While COVID-19 may have put the kibosh on many vacation trips, it has not canceled the opportunity to visit a quaint English university campus, a Belgian town, an intriguing Indian temple, or even Colonial America. Thanks to some architectural sleight-of-hand all of the above are closer than you think. And while they don’t show up in any travel brochures, they are brief “faux-cations” to places that evoke other lands, cultures, and even eras without leaving the exotic Garden State. So let’s pack the masks and the snacks and hit the open road.
Hankering for a trip to Jolly Old England? Head over to the Princeton University campus to soak up its authentic imitation English Gothic architecture.
Although Princeton started adopting the Gothic style in the 1890s, the movement heated up in the early 20th century. And if anyone can serve as the neo-Gothic poster boy it is American architect Ralph Cram, the university’s supervising architect from 1907 to 1929.
Cram was more than passionate about Gothic architecture and felt it was one of the highest of spiritual and artistic expressions.
His flames were fanned by Woodrow Wilson, Princeton president from 1902 to 1910, who told the Princeton Alumni Weekly that “Gothic architecture has added a thousand years to the history of the university, and has pointed every man’s imagination to the earliest traditions of learning in the English-speaking race.”
The match that ignited their imagination can be summed up with the term Oxbridge, an actual word merging the names of the two oldest universities in England: Oxford and Cambridge.
Part of the reason the university wanted to brush up on its English roots was a change of a student population and attitude. A more affluent, Episcopal, and less Presbyterian—or Scottish heritage—student body was arriving and “the Anglican influence on the campus must have made the choice of English models all the more appropriate,” notes university materials.
But for Cram, it was more than that and as a past Princeton University Art Museum exhibition on the college’s architecture noted, “Cram championed a return to the architecture of the Middle Ages as a way to combat the evils he saw in modern society, which recently had been ripped apart by war and revolution in Europe.”
At the center of New Jersey’s England is Cram’s Princeton University Chapel, a miniature version of one of the architect’s most prominent works, St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York, the world’s largest cathedral.
Actually the size of other cathedrals, the Princeton chapel takes its diminutive name for the practice of daily prayer services rather than the structure.
The building’s design reflects traditional Gothic approach and consists of four parts that form a cross. Its interior includes oak paneling from Sherwood Forest in England (where Robin Hood lived) and glass windows colorfully depicting historical figures and scenes from literary classics such as Dante’s Divine Comedy and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.
On one side of the chapel is the 1948 tower of Firestone Library, the last Collegiate Gothic building created on campus. On the other side is a courtyard with a copy of the 16th century Turnbull Sundial from Corpus Christi College at Oxford.
Let the eyes and feet wander around the dormitories and passageways modeled on the Magdalen Tower and other Oxford landmarks. And across campus and Alexander Road, there’s the Graduate School designed as “a place reminiscent of medieval splendor” and fitted with Gothic-styled dormitories, a garden wall incorporating original stonework from Oxford and Cambridge, and Princeton’s most prominent Gothic landmark, the Cleveland Tower with its 67-bell carillon.
Gothic architecture reflects the 12th and 13th century efforts to create towering structures without heavy wall loads. Instead of piling up walls of rocks, the designers used flying buttresses and other supports to shore up high walls of stained glass and patterns of spires and arches.
Although the word Gothic comes from the French and Latin and historically connects to a fifth century German speaking group, architecturally it represents an approach that isn’t “classical” or geometrically balanced designs found in Greek and Roman temples and early 20th century banks. Instead the Gothic employs an organic use of shapes and tensions.
With its battlements, pointed arches, leaded glass, bay windows, and gargoyles—including one of Cram’s face at the entrance of the chapel —the Princeton Gothic is worth a look.
Time Traveling in New Jersey
For those still holding a grudge over 18th century British taxation without representation and want to make Colonial American great again, take a slight trip to downtown Princeton’s Palmer Square. Here visitors can find rows of shops all sporting the early 20th century reinterpretation of Colonial America—part of a movement that was brewing as the university was busy going British.
As the Historical Society of Princeton tells it, “The Palmer Square development was the dream of Edgar Palmer, heir to the New Jersey Zinc Company fortune. Palmer’s plan, which he announced in February of 1929, called for the creation of a new municipal center in the heart of Princeton. The design, prepared by architect Thomas Stapleton, was part of the Colonial Revival movement taking place in America at that time.”
A lengthy and costly on and off again process, Palmer Square’s transformation wasn’t completed until the 1980s when stores and townhouses were added on the north and east sides of the square.
Some stops include the Bent Spoon ice cream shop, Olsson’s Fine Foods, and the Nassau Inn where in the appropriately named Yankee Doodle Tap Room you will see another artifact of the era: Norman Rockwell’s mural of Yankee Doodle himself, painted in 1937.
The Colonial Revival movement originally started with the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. There, visitors seemed to renew their faith in the still new nation by embracing an architecture that many saw as outdated and obsolete.
Accordingly, the decades up to around 1940 witnessed Americans reclaiming their Americanism by imitating an era that used symmetry and balanced proportions—ironically in a general style named Georgian, for the series of British kings named George.
As one U.S. government publication noted, “The goal of Colonial Revival was to evoke sentimentalism regarding the early history of the United States.”
Unfortunately, as in the case of Palmer Square, this evoking of a romantic past American included the odious practice of building on the former homes of relocated Princetonians of African ancestry.
Palmer Square is a free commercial district across from Princeton University, which interesting has one of the most historic Colonial buildings in the country: Nassau Hall.
While Palmer Square evokes the feeling of Colonial America, the Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen’s Museum is the recreation of one of the colonial era’s most important ports of entry.
Located on the mainland across from Long Beach Island, which protected the port from stormy seas and waves, the town was settled in 1698.
It had been called several names until 1791 when what was then known as Clamtown was renamed for Ebenezer Tucker. That year, prominent town resident member and Revolutionary War veteran was appointed the port’s custom’s collector by a few friends in high places, namely George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
The maritime village and museum, which opened in 2000, consists of 20 historic and recreated buildings connected by a boardwalk. One of its main attractions is the reconstructed Tucker’s Island Lighthouse.
Tucker’s Island was basically a sandbar where a lighthouse had been built in order to guide ships between Barnegat and Absecon lighthouses.
After years of withstanding decades of the island’s sand erosion, the lighthouse became the victim of longshore currents that pulled the structure down in 1927—as one of the exhibitions in the recreated lighthouse makes clear. Another intriguing display focuses on ships wrecks along the New Jersey shore.
As a member of the Council of American Maritime Museums and home of the Jersey Shore Folklife Center, Tuckerton Seaport is serious about preserving and sharing the region’s maritime history. And in addition to having historically accurate building replicas it maintains a historically vital link to living traditions.
When the seaport is past its current limited re-emerging phase, visitors can visit decoy carvers and visit a workshop where the regionally specific cedar wood boats designed for shallow water use are still made.
And while one can walk the boardwalk between the buildings ($5 per person), the seaport’s current attraction is taking water ferry trips from Tuckerton to Long Beach Island (Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays) or 50-minute creek tours (Tuesday and Thursdays). Check for times and costs as well as building re-openings at the information listed at the end of the article.
Belgium and France? Oui (in Hamilton)
If English Gothic and Colonial American are not your cups of tea and you would rather escape to a French styled café to philosophize about architecture over a glass of wine, then take a trip to the Gallic-inspired buildings at Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton Township. That’s where visitors will find a small European village housing Rat’s Restaurant, Toad Hall Shop and Gallery Artisan Boutique, and offices and artist studios.
While a 19th century Belgian Village was the original concept that inspired GFS founder and artist Seward Johnson, there are several reasons that these buildings visually speak with a noticeable French accent.
First it sets a tone. As Johnson told a New York Times reporter just as the restaurant was opening in early 2000, “I lived in Paris for a year, and I saw that French people mix their culture with their food. They have places to eat, places to sit and ponder—they have bathrooms! If you bring in a good restaurant, you bring in people with cultivation, and that is good for us.”
They also provide a visual reference for Johnson to celebrate his love of impressionist artwork and the French locales that inspired them. That includes the town of Giverny, where famed French Impressionist painter Claude Monet lived, created, and painted lily pad ponds and elegantly curved Japanese bridge.
According to the 1994 final instruction to architects regarding the village, that connection became more and more important to the “idea” of the village: “Mr. Johnson visualizes the development as having the look and feel of Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny,” and quotes the artist and Johnson & Johnson heir as adding, “It is to have the feeling of a country house turned into an inn, and look like it has been there forever.”
The Hamilton French building and landscape also provide the proper backdrop that gives life to Johnson’s sculptural-interpretations of French Impressionists paintings. That includes Gustave Caillebotte’s “Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877” and Vincent van Gogh’s “Tarascon Stage Coach,” both greeting visitors as they approach the restaurant and the gift shop. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party,” Edouard Manet’s “Argenteuil,” and Claude Monet’s ‘Woman with a Parasol” are waiting nearby on the other side of the buildings. Other period interpretations seamlessly emanate from this visual anchor to the rest of the park.
GFS project manager Bruce Daniels says the buildings were specifically designed to house a restaurant; the Atlantic Foundation, the organization that provided funding for the grounds; and apartment-work studios for artists, including one for Johnson.
“One thing I don’t want it to look is institutional. I think that I would hate to see a modern building because I think it would look institutional,” says Johnson in the instructions. “(The buildings) should not be the same as the sculpture park buildings. They should have a different and individual character, but still work with the Grounds For Sculpture structures,” continue the instructions.
Interestingly the proposal was won by Brian Carey and AC/BC Associates, the contemporary-oriented firm that had won the GFS park design competition in the 1980s.
Daniels says Carey refocused his approach and visited Giverny (in northern France) and Monet’s studio. “So what Carey designed for Seward is very close to that. When (Carey) set the model down. Seward was amazed and said, ‘This is what I want.’ And Carey received the contract to design everything except the restaurant interior.
That contract was given to the Philadelphia design firm DAS and involved hands-on participation by Johnson.
Daniels says most of the 36,600 square foot “village” is made of cinder block and concrete from New Jersey, but other elements are imported from France. That includes some of the building’s limestone and tile and Rat’s Restaurant’s zinc bar and Bonnet range—that $225,000 French import required keeping a wall open during construction and closing it after the stove was installed in the building.
“I think we spent something over $12 million,” says Daniels about the expenses of the original development of the village starting in 1997 and continuing to the open of Rat’s Restaurant on January 4, 2000. After that came the Dance Pavilion in 2000; the Gypsy Wagon front entrance in 2001; and the Toad Hall Shop & Gallery in 2002.
Overall the Belgium-French design is connected to pleasing arrangements and symmetry, even country houses embraced the use of traditional natural elements such as plaster, stone, glass, and slate. The earth toned structure reflects elements of an older and simpler elegance and creates a smooth connection to both an English Garden (a seemingly freer approach rather than the highly geometric structured design associated with French Gardens) and a waterscape, a Japanese element Monet employed in Giverny.
The result, as one writer about Giverny noted, reflects the French 18th century delight in the artificially natural. And as another writer writing on Belgium architecture notes, the building created outside the restaurant—originally designed as a dance hall but now used for events—reflect the popular Belgium preference for extensions or outbuildings.
Yet there is more. Johnson saw the approach “as sort of a theme park of the subconscious where there will be echoes of things that we all know, like Monet’s bridge . . . You pick up these things from your unconscious, and so you feel at home right away for a reason you can’t describe. I see this project as a work of art.”
The square includes Rats Restaurant which currently offers some limited outside upscale dining at a cost. GFS is in its first phase of reopening, with limited timed tickets available online. Tickets must be pre-purchased.
India in Robbinsville—at the BAPS Mandir
The BAPS mandir—or temple—in Robbinsville is only about 10 miles away from Grounds For Sculpture, but its architectural roots are 7,000 miles away in India. And with the living tradition being handed down for over a 1,000 years and brought to the United States, there is nothing faux about this extraordinary addition to the region’s landscape. But its authentic cultural presence in New Jersey fits the bill for a quick slip to India.
BAPS stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha. The name mixes the town where the religious group’s first mandir was built, the name of a significant and revered deity, an ideal devotee to that deity, the person who inspired the formation of the spiritual group, and the word for organization (sanstha).
One of 3,850 such complexes around the world, the Robbinsville mandir began being built in 2010, was inaugurated in 2014, and reflects the region’s growing presence of people from or connected to India. It is reported to be one of the largest mandirs in North America, attracting an estimated 1,000 visitors per week.
A 2019 article noted that the structure measured 12,000 square feet and was 42 feet tall, but that was part of a phase that of a project that plans of a complex that will encompass 160 acres by 2021.
The marble construction that began in India and reassembled in New Jersey follows Hindu architectural traditions and reflects the ideas of duality and harmony, the movement of time, and the flow of creativity. At its heart is a chamber where the spiritual and physical worlds meet and energy radiates outward in all directions.
The Robbinsville mandir has 40 spires, 10 domes, 98 carved pillars, and carvings of symbolic animals, sacred figures, and ceiling and floor designs.
In normal times, tour guides and materials are on hand to help explain some of the imagery, which includes animals, spiritual teachers, and devotees. The buildings are closed to the public currently, due to the pandemic, but the grand grounds still provide plenty to make you feel like you’re in another land.
If You Go
Princeton University, princeton.edu/meet-princeton/visit-us.
Palmer Square’s headquarters is 40 Nassau Street, Princeton. A directory of shops and stops can be found at palmersquare.com.
Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen’s Museum, 120 West Main Street, Tuckerton. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (609) 298-8868. tuckertonseaport.org.
Grounds For Sculpture, 126 Sculptors Way, Hamilton. Thursdays–Mondays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., pre-purchased timed tickets required for entry. (609) 586-0616 or groundsforsculpture.org.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, 112 North Main Street, Robbinsville. Open daily. Free. For more information, (609) 918-1212 or baps.org/robbinsville.