CHAPTER III: PRINCETON AT MID-CENTURY, 1846-1868

The Old Chapel, 1846


[3D View] The College had long desired to construct a new chapel to relieve the crowding in the old Prayer Hall in Nassau Hall and to create a setting a more conducive to religious expression. Finally, in 1846, the Trustees decided to go ahead with the project.

They did not choose the site that Joseph Henry had suggested in his plan of 1836. [29-29]
Instead, the new chapel was situated on the east side of the rear campus, between Philosophical Hall and East College. They chose an architect who added a distinctive new flavor to the back campus.
[3D View]

John Notman , of Philadelphia, was America's leading practitioner of the Italianate Revival style, which became increasingly popular in the mid-19th century. His first building in Princeton was a small structure on Mercer Street that Richard Stockton Field built in 1846, at his own expense, to serve as the College's short-lived law school. [ivyhall]

Known as Ivy Hall, this building hints at the distinctively massive style that Notman employed in numerous buildings in Princeton. Ivy Hall later became the first clubhouse of Ivy Club and is now owned by Trinity Episcopal Church. The following year, Notman was commissioned to design the new chapel.

Notman's plans for the chapel called for a simple cruciform structure built of sandstone with arched windows. [29-54]
The pulpit and entrance were both located in the west end of the building, an unusual position for a Christian church. [29-58]
In practice, this meant that as students entered the Chapel, as they did early every morning, they had to pass near the pulpit on their way to find seats. For laggards, this orientation meant no slinking in late. Every President of the College before Woodrow Wilson was an ordained minister, and during the antebellum era the President would have been in pulpit as often as not.

The chapel seated 325 -- more than the student population of the day. Simply carved wooden arches supported the vaulted roof and simple wooden pews filled the nave and both transepts. A large and handsome organ occupied the east end of the structure. [29-76]

For a traditional Presbyterian institution such as Princeton, the inclusion of transepts was highly controversial. Indeed, in the minds of some conservative Trustees, the cruciform shape resulted in a suspiciously "papist" look, and opponents of Notman's design lodged heated protests. [text_oldchapel.html]

In fact, the transepts on the chapel were quite shallow and it seems implausible that Notman was trying to challenge the College's religious sensibilities in his design. More likely, Notman adopted the cruciform shape as a part of the Italianate Revival style's interest in masses and voids, and in response to the chapel's physical context, next to East College, Philosophical Hall, and Nassau Hall. The cruciform shape and exterior materials of the chapel harmonized well with its neighbors. The other main campus buildings were also rectangular structures, three of them with projecting pavilions that suggested a cruciform shape.

The use of the Chapel for secular activities (such as debating contests) undermined its intended religious orientation. President James Carnahan had hoped that a new and beautiful Chapel would encourage piety and religious devotion among the students, but the wear and tear of daily use diminished its impressiveness.

In 1870, Notman's original three-bay nave was extended [29-56]
by another bay to accommodate the influx of students during the McCosh era. The chapel became the "Old Chapel" after Marquand Chapel, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, was completed in 1882. It continued to serve as a lecture hall and meeting room until 1897, when it was demolished in the 1890s (along with East College) to make way for the new Pyne Library.

Prospect

Notman also executed a number of private commissions in the town of Princeton, in particular for members of the Stockton family. [text_notpton.html] In 1848-9, for example, he built his first Italianate Revival villa in Princeton at 83 Stockton Street, for John P. Stockton, Class of 1843. Currently called Lowrie House, [41749]
it now is the official residence of the President of the University.

In 1853-5, Notman designed the handsome "Fieldwood" [41748]
(later called Guernsey Hall) for Richard Stockton Field. Especially notable about Fieldwood were its carefully landscaped grounds, [41757]
which a decade before, had been designed by Notman. Later, when it was home to art history professor Allan Marquand , Class of 1874, it was one of the great estates of New Jersey.

But Notman's greatest building at Princeton was unquestionably the house known as "Prospect," [12-19]
erected in 1850 for Thomas A. Potter.
[3D View]

Carefully sited at the crest of a ridge and commanding tremendous views to the south, Notman's Prospect stood at the center of the old 30-acre estate, also called "Prospect", that lay to the southeast of the College's campus. The original house [33-87]
on this farm, built by Colonel George Morgan before the Revolution, had been torn down to make way for Notman's impressive new edifice.

Prospect shows off Notman's mastery of the Italianate Revival style [text_tuscan.html] and his special aptitude for designing suburban and rural residences for the mid-Atlantic gentry. (An earlier and influential similar Notman villa was the Bishop Doane residence in Burlington, New Jersey.) The floor plans and elevations for Prospect [30-93]
offered a sharp contrast to the rigidly symmetrical, Greek Revival style dominant in the domestic architecture of the time. The rooms in Prospect were not marshalled into rows of neat rectangles; rather, many of them were offset and irregularly shaped. The interior of Prospect was both open and light, with the many connecting doors offering excellent circulation and flow. Notman also gave Prospect a deliberately asymmetrical front elevation, [11-82]
with a prominent, off-center tower.

Life in Prospect during its heyday must have been pleasant indeed. Befitting the period and status of the owner, the house was luxuriously appointed. Contemporary photographs of the library and dining room show typically ornate Victorian trappings. The dining room, verandas, and conservatory all overlooked what would become Prospect Garden [29-76]
-- even then quite spectacular -- and then out across the rolling countryside. [12-27]
Not quite Tuscany in New Jersey, but close.

The Potter family sold the estate in 1878 to the brothers Alexander and Robert L. Stuart, who in turn presented the property to the College as a residence for the President. The building, already surrounded by College property, at last became an official part of the Princeton campus. Beginning with James McCosh , every Princeton President lived there until 1968.

The Fire of 1855

On 10 March 1855, around eight at night, a second calamitous fire struck the College. Despite the attempts by Latrobe to fireproof the building a half-century earlier, Nassau Hall was again gutted.

John Maclean Jr. , Class of 1816, now President, gave a full report to the Trustees at an emergency meeting a fortnight after the blaze. It was an accident, he told the Trustees; a piece of burning coal had landed on a carpet in a second-floor dormitory room. The occupant of the room was at Maclean's house when his room went up in flames.

Maclean noted that although the portraits in the southern pavilion had been saved, many students had lost all their possessions. He described a variety of actions taken to clear the rubble, collect the College's insurance, and shut down the refectory, now that students were boarding off campus. He also mentioned discussions with John Notman of Philadelphia, who had been brought to Princeton to "examine the walls and furnish some estimates."

With numerous examples of Notman's work already in Princeton, the Trustees must have known what they were getting into when they hired him to remodel Nassau Hall. Under Notman, the austere Georgian building later formalized by Latrobe received several transforming elements drawn from the vocabulary of the Italianate Revival style. [33-85]

Notman, like Latrobe, was constrained by having to use the original walls. This, in the words of historian Thomas J. Wertenbaker, dampened Notman's ability "to convert Old North into an Italian villa." Even so, Notman's alternations -- many of which remain today -- gave Nassau Hall a markedly different appearance.
[3D View]

It was Notman who gave Nassau Hall its distinctive double-arched entrance, [pavilion]
the upper arch aggressively breaking through the Georgian pediment. To focus attention on this new entrance, Notman eliminated the two other front doors and their pediments. The function of these entrances was now served by circular stone staircases [stairway]
inside towers attached to both ends of the structure.

Topped with bold Florentine turrets [29-63]
similar to the one on Prospect, these new stairways served at least two practical purposes. First, they cut down on the chances of a fire spreading. Second, according to Wertenbaker, they helped to "discourage the practice of `barring out' professors by piling furniture or firewood at the top of the steps."

Latrobe's restrained, dignified cupola [33-36]
was replaced by the much larger and more ornate one that tops Nassau Hall today. As a separate work of architecture, Notman's cupola [12-23]
has much to recommend it. It has undeniable power and clean lines. But mounted atop the Georgian-Colonial Nassau Hall, this cupola diminishes the structure rather than enhances it. It's simply too big -- a belfry suitable for a far grander building than Nassau Hall.

More successful was Notman's last major structural change, the extension of the former Prayer Hall [29-69]
to the south by about 40 feet. This allowed the installation of two large rounded windows on either side. The southern wall of this new space -- soon to be the new College library -- boasted a single large Palladian window. (For an architectural precedent, note the window at Andrea Palladio's famed Villa Poiana.) This southerly exposure gave the library [29-68]
[29-66]
excellent natural light, and the space was a great improvement over the library's cramped quarters in Geological Hall.
[3D View]

Subsequent critics have heaped much opprobrium on Notman for the liberties he took with Nassau Hall, particularly the towers. But at the time, the Trustees were well satisfied with the transformation of Old North. As the Building Committee reported on 27 June 1860:

With unfeigned pleasure the Committee report to the Board of Trustees that the work committed to their care is finished. Nassau Hall, burnt in 1854 [sic], has not only been rebuilt, but has been enlarged and greatly improved. It is in every respect a better building than it ever was before: and it is the belief of the Committee that a more substantial and commodious college building is no where to be seen in our country. Its walls are stone and brick, its roof iron and slate; its timbers iron with arches of brick between them all. It contains fifty-four lodging rooms for the accommodation of the students, with ample provision for heating, ventilation,&c. The Library Room is large, beautifully proportioned, and chastely furnished."

In the years immediately following the second great fire, President Maclean was forced to operate the College on a tight belt. Donations to rebuild Nassau Hall were not as forthcoming as they had been in 1802, and for five years Maclean struggled to pay off the College's debt.

This was just a taste of greater struggles to come, however. Matriculating freshmen moving into the newly renovated Nassau Hall in the fall of 1856 could scarcely have imagined that by the time they graduated, the country would be on the brink of the most violent and bloody upheaval in its history.

Doubtless the election of Lincoln and threats of secession weighed heavily on the minds of the Trustees when they met in December 1860, scarcely six months before the Battle of First Manassas. [text_civilwar.html] On their agenda were proposals to raise two new structures. The first, the new Cloaca Maxima, would resolve once and for all the nettlesome "backbuilding" issue.

Cloaca Maxima


[3D View] Ever since its earliest days, the College of New Jersey emphasized a rigorous classical education as preparation for entering the ministry. The entrance examinations -- routinely conducted by the President -- tested a student's knowledge of Latin and Greek above all else. The Latin requirement survived well into the 20th century.

Little wonder, then, that the students of the 1860s dubbed the new excavation on the campus the "Cloaca Maxima." [29-52]

Named for Rome's famous sewer system, the Cloaca Maxima was, of course, the College privy. An underground structure of brick, granite, and wood, it was tucked between Whig and Clio at the rear of the back campus. Unlike its famed antecedent, the Princeton version had private stalls [29-47]
-- 24 of them, in fact, 12 along the back wall, opening to the south, and six on each side.

For the mid-19th century, this elaborate privy was most unusual, but the College faced an unusual set of problems when it came to sanitation. To start, central New Jersey does not drain well and reliable sources of clean drinking water were scarce. These arrangements were therefore necessary to drain the College's waste safely. Then there was a second major problem: student vandalism. Ever since the early days of the College, students had regularly burned down the predecessors to the Cloaca Maxima, sometimes in protest, sometimes as a prank, and sometimes out of boredom.

As President Carnahan told the Trustees in December 1860, "I am sorry that I find it necessary to report to the Board, that the Back-building of the College was set on fire during this session and entirely consumed."

Although December 1861 found the country as a whole embroiled in Civil War, the Trustees addressed the weighty matter of backbuildings. As John Maclean Jr., Class of 1816, reported on behalf of the building committee for the Cloaca Maxima:

"After considering the subject with no little care, [we] concluded to erect a building upon the site of the one which had been burned down and to build in such a manner that it could not be burnt again; and also so that it should not be a prominent object on the college grounds. It is believed that the building is the best one of its kind ever erected on the College grounds, and there is good reason to hope that no attempt will be made to destroy it."

Maclean's hopes about the durability of the Cloaca Maxima were well-founded. Burning down an essentially underground structure made of granite and brick, with the only wood being the doors, proved too great a challenge even for Princeton students. It remained in active use for at least a decade.
[3D View]

But if the new Cloaca Maxima met the test of permanence, it did not materially improve the College's squalid sanitary conditions. Consider this contemporary account of student life in 1870s.

"There were no sanitary facilities in any of [the dormitories]. The bedroom slops were taken out by hand and emptied into small cesspools near by; while water had to be carried up in the same toilsome and primitive way. Outdoor privies were used and misused, and everything about these sanitary arrangements was decidedly offensive and unsatisfactory."

No record exists of the decision to dismantle the Cloaca Maxima. Perhaps it came down during the general movement to improve the sanitary facilities of the College in the early 1880s. After cholera swept the College, killing several students and hospitalizing 40 others, water closets soon began to appear in most of the College's buildings.

Halsted Observatory

Also under consideration before the Civil War was a proposal to build an observatory. Having secured the students' most basic need-- lodging -- the College could once more explore the possibility of constructing a specialized building for academic purposes.

Long championed by the astronomer Stephen Alexander , one of the College's most distinguished professors, a new observatory (with a superior telescope) would establish the College as a leader in the field. So thought Alexander, and he proved a resourceful fundraiser in this cause. One patron in particular -- Colonel Nathaniel Halsted, of Harrison, New Jersey -- had as much as promised to underwrite the observatory shortly before the war.

When a colleague of Alexander's died late in 1860 and left the College a $2,500 legacy for an observatory, Alexander must have felt on the verge of triumph. But suddenly Alexander's other sources of funding evaporated.

As the minutes delicately noted, "For some weeks the state of things in the country has been such as to render it inexpedient to make the proposed [fund-raising] application to the friends of the College, and of science, for funds." The observatory was shelved for the duration of the Civil War.

Thanks to the unflagging energy of President Maclean, the College managed to stay open throughout the war. But certainly nothing as extravagant as a new building could even have been contemplated under the circumstances. Thus it was not until December 1865 that the College looked to build again.

At the top of its list stood the observatory put on hold in 1860. Fulfilling his commitment, Halsted, now a general, presented the College with $10,000 in United States bonds for this new structure.

Professor Alexander quickly took charge of the building committee, and one of his first acts was to add Halsted to the committee. By June 1866 he was able to show plans [29-71]
to the Trustees. Again, no architect was formally commissioned to design the observatory, but a well-respected and "competent" German architect from Newark had been consulted. The builder from Newark estimated the cost of the building at $18,000, which Halsted agreed to provide. [text_halsted.html]

Perhaps the builder's influence explains the three distinctive domes, the largest of which covered the telescope. Built of metal and stone from the Prallsville quarry, the Halsted Observatory stands at something of an architectural turning point on the campus: It was the first structure to show signs of the Victorian Gothic style that would dominate the Princeton campus for the next three decades, but its roots were still firmly grounded in the context of the other College buildings.

At this same June meeting, the Trustees approved the purchase of two lots on the extreme western end of the campus as a site for the observatory. The cornerstone was laid two days later.

The project was plagued by delays. The foundations for the central pier (which would support the telescope) had to be sunk 18 feet below the surface before finding bedrock; this pier eventually measured more than 40 feet long and contained some 23,000 cubic feet of stone. A year after construction commenced, the building was nowhere near complete, and its most important accoutrement -- a 30-foot-long telescope with a 23-inch aperture -- had not yet been manufactured.

When Maclean resigned as President of the College in December 1867, the observatory was still under construction. But the promise inherent in this unfinished structure would help entice Maclean's successor as President from his native Scotland to Princeton. Halsted Observatory was the first building completed in the long and immensely productive administration of James McCosh.

Halsted Observatory [29-71]
marked another watershed in the evolution of the campus. Reflecting a change in social mores, it was the first building at the College explicitly named for the donor. In the past, such vanity would not have been countenanced. After the war, however, a new class of philanthropists emerged who were very interested in having structures -- even entire institutions -- named for them.

McCosh was a savvy administrator and leader, and he knew a potential source of funds when he saw it. Halsted Observatory might have been the first building on the campus named for the donor, but it would not be the last. Fueled by private donations, McCosh ushered in a construction boom unprecedented in the College's history.