Nassau Inn Then and Now
History of the Nassau Inn
The original Nassau Tavern at 52 Nassau Street was first built in 1756 by Judge Thomas Leonard, who spent the last years of his life in view of the college he had helped to bring to Princeton. When he passed away in 1759, Judge Leonard's elegant town residence became a hostelry, called College Inn by its new owner. The first proprietor was Christopher Beekman, whose natural talent as an innkeeper soon established the Inn as the center of the town's life
The Coach Room Circa 1937
Wine and argument flowed freely in Beekman's taproom, or drinking room, where his wife helped tend the punchbowls. Students and townsmen drank eagerly of the news and opinions of honored guests such as Paul Revere, Robert Morris, and Thomas Paine, who stayed the night more than once at the hospitable public house.
In 1775, the Committee of Safety met at College Inn, and a few weeks later, delegates were stopping overnight on their way to the first Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Signers of the Declaration of Independence, passing through Princeton in 1776, rested at College Inn.
As the war began, military men took the place of travelers. Officers of the Continental Army, as well as the British and Hessians (depending upon which side was in possession of the town), whiled away their time in the taproom. Months later the Battle of Yorktown and the signing of the Peace Treaty were properly celebrated over College Inn punchbowls. When the Continental Congress met in Princeton in 1783, the national celebrities of the day were guests of the Inn, which was just a few steps from the historic session in Nassau Hall.
Nassau Inn Circa 1937
At the turn of the 19th century, Christopher Beekman and wife, Grace Otis Beekman, retired. John Gifford took over the hostelry, changed its name to Nassau Inn, and hung a sign picturing Nassau Hall over its entrance.
The 52 Nassau Street establishment closed its doors in 1937, when it had become evident that the town and the University needed a larger, comfortable, and modern hotel, which would preserve the traditions of "Old Nass” while providing suitable suites for travelers and college guests. The construction of Nassau Tavern/Inn on Palmer Square was the result.
The charm of Nassau Tavern lies in the fact that it tells a story. The interesting contrast in the exterior design of the different wings is a delightful fancy of its architect, depicting the imaginary progress of a successful inn from the Eighteenth to the Twentyth Century. The low portion of the earlier period was built on the style beloved of Princeton's founders, with the low-raftered ceiling of oak timber, large stone fireplace in the center, and quaint little staircase. A small stone addition and a substantial brick wing of several stories were added through the years as the proprietors found the need to expand.
Original Library Meeting Room Circa 1937
Just inside the robust front door of the Tavern is a stone platform seat, one of the few authentic remnants of the original Nassau Tavern. This platform was used in the cellar to support casks of wines and spirits.
On the north wall of the lobby, near the entrance to the dining room (Palmer Room), was a small maple frame enclosing the wedding ring of Grace Otis and Christopher Beekman, who was the first proprietor of the original Nassau Inn– called the College Inn during the American Revolution. Florence L. Hazlehurst of Spotswood, New Jersey and a descendant of the Beekman family presented the ring to the Nassau Tavern.
On the floor below Lobby Two is the famous Yankee Doodle Tap Room, a favorite gathering place of students and townsmen. There are rough-hewn beams and solid oak furniture, some of which is also hewn by the students, who still observe the time-honored custom of carving initials into tabletops, reminiscent of "Old Nass."
Original Yankee Doodle Tap Room Bar Circa 1937
A fitting inscription, from an old English inn near Oxford, is carved in the lintel over the great hearth:
"Rest Traveller, Rest, and Banish Thoughts of Care; Drink to Thy Friends and Recommend Them Here."
Norman Rockwell, after the restaurant took its name. Rockwell captures in a humorous way the historical legend of Yankee Doodle, the gay, young blade who came to town upon his pony, amid the jeers of the Hessians and townsfolk, but had the love and admiration of the Innkeeper's daughter, who is visible in the window on the left side of the painting. Norman Rockwell also painted the Yankee Doodle sign (at the entrance).