Alexander Hall holds an undeserved place of scorn in the mythology of Princeton undergraduates. Legend has it that Alexander Hall was designed by a student as his architectural thesis -- and that he received a failing grade for his effort.
Later, the story goes, this same alumnus got his revenge by agreeing to donate a large sum to the University, but only if the gift were used to construct his failed senior thesis project. A great story, but completely apocryphal.
The only grades associated with Alexander Hall were those of the thousands of students whose marks were posted in Alexander at the end of each term -- perhaps the root of undergraduate enmity for the building. Far from being designed by an undergraduate, Alexander Hall represents the culmination of architect William A. Potter's work at Princeton.
Almost the house architect for Princeton during the McCosh years, Potter designed such Princeton landmarks as Chancellor Green Library, the John C. Green School of Science, and, with his partner, Robert H. Robertson, Witherspoon Hall, and the University Hotel. When the Trustees determined, in 1890, that Princeton needed a "convocation" hall that could seat the entire student body, Potter was the logical choice to design it.
A donor was found in Harriet Crocker Alexander, the wife of Charles B. Alexander, class of 1870. The Alexanders and Princeton had deep ties: Archibald Alexander was the first professor of theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary; James Alexander taught at both the College and the Seminary; and Henry Alexander, class of 1840, was a Trustee of the College.
Potter's design for Alexander Hall drew on several sources. The
horseshoe-shaped floorplan, with its arcaded ambulatory,
was modeled after the Palais de Trocadero, designed for the Paris Exhibition of 1878. The style of the building, however, was quite plainly Richardsonian Romanesque, especially in the contrasting rough-faced red granite walls and brown sandstone trim. Other classical Richardsonian features in Alexander include its steep gabled roof, with tall dormers and the zig-zag detail under the eaves.
Alexander was well-conceived to serve its purpose as a large meeting hall. The two towers on the north side of the structure served as stairway towers to the balcony seats. (These towers, as well as the taller southern towers, echoed the towers in the nearby Bonner-Marquand Gymnasium and Witherspoon Hall.) The ambulatory, which, in 1928, was glassed in, featured seven entrances into the hall itself and ensured good circulation.
was dominated by rostrum measuring 53 feet by 35 feet, with a large throne-like marble chair -- "the President's seat" -- placed in the exact center. Seats for the faculty rose in a semi-circle behind this chair, while panels painted with scenes from Homer rose two stories behind these seats.
A large rose window, by Tiffany, completed the design.
Alexander Hall's most striking exterior facade, however, is its ornately
carved southern side, facing Witherspoon Hall.
Centered underneath the rose window is a bas-relief sculpture of 36 figures. Designed by J.A. Bolger and executed by J. Massey Rhind, these figures revolve around the seated figure that represents Learning. The figures to his left represent the fields of Oratory, Theology, Law, History, Philosophy, and Ethics; to his right, Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Poetry, Music, and Belles-Lettres. The figure in the large panel to the left, above Learning, represents Law, that to the upper right, Religion.
The carving of these sculptures continued long after the building was dedicated on June 9, 1894.
In the context of the modern Princeton campus, the location of Alexander Hall -- to the west of Nassau Hall and behind the Presbyterian Church -- seems a bit odd. But at the time, Potter urged the Trustees to demolish the old Greek Revival church, which would have created a large open area running along the entire northern side of the campus.
In that event, Nassau Hall would have been framed by two Potter buildings:
Chancellor Green to the east, and Alexander Hall to the west - featuring tall
dormers and strong geometric patterns.
This plan would have fulfilled McCosh's vision for a Princeton campus set in a park-like environment and separated from Nassau Street by a long, wide green.