Yankee Doodle Tap Room Reimagined Around Painting by Norman Rockwell

By Anne Levin, Town Topics

When architects from the Princeton design firm JZA+D took on the job of refreshing the Yankee Doodle Tap Room at the Nassau Inn, they knew there was an important piece of art behind the bar that had to be protected. The plan was to safely remove and store “Yankee Doodle,” the painting by artist Norman Rockwell and the namesake of the tavern, when renovations got underway.

But the famous work of art was not cooperating. Commissioned by Edgar Palmer when Palmer Square was built back in the 1930s, it was painted on a canvas that was attached to plaster covering the masonry. Removing it would have entailed taking down an entire masonry wall — not an option.

“The University owns the painting, so Palmer Square reached out to them about removing and storing it,” said Mark Sullivan, a partner with JZA+D who worked on the project. “They said, ‘It’s not a painting’ [that can be removed]. We all kind of said ‘What is this, the Sistine Chapel or something?’ I didn’t even know Norman Rockwell painted on plaster. I thought it was a big canvas screwed to the wall, but it’s a canvas embedded in plaster on masonry.”

The goal of the project was to restore the bar element to its original linear profile, replacing the U-shaped bar that was installed some years ago. “The gesture returns the room to its original layout, and allows patrons to see the painting up close, while introducing more room for tables and better access for all to the fireplace,” reads a release from JZA+D. “The new bar was designed and milled off-site, to be assembled in the Tap Room.”

New glass was put in to protect the artwork during and after the renovation. The millworker who fabricated the new bar also replicated the painting’s original frame. “Luckily, this was a millwork project, so the millworker built everything off-site,” said Sullivan. “So it wasn’t like we were doing dirty millwork on the site.”

The project required replacing the tap lines, new paneling for the walls, and wood-look plank vinyl flooring specified to improve the acoustics. The existing U-shaped bar was in serious need of refurbishment. “It was pretty worn out,” said Sullivan. “Heavily lacquered varnish only lasts so long. So they wanted to replace it for aesthetics, but also to make it more functional. I don’t think they were enamored with the way it protruded into the space. They showed me a black-and-white photo of the Tap Room from the ’30s or ’40s that showed the bar straight across that opening. I thought, that makes sense. The flow is back to where it originally was, and it works better for servers.”

The Tap Room is known for its walls lined with photos of famous Princeton University graduates, and the carvings of past guests in the solid oak tabletops. But the Rockwell painting, the largest mural by the artist, is perhaps its most notable feature.

In a 2012 description by Christie’s auction house, the “Yankee Doodle” song is said to have been “written by English soldiers to mock the new Yankees for a lack of sophistication.”

It continues, “Rockwell’s gift was in the expressions of his subjects and in this work — the finished version of which included 19 people, two dogs, one pony, and one goose — no two expressions are the same. Rockwell did a number of preliminary works, some of which were individual portraits, in advance of the final mural and he made several slight compositional changes between this oil study and the final work. The charcoal drawing, the largest and most complete of the preliminary works, is in the collection of the Norman Rockwell Museum.’

Those sitting at the Tap Room’s bar now have a direct view of the painting. “We’re pleased with the way it turned out,” said Sullivan. “It was demanding but not complicated, and worth the considerable effort of paying close attention to countless details to preserve this local treasure.”

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