In his later years, after he retired as president of the College of New Jersey, James McCosh would boast to visitors, "It's me college. I made it."
He was not far off the mark. Although the College of New Jersey had been in existence for more than century when McCosh took office in 1868, it was then an institution adrift, still struggling to overcome the trauma of the Civil War. Enrollment remained low, the physical infrastructure was dated, and money was scarce.
By the time McCosh stepped down two decades later, the college had emerged as one of the elite institutions in American higher education. During his eventful tenure, the enrollment tripled to more than 600; the size of the faculty rose from 16 to 40; and the curriculum had been dramatically expanded and improved. McCosh stabilized the college's financial affairs by finding wealthy patrons to support his ambitious plans. And he inspired a generation of students, some of whom would emerge as key figures in Princeton's history --Moses Taylor Pyne, Class of 1877, Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, and Andrew Fleming West, Class of 1874, among them.
But perhaps McCosh left his most lasting mark on the campus itself. With McCosh as Princeton's first true bricks-and-mortar president, the college grew by 14 buildings during his 20-year tenure.
By the time McCosh retired, the campus had been utterly transformed.
The Colonial, Federal, and Greek Revival core of the campus, grouped around Nassau Hall, no longer commanded center stage. The new visual focal point of the College was the set of new buildings to the east of Nassau Hall, all designed in the popular High Victorian Gothic style. To the south and southwest of Cannon Green, meanwhile, stretched an irregular series of new dormitories and other facilities. Both the individual buildings and the campus as a while were characterized by an asymmetrical appearance that was sharply at odds the classical, symmetrical plan for the campus that had been sketched by Joseph Henry a half-century before.
But McCosh did not believe in building simply for the sake of building. "Some critics found fault with me for laying out too much money on stone and lime; but I proceeded on system, and knew what I was doing," he wrote in his farewell address. "I viewed edifices as a means to an end."
Foremost among the ends that McCosh had in mind was to elevate the College of New Jersey to national prominence. When he assumed his new post, he identified three broad areas in which the College had to improve. First, Princeton needed modern academic facilities, particularly for the sciences. Second, something had to be done to help the student body, whose living conditions bordered on the primitive. Third, the College's religious and spiritual roots required tending.
McCosh's building program addressed each of these areas. For the students, he built a magnificent new gym and new dormitories for students, both rich and poor. On the academic front, he erected an elegant new library, a building dedicated to the teaching of the physical sciences, and other classroom and laboratory buildings. And as a staunch Presbyterian, he built an impressive new chapel and supported an evangelical resurgence on the campus.
Today, however, McCosh's architectural legacy is not immediately apparent. Many of the McCosh-era structures burned down or have been destroyed, and the surviving buildings appear somewhat out of place on the now predominantly Collegiate Gothic Princeton campus. Consequently, buildings such as Witherspoon Hall are often unfairly maligned as "Victorian monstrosities."
When we look back on the campus of the 19th century, however, we realize that McCosh oversaw a particularly vibrant period in the College's architectural history. At least two of the buildings he commissioned -- Chancellor Green Library and Marquand Chapel --are exquisite works and among the finest ever built at Princeton. McCosh also enlisted several talented architects of the period to help him realize his dreams, including A. Page Brown, William Appleton Potter, and Richard Morris Hunt.
The High Victorian Gothic and Romanesque Revival styles employed by these architects may not please modern tastes, but that does not diminish the quality of those buildings. Instead, the McCosh-era buildings must be viewed as expressions of contemporary fashion and of the College's increasingly self-confident view of itself.
In this regard, McCosh's most significant contribution to Princeton's architectural evolution was the example he set. He demonstrated that the College could mobilize resources to expand its facilities and thus improve its scholarship and prestige. McCosh had discovered a fundraising principle that still holds true today: donors like investing in bricks and mortar. McCosh's ability to cultivate a new group of affluent donors assured Princeton's financial future and laid the groundwork for later growth.
On arriving in Princeton in 1868, McCosh had told the assembled crowd that the purpose of a college education was to "elevate and refine the mind." The College he inherited had precious few facilities to achieve this noble purpose. But by inspiring others (notably John C. Green) to adopt his vision of Princeton as a great national university, McCosh was able to change all that. The academic facilities he built served the College with distinction for a half-century or longer. Ultimately, this contribution matters far more than their relative architectural merits.
For more on the three trends of McCosh buildings, follow the links to:
Residential and Athletic Buildings
For information on a specific building, click on the list below. Note that some of these buildings were completed after McCosh retired in 1868, but they were either conceived or begun during his presidency.
Bonner-Marquand Gymnasium, 1868-70
Reunion Hall, 1869-71
Dickinson Hall, 1869-70
Chancellor Green Library, 1871-3
John C. Green School of Science, 1872-74
University Hotel, 1875
Witherspoon Hall, 1875-77
Murray Hall, 1878-9
Edwards Hall, 1879-80
Marquand Chapel, 1881-82
Chemical Laboratory, 1885-91
Class of 1877 Biological Laboratory, 1887-8
Museum of Historic Art, 1887-89
Albert B. Dod Hall, 1888-90
David Brown Hall, 1880-92