Dorothea's House was established on February 6, 1913, as a memorial to Dorothea van Dyke McLane, a volunteer social worker who ministered to the needs of Princeton's newly arrived Italian immigrants in the early 1900s.

After Dorothea's untimely death at the age of 23 during childbirth, on February 24, 1912, her father, Dr. Henry van Dyke, a Princeton University professor, poet, and diplomat, and her husband Guy Richard McLane, a New York City stockbroker, formed and incorporated the Dorothea van Dyke McLane Association to serve Princeton's growing Italian community.

The Association's charter cites its purpose:"...to originate, foster, develop, promote, carry on, and engage in charitable and benevolent work for the welfare of the inhabitants of Princeton, NJ, primarily those of the Italian race..." The original trustees of the Association were Guy Richard McLane, Dr. Henry van Dyke, Henry I. Parsons, Bayard Stockton, and Tertius van Dyke, Dorothea's brother. Shortly after its incorporation, Guy Richard McLane contracted for an attractive, two-story Italianate building to contructed on land donated by Dr. Henry van Dyke, located to the rear of his Bayard Lane home, "Avalon." This became "Dorothea's House," the home of the Association which was officially opened on October 7, 1914. An endowment was also established at that time to finance the programs and maintenance of Dorothea's House.

The House provided a base for Princeton's early Italian immigrants, offering not only social and educational opportunities, but help with housing and employment. Beginning in the '30s and to this day, Dorothea's House extended its services to the community by providing space to local non-profit organizations. In October 1963, the Board of Trustees of the Association formally established an annual scholarship program which has awarded more than 400 scholarships to local high school graduates. In addition, in 1969, the Board established an annual Dorothea van Dyke McLane award to be presented to a Princeton High School student for proficiency in the study of the Italian language. This award has recently been expanded to a student for each year of high school. A similar award is now given to a Princeton University freshman each year.

Since 1986, monthly programs that provide the community with opportunities to experience many aspects of Italian culture have been offered free of charge to the public at Dorothea's House. They onclude music performances, art exhibitions, author talks, slide presentations featuring art, architecture, and landscape of Italy, gastronomy talks, and wine tastings, all followed by a reception where people of diverse backgrounds meet and share their common interest in Italian culture.

In the early years of Dorothea's House, English classes were offered to the newly arrived Italians. In 1991, that tradition came full circle when an Italian language class for children was initiated. Since then, interest has grown to include several weekly classes at different levels for adults and children during the academic year.

Similar Italian culture centers exist in metropolitan areas across the United States, but Dorothea's House is a rare example of an ethnic settlement house established in the last century that still thrives and serves the public today. Although originally built as a community center for Princeton's Italian immigrants, Dorothea's House has flourished since then in its expanded role of providing valuable programs to countless members of the community, regardless of their background.