At the corner of Nassau Street and Mercer Street lies the Nassau Club, a quaint, off-white structure with forest green shutters that some call the best place to eat in town.
Founded by Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, the club was originally comprised solely of alumni. The club's ties with the University have weakened in recent decades, however, as an aging membership struggles to retain its roots and attract new members.
Wilson and a small group of Princeton residents started the club in 1889, purchasing the property at 6 Mercer St. "We started as a town-and-gown club, as a way to bring the townspeople and the University together," Greg Raschdorf, the club's general manager, said. Beside meals, the club offers speakers, guest rooms for overnight stays and a variety of social events.
The club's membership, which is by invitation only, has since changed dramatically. The current 700 resident and 800 nonresident members now include women and alumni of many universities, and Princeton alumni comprise less than one third of the club.
Nassau Club leaders attribute the decline to the tendency of alumni to leave the surrounding area after graduation. The 1968 creation of a Faculty Club in Prospect House also affected the Nassau Club, ending the era when the club functioned as an impromptu place of gathering for faculty.
"Our average membership age is 69," Raschdorf said, noting that there are only about a dozen members under age 35. The club competes for members with local retirement committees, club president Thomas Poole said.
Club leaders say they would like to appeal to a younger demographic.
"We always like to attract younger members ... and it's always been a challenge as [this] has always been more of a businessman's kind of club," Raschdorf said.
Poole cited a recent young members' mystery dinner, a relaxing of dress-code requirements and the creation of a young members' group as evidence of the club's efforts to rejuvenate the membership.
"I think all organizations like these reinvent themselves continuously, but it really started out with a group of people who wanted an old feeling," said Richard Woodbridge, former Nassau Club president.
While the club's membership's composition has shifted, the club maintains strong University traditions, and leaders say they would like to strengthen their ties to the school. "I'd like to have more University involvement in the club," Poole said.
The bookshelves of the basement lounges are lined with tattered, yellowing Princeton yearbooks dating back to 1893. Glass cases in the hallways display an impressive collection of Princeton memorabilia, including University medals from 1869, beer mugs and a piece of a wood seat from Palmer Stadium.
The club hosts visiting parents of students, and its 20 upper-story guest rooms are typically sold out during Commencement. During Reunions the club primarily houses older University classes dating back as far as the Class of 1932.
Weekly speakers at the club have included members of the University, such as Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye and English professor John Fleming.
The Nassau Club also serves the practical purpose of dining. Its upstairs Garden Room is a formal, strictly suit-and-tie area with stately curtained windows, pale green paneled walls and polished wood floors.
The club often hosts banquets and weddings, and its chefs are renowned for their culinary expertise, particularly for the club's famous snapper turtle soup and vichyssoise.
In addition to a Grill Room for casual lunch and dinner dining, the club has two rooms for business-style meetings, a library staffed with plush leather couches and fireplaces and a large terrace suitable for post-dining conversation.
Drawn by the networking and camaraderie offered by the club, members are on a first-name basis with their peers and with the club's staff. They are entitled to reciprocal privileges at dozens of clubs throughout the country.
"You go into a restaurant and you sit down and you don't have a relationship with anyone," club treasurer John Harper said. "Here you do, and that's a good feeling."