In 1882, William Cowper Prime, Class of 1843, promised to donate his renown collection of pottery and porcelain to Princeton if a suitable, fireproof building were erected. That was a glorious challenge to President McCosh, who approved of expanding the curriculum into the areas of art history and draftsmanship -- and of catching up with Harvard's Charles Eliot Norton. McCosh issued his own fundraising pamphlet in 1884 and gathered a Board of Directors for what was then called the Princeton College School of Art.
The architect selected for the project was a rising star, A. Page Brown, formerly with the office of McKim, Mead and White. Brown signed the contract with the Trustees of the College of New Jersey on 15 October 1887. Only the central portion of his submitted design was executed at this time -- the wings would have to wait until more additional funds had been raised. The cost of the structure, erected by the Trenton builders Cubberly & Kafer, was $50,000.
Although Brown was the architect of record, the Museum of Historic Art (as it came to be called) was largely the work of his chief draftsman, Albert Cicero Schweinfurth, who had been trained in the office Robert Peabody and John Stearns. Two of the projects from this office with which Schweinfurth would have been familiar, made a reappearance in the Museum. The first was the Memorial Hall at the Lawrenceville School (1884-5), whose impressive elevated entrance gave both a focus to the main facade and provided an important transitional zone for visitors, given New Jersey's variegated climate. The second was the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Louis (1879-1881), whose floor plan and shape Schweinfurth borrowed. The exterior of the Museum of Historic Art was less elaborate than that of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Louis, and the solidly Romanesque design, perfectly in step with the 1880s appreciation of architect H. H. Richardson's own adaptation of the Romanesque, spared the College of New Jersey the expense that would have accompanied either a Neo-Classical design involving marble or a Gothic Revival design involving extensive polychromy and carving.
Yet the museum was prevented from being excessively chunky by the delicacy of the details around the windows and entrance. The quality of this design was indebted to the influence of Stanford White (of McKim, Mead & White) over both Brown and Schweinfurth. As Brown's office was in the same building as the firm for which he had first worked, the exchange of ideas was easily maintained. In fact, the Museum bears a striking resemblance to White's design for the Ramona Industrial School for Indian Girls, drawn by White not long after an 1882 tour of New Mexico, but never built.
The Museum, even in its unfulfilled form, was a suitably contained and urbane structure for the new Department and for the collections it possessed. It was appropriately restrained in its design, with potential for expansion. Neither the size of the collection in the late 1880s nor the budget of the College dictated anything grander.
The groundbreaking ceremony for the Museum of Historic Art was held on June 21, 1887, and the building was ready for occupation by June 1889. It stood until February 1964 when it was demolished in order to clear the ground for the present art museum.