The Pleasure Park vs. The University Plan

As the College of New Jersey approached its Sesquicentennial in 1896 -- when it formally adopted the name of Princeton University -- its campus consisted of an eclectic collection of buildings: everything from the Georgian Nassau Hall and the Greek Revival Whig and Clio Halls to the High Victorian Gothic Chancellor Green Library and the Richardsonian Marquand Chapel.

Equally eclectic was the placement of these structures on the campus. In the 1830s, Joseph Henry had proposed that the college be organized in two symmetrical quadrangles, with a front and back campus centered around Nassau Hall. But the building boom launched by President James McCosh during the 1870s and 1880s superseded this orderly design. By the 1890s the focal point of the campus was the group of High Victorian Gothic academic buildings along Nassau Street to the east of Nassau Hall: Chancellor Green, Dickinson Hall, and the John C. Green School of Science.
[3D View]

The choice of location for buildings erected under McCosh reflected the Victorian-era interest in parks settings. The McCosh-era buildings were scattered about the campus in irregular groupings that provided a variegated campus; mixing buildings and open space. For example, consider the string of dormitories starting with Witherspoon and descending in a zig-zag fashion that follows the natural grade to Edwards, Dod, and Brown.
[3D View]

Ralph Adams Cram, Princeton's supervising architect from 1907 to 1929, disparaged that this approach produced "the pleasure park." He advocated instead developing a "University Plan" modeled on the quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge. Cram was a driving force in Princeton's adoption of a master plan for the growth of the campus.

In 1904, Howard Crosby Butler, one of Princeton's noted art history professors, laid out the desiderata for a campus plan in a letter to Moses Taylor Pyne, a Trustee and major benefactor. Given the adoption of the Collegiate Gothic style, after the Sesquecentennial, he argued that the time was ripe for a comprehensive approach. He proposed acquiring all of the frontage on the south side of Nassau Street and removing Reunion, West College, Bonner-Marquand Gymnasium, and the University Hotel. This would provide land on which to erect symmetrical quadrangles "in line with the adoption of scholastic Gothic." He also proposed that all future classroom buildings be centrally located and that the scientific departments be unified.

At the time Cram was appointed as Princeton's first supervising architect, practical considerations prevented him from carrying out all of these ideas. (Reunion Hall, for instance, was not demolished until 1965.) But Cram was in accord with many of Butler's ideas, particularly that of symmetrical quadrangles.

In developing his plans, Cram ignored the earlier suggestions of the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who, in 1893, had drawn up a plan of the existing campus indicating areas in which the campus could expand. He suggested erecting four new dormitories in and around the central core of the campus. Instead, Cram selected Nassau Hall as the central hub for his plan, laying the main north-south axis between Whig and Clio, Dod and Brown, and Brokaw Memorial and Patton.
[3D View]

To the west of this axis, Cram envisioned locating the dormitories, dining halls, and athletic facilities; to the east, the classroom, laboratory, and religious buildings. (There were, of course, existing buildings that did not conform to this plan: for example, 1879 Hall, a dormitory at that point, lay to the east, while the Halsted Observatory lay to the west.)

The primary east-west axis, meanwhile, was set along McCosh Walk from Tiger Gateway (connecting Blair and Little) [54-78]
behind Whig and Clio, and past the entrance to Prospect House. A second main east-west path ran from Marquand Chapel, past Murray-Dodge and the Halls to the front of Witherspoon, and a third ran from the John C. Green School of Science through the arches of Pyne Library and behind Nassau Hall.
[3D View]

Over the years, Cram updated this basic plan several times. Populated by buildings that were never constructed, these plans provide fascinating insights into Cram's goal of making the Princeton campus into an entirely integrated expression of the Collegiate Gothic style. The most ambitious plan includes a new chapel located behind Whig and Clio connected by series of quadrangles to Pyne Library to the north and the proposed Graduate College to the west.

Although many of Cram's ambitions -- such as demolishing Dod Hall -- remained unrealized, the long-term significance of his master plan cannot be overstated. The overall orientation of Princeton's campus remains as he envisioned with several new east-west axes south of McCosh Walk. Finally, the construction in the 1960s of the New Quad (now Wilson College) and the New New Quad (now Butler College) testify to the enduring power of the quadrangle as uniquely suited to collegiate settings.


Go to Chapter V: The Rise of Collegiate Gothic