Firestone and the Post-War Building Boomlet

With building activity at a standstill throughout the Depression and World War II, it was axiomatic that at the war's end Princeton would need to address some immediate needs in its physical plant. Since the mid-1930s, President Dodds and others in his administration, notably librarian Julian Boyd, had been dreaming about constructing a new library to replace the overcrowded facilities in Pyne Library. But a lack of funds, and then the war, frustrated these plans. The priorities for the University's post-war construction program were radically altered by a disastrous fire on May 13, 1944 which destroyed the Gymnasium built by Cope and Stewardson in 1903 adjacent to Little Hall.

After the 1944 fire, the new library had to take a back seat to replacing the gym. Armed with a $1.1 million gift from Herbert Dillon, Class of 1907, the University hired architect Aymar Embury Jr., Class of 1900, to build a new gymnasium on the site of the old one, and in the same style.

Embury's Dillon Gymnasium [54-88]
differed in several respects from its predecessor. He moved the main tower to the east side of the building, from the center over the northern entrance. Embury also included a swimming pool complex [54-90]
to the south, tearing down Brokaw Memorial in the process. Dillon Gymnasium was also considerably bigger than its predecessor, with the main floor measuring 210' by 100' and holding seats for 1,400 spectators.
[3D View]

Princeton's enormously successful Bicentennial celebration in 1946 enabled Dodds to focus finally on his primary interest, a new library. To help underwrite this expensive endeavor, as well as build a new facility for the Woodrow Wilson School, he launched a $20 million capital campaign called the "Third Century Fund".

The plans for the new library came out of a report published in 1944 titled "A Laboratory-Workshop Library for Princeton". The very idea of a "laboratory-workshop library" drew directly on Princeton's focus on independent work in the undergraduate course of study. The new library was intended to be the laboratory for students in the humanities and social sciences, and the design of Firestone Library reflected this intent. Only at Princeton, for example, did undergraduates have priority over graduate students in assignments for study carrels.

The committee planning the library presented the architects, the firm of O'Connor and Kilham, with six design conditions. It was to be a working, "open stack" library, not a storehouse, and the stacks were to be located underground to prevent ultraviolet light from prematurely aging books. The committee wanted a flexible and utilitarian design that was also inexpensive -- "though designed in the Gothic spirit of the rest of the campus, it [should] avoid costly ornamentation and wasted space." There had to be carrels for underclassmen and the whole structure had to have central heating and cooling.

Unusual for such a major structure, there were no objections to the proposed site: between Nassau Street and the chapel, a large area with much room for future expansion. Nonetheless, this site did create a number of stylistic challenges for the architects. Because the adjacent buildings were all of different kinds of stone (limestone in the Chapel, brownstone in Pyne Library and Chancellor Green, fieldstone in Nassau Hall, and local stone in Green and Frick across Washington Road), the choice of materials posed a problem. Furthermore, any structure on this site had to compete with Ralph Adams Cram's imposing chapel across the courtyard. The University's religious roots were still strong enough that the architects had clear, if unstated instructions not to overshadow the chapel.

The architects followed their orders to the letter. In keeping with theme of library-as-laboratory, all of the interior spaces were laid out before the exterior design was considered. Boyd was intimately involved in these designs, and later said that his intent was "not to produce an architectural monument but a humanistic laboratory." The final plans called for a building built on six levels, three of them underground, totaling 300,000 square feet and containing room for 1.8 million volumes. The Collegiate Gothic detailing was restricted primarily to the southern facade, which featured a modest entrance tower.

Writing about the new library in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Dean Mathey, Class of 1912, the moving force on the Trustees' grounds and buildings committee, said, "The site of course called for a Gothic architectural treatment to harmonize with the Chapel and balance McCosh Hall to the south. The treatment is simple excepting the entrance and tower, which tie into the design of the Chapel." Similarly, the texture of the stone was intended to blend with Nassau Hall and the chapel.

Although undergraduates at the time excoriated Firestone as a boring "Gothic cloak" superimposed on a concrete skeleton, it succeeded admirably in the crucial consideration of scale. From the front, Firestone [54-91]
seemed far too small to be a world-famous research library. Only from the air, in fact, can one appreciate how immense this structure really is, especially following major expansions in 1962, 1970, and 1989.

Unlike previous building campaigns, the "Third Century Fund" did not emphasize dormitories. Indeed, the only dormitory erected during the Dodds era -- 1915 -- was more the product of the labor of the donor class than of the university administration. Anticipating a surge in enrollment following the war, the Class of 1915 began soliciting contributions during the war for a new dormitory.

Shortages of materials and manpower pushed back construction until October 1948. Even then, the approved design was a far cry from the lavish dormitories of the 1920s: brick instead of stone, largely unornamented, towerless, and regular in its dimensions. As architect Aymar Embury wrote, "Because of high prices [of labor] and widespread demand for building materials," money cannot be spent on purely decorative features."

Given these constraints, Embury selected brick and limestone as his materials and a stripped-down treatment of Collegiate Gothic as the style. [54-96]
Located south of Patton Hall, parallel to Elm Drive, the new building was 186 feet long and cost $315,000. It was dedicated in June 1950 and for more than a decade represented the southernmost outpost of the main campus.
[3D View]

The final structure of the post-war construction boomlet was a building for the Woodrow Wilson School. Expanding the program of the Wilson School was a major goal of Dodds' "Third Century Fund" -- Dodds, after all, was a former director of the Wilson School -- and the enhanced program in international affairs needed a new building.

On March 31, 1950, Dodds announced plans to erect a new $500,000 home for the Wilson School on Washington Road, just across the street from the eastern terminus of McCosh Walk. To make way for the planned 22,800-square-foot building, the university purchased (and demolished) the last of the private houses remaining on Washington Road.

Now called Corwin Hall, [54-98]
this L-shaped building stands today at the rear of the large plaza and fountain in front of Robertson Hall, 100 yards east of its original location.
[3D View] Its most notable feature was (and remains) a windowless western facade, [54-101]
a long expanse of brick broken only by the two-story limestone-accented doorway at the northern end. The shorter leg of the "L", [54-99]
perpendicular to Washington Road, stretched back 75 feet; both this leg and the eastern facade were amply provided with windows.

The blank brick wall, intended to reduce noise from nearby Washington Road, immediately elicited complaints from the undergraduates. "Dull and unimaginative," one wrote; a student graffittist inspired by Shelley painted "look on my work, ye mighty, and despair" on the hated wall.

In fairness to architect Stephen Voorhees, Class of 1900, the location selected for the new Wilson School building was problematic. This relatively small site was bounded by the Frick to the north, 1879 to the east, and the Observatory of Instruction to the south: three entirely contrasting structures. Moreover, Washington Road was a major truck thoroughfare carrying an increasing load of traffic. And near the corner of Washington Road and Prospect Avenue stood a large and beautiful copper beech tree that Voorhees was careful to leave standing.

Given these constraints, the overall scheme and choice of materials for Corwin made sense. The use of brick and limestone bridged the gap between 1879 and Frick, while the long brick facade significantly reduced traffic noise. Although the final cost exceeded $650,000, well over budget, the building was still relatively inexpensive.

With the completion of Corwin in 1952, building activity on the campus tailed off dramatically. In the five years since 1947, the University had swiftly addressed its most pressing needs on the main campus, and for the remainder of the 1950s, the University grew in other ways. Indeed, Corwin proved to be the last building dedicated by Harold Dodds during his twenty four years as president.


Go to Chapter VIII: Princeton and Mid-Century