Academic Buildings

In 1868, the year that James McCosh arrived in Princeton, the College of New Jersey was trying to complete its first new academic facility in almost 70 years. Initiated during the administration of John Maclean, Halsted Observatory [pavilion]
was still under construction when McCosh took office and was the first of more than a dozen buildings he would dedicate as president.

Other than the new observatory, the College's academic facilities were sparse. The College library, then located in the south wing of Nassau Hall, was open only on a limited schedule and the collection itself was small and antiquated. Most classes were held in the cramped old recitation rooms of Nassau Hall, Geological Hall, and Philosophical Hall. Other classes met in professors' homes.

McCosh's first order of business was to construct a new classroom building. Dickinson Hall [34-10]
, constructed in 1869, and opened the following year, filled this pressing need. Designed by George B. Post of New York, Dickinson was notable in two respects: it foreshadowed the move toward the High Victorian Gothic style as the dominant architectural style on the campus, and it was the first major gift of John C. Green, the philanthropist who underwrote so many of McCosh's building projects.

Second on McCosh's list of academic priorities was a new library. In 1871, the College commissioned a 29-year-old architect named William A. Potter to design Chancellor Green Library . [34-2]
Donated by John C. Green and named for his brother, Henry Woodhull Green (a Princeton alumnus and Chancellor of the state of New Jersey), the library was an elegant octagonal structure featuring a striking central rotunda --then the most lavish building constructed to date on the campus. Chancellor Green Library was located to the immediate east of Nassau Hall and faced Nassau Street. Both its prominent placement and the high costs of its design and construction reflect the library's importance in McCosh's scheme for the College's institutional development.

Princeton's first purpose-built library was converted to other uses in 1946. When the High Victorian Gothic style fell out of favor, trees were planted to screen it from Nassau Street. (Later, the Joseph Henry House was moved in front of it, almost completely blocking it from public view.) Even so, it remains one of the real architectural gems on the campus. [34-4]
And perhaps most significant, the success of Chancellor Green Library marked the beginning of a three-decade partnership between Potter and Princeton that eventually produced Witherspoon Hall, Alexander Hall, and Pyne Library.

With the library underway, McCosh turned to the urgent task of upgrading the College's scientific laboratories and equipment. Since the departure of Joseph Henry in 1848, the College had not modernized its facilities or kept pace with the new advances in fields such as biology, chemistry, and physics. Students studied these areas theoretically, but there was very little space in which they could perform experiments.

As McCosh put it, "lectures without experiments performed by the students may widen the mind, but they will not make chemists or give accurate scientific knowledge."

To address this issue, McCosh and John C. Green conceived of the John C. Green School of Science. [34-34]
Completed in 1874, this building contained lecture rooms, laboratories, and a museum, and it represented a tremendous step forward in the teaching of the sciences at Princeton. Not only did this facility give the College scientific facilities (and new equipment) on par with its peers, but the donor also endowed $250,000 for science professorships.

The School of Science was designed by Potter and was executed in the High Victorian Gothic style. Distinguished by a 140-foot-tall clock tower and the large arched window of the museum, it was prominently located across from the new library. The School of Science thus formed with Dickinson and Chancellor Green a quadrangle bounded by Nassau Street to the north.
[3D View] This focal point of the campus had shifted from the front and back campus of Nassau Hall to this new grouping of High Victorian Gothic structures and the enclosed lawn.

With these three key buildings in place, McCosh turned to other priorities. More than a decade would pass before Princeton would commission another academic structure. Science again posed the most urgent need. By the late 1880s, the School of Science was bursting at the seams, and McCosh responded by encouraging the building of two more structures: the Class of 1877 Biological Laboratory , designed by A. Page Brown, [12-9]
and the Chemical Laboratory, designed by Richard Morris Hunt. [33-55]

Although both of these buildings were completed after McCosh retired, they constitute part of his educational and architectural legacy. Along with the Dynamo Building, [34-8]
built to support Professor Cyrus Fogg Brackett's pioneering experiments in electrical engineering, these structures underscored McCosh's commitment to the sciences. McCosh was an early advocate of a balanced curriculum, and no student graduated from Princeton during his tenure without a solid grounding in the classics, mathematics, and the physical sciences.

Indicative of McCosh's commitment to a well-rounded education was his enthusiastic support for one final academic building: an art museum to house the Department of Art and Archaeology. In 1882, an alumnus named William C. Prime promised to donate his famed collection of ceramics to the College -- provided that a suitable, fireproof building were built to house it. It took McCosh several years to mobilize the resources to construct such a building, but by 1887 he had commissioned a rising young architect named A. Page Brown to design the Museum of Historic Art. [artmuseum]

The Museum reflected both McCosh's interest in expanding the curriculum into new fields, including art, and also his desire to elevate the mind through the appreciation of beauty. Brown produced a solid Romanesque Revival building, scaled back from its initial plan but nonetheless appropriate for the size of the collection. The choice of the Romanesque style also cut down on costs; a polychromatic High Victorian Gothic building would have been far more expensive, as would a classically inspired structure made of marble.

Intended from the start as a teaching facility as well as a display space, the museum was located approximately on the site of the current Art Museum. With its neighbors Dod and Brown Halls, it helped form a cluster of Renaissance-influenced buildings on the east side of the campus.
[3D View]


Go to Chapter 4