The Origins of the Collegiate Gothic Style

Scholars still scrutinize the titanic struggle between Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Fleming West over the location of Princeton's Graduate College for clues to the future American President's behavior and psyche. Lost in this exhaustively documented battle, however, is the one area in which Wilson and West were of one accord: the architectural style for the new Graduate School.

Wherever the Graduate College was located, the new buildings would unquestionably be designed in the Collegiate Gothic style, harkening back to Princeton's academic roots in the quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge.

In December 1902, for example, six months after being elected as President of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson commented in the Princeton Alumni Weekly that "Gothic architecture has added a thousand years to the history of the university, and has pointed every man's imagination to the earliest traditions of learning in the English-speaking race." Wilson also once said that in constructing Collegiate Gothic buildings, Princeton had "declared and acknowledged [its] derivation and lineage."

Ralph Adams Cram, the Yale-trained architect who would become the "high priest" of Collegiate Gothic as Princeton's supervising architect in the 1910s and 1920s, was even more explicit. "By building [in the Collegiate Gothic style]," he wrote, "Princeton was committed to the retention for all time of that collegiate style of architecture which alone is absolutely expressive of the civilization we hold in common with England and the ideals of liberal education now firmly fixed at Princeton."

By so consciously copying Oxbridge models in stone and mortar, Princeton, as an educational institution, was asserting its academic legitimacy and status. Princeton's quadrangles were powerful visual statements that the University considered itself on a par with the oldest centers of learning in England.

Strengthening these transatlantic associations was the composition of the student body. Beginning during the McCosh presidency, the student body had grown increasingly affluent and fewer were Presbyterian. Indeed, by the early 1900s, Episcopalians formed a plurality of the students. The Anglican influence on the campus must have made the choice of English models all the more appropriate.


Go to Chapter V: The Rise of Collegiate Gothic