The Western Wall: Blair, Little, and the University Gymnasium

Ask a Princeton alumnus to conjure up the most representative visual image of the campus and the chances are that the answer will be "Blair Hall." [53-29]
This quintessentially collegiate building -- with its imposing tower, impressive arch, and magnificent flight of steps -- captures the full spirit of the Collegiate Gothic style that flourished on American campuses at the turn of the century.

Although the Pyne Library was the progenitor of this style on the university campus, its place at Princeton was forever secured by the success of a series of three buildings designed by the eminent Philadelphia firm of Cope and Stewardson. With the construction of Blair in 1897, followed shortly by another dormitory, Stafford Little Hall, [53-34]
and then by the University Gymnasium [53-43]
in 1903, Princeton entered a period of stylistic conformity that would last nearly five decades.

Blair was the first and most emblematic of these structures. Soaring high above the Pennsylvania railroad station, which then ran to the bottom of the stairs of Blair Tower, this building was both an entrance and a barrier to the campus. [53-27]
As the first structure seen by anyone arriving in Princeton by train , Blair immediately set the tone of the university -- aloof, academic, cloistered; blatant in its assertion of its English roots.

This was entirely appropriate for a rural university. Harper's magazine noted that the Collegiate Gothic style at Princeton "lends itself picturesquely to the requirements of a rural university, where ancient elms, level stretches of greensward, and masses of clinging creeper add a charm of natural grace unattainable in a city or town."

Indeed, one of the chief purposes of Blair was to wall off the campus from any urban influences that might spoil its contemplative atmosphere. All the entryways into Blair opened onto the east courtyard, away from the train station. [53-24]
From the grounds of the station, Blair looked like a great battlement guarding the western approach to the university. [53-26]

For all of Blair's architectural significance as Princeton's archetypal Collegiate Gothic building, it is actually modeled after an earlier Cope and Stewardson design, Rockefeller Hall at Bryn Mawr. Built in 1896, Rockefeller Hall was not as large as Blair, but the details of the towers were almost identical. Blair's commanding site, however, made it more dramatic than its predecessor.

A year after Blair was completed, the University began construction on the second part of this western wall: what Fitzgerald called the "black Gothic snake of Little." Little Hall, named after the donor, a member of the class of 1844, continued the line of Blair to the south, paralleling the railroad tracks. [53-33]

Little did indeed resemble a snake: stretching 196 feet along University Place before taking a right-angle turn to the east for another 154 feet. At first, the building continued on for only 40 feet to the south; additional entries were later built to connect Little to the University Gymnasium. [53-35]
The early iteration contained 32 suites and a number of single rooms grouped into 8 entries.

Little's most notable feature was its northern tower. [53-34]
Four stories tall, Little Tower included a large corbelled oriel window in its east facade; immediately above this window was the university coat of arms (adopted at the Sesquecentennial), held up by a pair of rampant tigers.

Recently embraced as Princeton's mascot, tigers were also displayed prominently in the new gateway between the southern end of Blair and the northern end of Little. This gate, marking the far western end of McCosh Walk, was never intended as a grand entrance to the campus, like the steps of Blair Tower, [53-31]
but nonetheless clearly defined the formal separation of campus and town.

Finishing this suite of Cope and Stewardson buildings was the new University Gymnasium, commissioned in November 1900 and completed in November 1903. [53-43]
With funds raised through alumni subscriptions, it stood as a testament to the tremendous increase in the popularity of collegiate athletics in the late 19th century.

As recently as 1875, Princeton had boasted the nation's most sophisticated student athletic facility, the Bonner-Marquand Gymnasium. Yet this structure had become hopelessly outdated by 1900, and other facilities had been built to supplement it. For example, in 1891 the graduate committee on athletics erected the Osborne Club-house, adjacent to the baseball field on the far eastern side of campus. [53-1]
[33-71]
The acquisition of the land that became Springdale Golf Club and the erection of the Class of 1886 Club-house, were further additions to the university's sports facilities. [53-28]
[53-39]

Brokaw Memorial, a Colonial-Revival style club-house incorporating a swimming pool, was built at the southern end of the campus from 1892-96. [33-62]
Named for Frederick Brokaw, Class of 1892, who drowned the summer after his junior year, this structure also appears to be the root of the modern undergraduate myth concerning the university's mandatory swimming requirement. The story goes that Frederick Brokaw's parents gave the University a large gift on the condition that Princeton institute a swimming requirement. As with the ficticious story that Alexander Hall was a failed thesis project, it is a story not founded in fact.

But none of these buildings met the demand for a modern athletic facility, and thus the University Gym was conceived. Dominated by a large, square entrance tower on its northern facade, the Gym stood to the south of Little and continued the walled effect of Little and Blair. [53-46]
Brokaw Memorial stood to its southeast. [53-42]

Due to its function, the Gym's appearance bore subtle but substantial differences from the dormitories of Little and Blair. In particular, it had a symmetrical floorplan and less ornamentation than either of the dormitories. [53-43]
Indeed, it strongly resembled some of buildings designed for West Point by Ralph Adams Cram in 1900.

The three-story tower at the entrance held a trophy room [53-47]
and administrative offices. The main interior section of the building measured 100 feet by 106 feet. Mock flying buttresses on the east and west exterior walls framed the tall windows that supplied natural light for the interior. The Gym marked the first use of this buttress/window system at Princeton, although many of the Collegiate Gothic buildings such as McCosh Hall and Madison Hall replicated this feature.

Thirteen squash courts were added to the Gym in 1926. On May 24, 1944, the old Gym caught fire and burned to the ground. [53-49]
[53-48]
Dillon Gymnasium was erected on the same location and was built in a similar style.


Go to Chapter V: The Rise of Collegiate Gothic