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Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

January 26, 2005:

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J. Robert Hillier ’59 *61 has renovated Princeton’s former Witherspoon School for Colored Children, right, as an apartment building. (Photos courtesy Hillier Architecture)

Reviving a historic landmark
Architect J. Robert Hillier ’59 *61 leaves his mark on Princeton

J.. Robert Hillier ’59 *61, founder of the ninth-largest architectural firm in the U.S. with 285 architects working on projects around the globe, has never forgotten his roots. A Princeton native, he has overseen the renovation of the Princeton public schools and designed the town’s new public library and Bowen Hall. Now he is breathing new life into the former Witherspoon School for Colored Children, where Princeton’s African-American children were educated during segregation.

Located in Princeton’s John-Witherspoon neighborhood, the 97-year-old school building had been “botched up,” says Hillier, when it was converted into a nursing home after the school closed in 1968. Ceilings had been lowered and the large windows had been cut down. He bought the building in 2002, ripped out the ceilings, restored the windows, and converted the school into an apartment building housing 34 units. Each classroom has become a single apartment. Three of them are designated affordable housing units and another five, priced 20 percent under market value and subsidized by a foundation Hillier established, are reserved for people who have lived in the John Witherspoon neighborhood for at least 10 years. The building was completed last November.

In recent years, Hillier has become increasingly involved in downtown revitalization projects like the former Witherspoon school. He also has converted an old auto-repair shop in downtown Princeton and an old office building in Philadelphia into condominiums. He sees a growing desire, particularly among baby boomers, to live downtown so they can walk to restaurants, libraries, and shopping. “People are tired of traffic. They are tired of mowing the lawn. They are tired of the cost of maintaining a single-family home,” says Hillier. “People want to walk.”

Although Hillier’s firm, Hillier Architecture, doesn’t have the name recognition that firms headed by high-profile architects do, Hillier has enjoyed enormous success. His firm, with five offices in the U.S. including one in Princeton, designs a wide range of projects, including corporate campuses, hospitals, and private houses, and has restored the U.S. Supreme Court building and the Virginia State Capitol. He shares his business acumen with Princeton architecture students in a graduate-level course on the business of architectural practice. He instructs them on marketing, public relations, and how to build and manage a company. “The students call the course ‘Bob’s reality check,’ because the [architecture] school, as it should be, is all about thoughtful design,” says Hillier. “But at the end of the day [architects] have to go out and make a living. I teach them how to do that.”

Hillier hadn’t always intended to pursue architecture. He entered Princeton planning to major in sociology or economics and become a labor lawyer. But his grades slipped during freshman year when he started building decorations for the prom. “My grades were getting worse and worse because I was having so much fun building dance decorations,” he says. His adviser suggested he try architecture. He did. Five years after earning a master’s degree in architecture, he started his own firm. Some 40 years later, Hillier is still going strong. “Retire,” he says, is not in his vocabulary.

By K.F.G.