Pyne Library and the "Crime of '97"

Given Princeton's institutional aversion to radical change, it seems somehow surprising that the choice of the Collegiate Gothic style that would revolutionize the Princeton campus was forced upon the architect by the Trustees.

Not that meddling in the design of campus buildings was new territory for the Trustees; they had influenced the architecture of the campus as far back as the construction of the Old Chapel in 1846. Rarely have the Trustees intervened so directly in an architectural matter as they did in the design of the Pyne Library (now East Pyne). [53-15]

The year was 1896, and with Princeton getting ready to celebrate its Sesquecentennial, the Trustees knew exactly what they wanted -- and it wasn't a structure similar to Potter's most recent building at Princeton, the Romanesque Revival Alexander Hall. The Trustees summarily rejected the first five designs for the new library that Potter submitted for their consideration.

As Potter's biographer writes, "The Committee advised him that if he could not produce a quadrangular extension plan [to the existing Chancellor Green Library], they would look elsewhere. No doubt Mr. [Moses Taylor Pyne] suggested Oxford." Pyne, in turn, doubtless had been influenced by Andrew Fleming West, who had toured Oxford and Cambridge and been captivated by the new Collegiate Gothic buildings at Bryn Mawr College.

If style were open to debate, the need for a new library was not. Chancellor Green Library had been built only 20 years earlier, but had soon outstripped its capacity of 100,000 volumes. For Princeton to meet its ambitions of being a first-rate academic institution, it was evident that its library building and holdings would need to be expanded dramatically.

Much of the push came from the energetic university librarian, Dr. Ernest C. Richardson, who served in this role from 1890 to 1920. (Among other innovations, he created the Richardson classification system still used to catalog some books in Princeton's library) Reportedly, Richardson was the first to submit a plan for a quadrangular library, including the option of adding other quadrangles when the collection grew too large.

For the Princeton students and alumni of the period, the greatest controversy surrounding the new library concerned its placement. For many reasons, it made sense to connect the new structure with Chancellor Green Library, but this meant that two of Princeton's most venerable buildings -- the Old Chapel and East College -- would have to go. This brought howls of protest from the alumni.

Woodrow Wilson, then a professor, summed up the general sentiment in a August 1896 letter to his wife: "It is said on all sides that East College as well as the Old Chapel is to be pulled down. But I won't believe it until I see it. It would be such a shame to break the old quadrangle. Such a break with the past -- with all the old College life and traditions."

Others, less charitable, called it the "Crime of '97."

Despite the objections of the alumni, who expressed their views in bitter letters to the new Alumni Princetonian, East College and the Old Chapel came down in the fall of 1897. To preserve some of the symmetry of the rear campus, Potter aligned the walls of the new Pyne Library along the foundation of East College; to harmonize with Chancellor Green Library, he chose a dark brownstone.
[3D View]

Considering the heavy-handed direction provided by the Trustees, Potter responded well to the challenge of uniting a Collegiate Gothic structure to his earlier High Victorian Gothic work. The two buildings were attached by a passageway -- known as the hyphen -- with Chancellor Green serving as the reading room and Pyne Library containing seminar rooms, library offices, and the stacks. [53-19]
[53-13]

Pyne Library was built as a quadrangle, measuring 216 feet by 155 feet; the interior quad was 74 feet square and was reached through a pair of arches aligned with the main pathway running behind Nassau Hall. Seminar rooms, paneled in wood, were located in the corners on each of the four floors, while book stacks occupied the hallways. To reduce costs and provide natural light, the stacks had glass floors.

Over the western arch rose a large tower, the building's most distinctive feature. [53-12]
A shorter tower, with heavy crenellations, marked the eastern arch. [53-14]
Writing about the new library in Harper's, Professor West rhapsodized that one "cannot help but think of Magdalen College in Oxford and the battlemented walls overlooking the gardens of St. John's in Cambridge."

Flanking the western arch were four sculptures by J. Massey Rhind, the sculptor who had carved the figures on the southern facade of Alexander Hall. Presidents Witherspoon and McCosh occupied the lower pair of niches, with James Madison, class of 1771, and Oliver Ellsworth, class of 1766 above. A sundial, with the inscription "Pereunt et Imputantur" [They pass away and are charged to our account], graced the south side of this tower. [53-17]

From an academic perspective, Pyne Library contained a number of innovations that were the result of the intimate involvement of Ernest Richardson in the building's design. Richardson pioneered the use of a standard size stack --seven and a half feet tall -- and developed a cataloging system that allowed for the collection to expand without having to reclassify large numbers of books.

Pyne Library opened in 1897 and remained in service until the construction of Firestone Library in 1947, when the structure was converted into administrative offices. In 1965, the administrative offices moved to New South and Chancellor Green was adapted for use as a student center. Pyne Library, renamed East Pyne was modified to house faculty offices and classrooms.


Go to Chapter V: The Rise of Collegiate Gothic