THE VERY CLASSIC TOWN OF PRINCETON

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

I had been briefed. "Princeton," a friend told me before I set off for a visit there, "is absolutely the prettiest town in the world." That, of course, is a highly subjective generalization, one to which the residents of Camden, Maine, or Santa Fe, N.M. could raise a persuasive challenge. Still, anyone looking for an unspoiled town of gracious, tree-lined streets, distinctive shops, and the cultural and historic ambience of a beautiful college campus will find that my friend's statement is not far wrong.

Travelers to Princeton can easily be right in the center of it all by staying at the Nassau Inn. Located in Palmer Square, the comfortable hostelry is surrounded by charming storefronts straight out of a child's picture book. Just across from the inn's wide, welcoming door are the neo-Gothic fieldstone spires of Princeton University.

Although the inn dates back only to 1937 -- it was built shortly after the original inn was torn down to make way for the development of Palmer Square -- it is still an appropriate introduction to the cozy, nostalgic atmosphere that envelopes Princeton. Its beam-ceilinged and paneled lobby is an excellent place to relax before the enormous fireplace and listen to the friendly chimes of the grandfather clock in the corner.

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After what had been a long drive to Princeton, I was grateful for the homey lobby and for the inn's convenient location, which allowed me to do my exploring on foot rather than by car. But touring would have to wait until the next morning, I decided. The activity now was to consider which of the inn's three restaurants would be the best choice for a leisurely dinner.

A good compromise between the informal, plant-filled Greenhouse Restaurant and the very formal, white-linened main dining room proved to be the cozy Tap Room, once a strictly male preserve that is now open to women. With student initials carved in tabletops and class numerals fastened to the low ceilings salvaged from the original inn, the Tap Room is the most vivid reminder of the Nassau Inn's historic link with the town's campus life.

Just as the university was designed after those of old England, the Tap Room sports such Tudor-style appointments as a baronial fireplace, high backed settess, adn iron chandeliers. Its focal point is strictly American, however, turning out to be the huge Yankee Doodle mural painted by Norman Rockwell. The whimsical mural, painted especially for the inn, shows a Yankee Doodle who is hampered somewhat by a youngster pulling his pony's tail and a rambunctious crowd of merrymakers. Rockwell used local townspeople as his models, and even cast himself as one of the revelers, the one wearing an eye patch.

The food served in the Tap Room is the kind of tasty, fortifying fare that one would expect of its surroundings. Excellent cuts of meat and a variety of seafood are accompanied by a choice of fresh vegetables and baked potatoes stuffed with herbs and cheese. Waiters come by often with large baskets brimming with warm yeasty white rolls or pumpernickel ones studded with raisins.

After a good night's sleep in one of the inn's modern bedrooms -- most are located in a six-story addition to the 1937 building -- one can breakfast adn contemplate the day's activities in the Greenhouse Restaurant. Lined with the expanse of glass that its name suggests, breakfasters get a clear view of the tempting wares available in the attractive shops of Palmer Square.

Resisting the urge to browse among all the shelves of books, silver items, leather goods, and gift packs of English jams and soaps that caught my eye, I headed across Nassau Street to the university campus. There I found enough architectural interest, historical sights, and stunning artwork to turn my attention away from a potential shopping spree.

Visitors to Princeton should first stop by Stanhope Hall, just to the right of the university's belt-towered Nassau Hall, to either take one of the regularly scheduled guided tours or pick up a map and brochures for a self-guided one. I chose to do both, first taking the regular 45-minute tour to discover the highlights and then going back to enjoy them at more length.

A good place to begin a tour is Nassau Hall. Built in 1756 when Princeton was called the College of New Jersey, it housed the entire college under its roof for 50 years. During the Revolution it also housed at different stages of the war, both British and American troops. For six months in 1783 the Continental Congress, fleeing mutinous troops in Philadelphia, met on the ground floor in what is now the Faculty Room.

Impressive history aside, the Georgian-style hall can be appreciated for its beauty as well. According to my guide, the vines climbing up its mellowed stone walls inspired the term "Ivy League." (She allowed that Yale might contest this.) Princeton's mascot flanks the entrance to Nassau Hall in the presence of two massive bronze tigers, a gift from Woodrow Wilson's class of 1879.

Well worth a visit is the richly paneled Faculty Room, designed after the British House of Commons. Most striking here are Charles Wilson Peale's portrait of George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, one of the few he ever posed for, and the portraits of George II and William III, the Prince of Nassau for whom the building is named.

More Princeton memorabilia is displayed to good advantage in Firestone Library, the university's outstanding library of 3.5 million books and innumerable collections of rare manuscripts. On the main floor there is nearly always a special exhibit open to the general public.

On permanent exhibit on the main floor, behind a glass enclosure, is an 18 th-century library room that contains books from the university's earliest days. On the writing desk in the foreground is a manuscript believed to be the earliest work of American fiction. The novel, which recounts the fictional adventures of a character called Father Babo on his way to Mecca, was written in 1770 by two undergraduates. It is believed to have been prompted by a literary contest between two campus organizations, the Whig and Cliosophic Societies.

Two other 18th-century undergraduates who honed their writing and debating skills in the societies were James Madison and Aaron Burr. To the west of the library are Whig and Clio Halls, twin Greek temples that stand side by side as splendid reminders of the societies' lively past. The two groups merged in 1929 , and today most undergraduates are members of what is called Whig-Clio, an organization which sponsors lectures, films, and other activities.

Just south of the library is University Chapel, one of the most magnificent on any college campus. Built between 1925 and 1928 the chapel was inspired by that of Kings College, Cambridge, and can seat more than 2,000 people within its turreted neo-Gothic walls. Its polished pews were made from Army surplus wood originally designated for Civil War gun carriages, and the choir and clergy stalls, made of wood from Sherwood Forest in England, were carved during the period of a year by over 100 men. The magnificent stained-glass windows portray scenes from literary works such as "Paradise Lost" and "Pilgrim's Progress" as well as from the Bible.

If you want to see the university's considerable art collection, a stroll through campus takes you past many pieces of outdoor sculpture. The stunning shapes include works by Louise Nevelson, Sir Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, and Jacques Lipschitz.

At the entrance to the University Art Museum stands a beguiling piece of sculpture by Pablo Picasso, his abstract "Head of a Woman," a fitting introduction to the varied and imaginatively displayed collection inside. Upstairs the spacious white galleries show to good advantage paintings and sculpture that run the gamut from Italian Renaissance, French impressionism, American portraiture, to contemporary.

Downstairs is one of the nation's finest collections of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman antiquities. Among the ancient vases and glass objects are colorful Roman mosaic pavements excavated by Princeton archaeology teams. A fountain spanning the legnth of one wall has a floor of five mosaic sections that depict Eros riding on a dolphin. The tranquil sound of water dripping onto the tiles adds to the gallery's timeless atmosphere.

So varied is the museum's colletion, I discovered, that it cannot be properly appreciated in one visit. In fact, that is also true of the rest of the university and the town. Heading back across campus to Palmer Square, I figured that was just the excuse I needed to return.

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