer for them. It doesn’t make sense on the surface, and makes even less sense when you examine the facts.

Other housing alternatives exist. The money is there — more than $4.5 million — to compensate the IAS well above the appraised value of the land. We hope the Institute’s leadership will see fit to meet with us. And we hope the IAS, as it has done before, will heed the call of the community in which it thrives, honor its history and save Maxwell’s Field.

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