In his inaugural address, President McCosh endeared himself to his new students by strongly endorsing collegiate athletics. It was a shrewd move. Inadequate athletic facilities and lack of support from the administration had long frustrated the student body. Making matters worse, the College's makeshift gymnasium -- little more than a barn -- had been intentionally burned down in 1865 after a tramp with smallpox reportedly slept there one night; it had never been replaced.
McCosh's attentiveness to athletics illustrated his deep concern for the quality of life of the students in his charge. When McCosh arrived at Princeton, living conditions at the College of New Jersey were spartan. Students living in East and West College relied on fireplaces for heat and kerosene lamps for light. Neither of these dormitories nor Nassau Hall had water-closets. Even with the reduced enrollment, many of the students, even freshmen, had to live and dine in town.
McCosh found this situation unacceptable. He envisaged Princeton as becoming
a residential university along the lines of what he had known in Scotland and
Ireland. To achieve that vision -- and to attract more students -- the College
needed larger and better facilities. Consequently, the first two structures he
built in Princeton were the Bonner-Marquand Gymnasium
, which opened in 1869, and a new dormitory, Reunion Hall , which opened in 1870.
Although these two new buildings certainly improved the quality of life for the average undergraduate, neither of them were significant architectural achievements. Rather, Bonner-Marquand and Reunion were symbolic of McCosh's commitment to action. Both were built quickly, at relatively low cost, and were designed by Post.
McCosh spent the next several years focusing on academic buildings. It was not until 1875 that he again turned to the issue of residential life on campus. He was facing a new problem of his own devising. His remarkable success in improving the College's reputation had attracted more -- and more affluent -- students to Princeton. The enrollment swelled, pressuring the already crowded dorms.
To provide sufficient and appropriate housing for these students, McCosh built
what was then the world's most luxurious college dormitory -- Witherspoon Hall.
Designed by Potter, Witherspoon offered students magnificent accommodations according to the standards of the time, with waterclosets on every floor and other modern conveniences.
Located on a commanding site overlooking the railroad station, Witherspoon guarded the western approach to the campus like a High Victorian Gothic castle. It was a far cry from the austere lodgings endured by previous generations of Princetonians.
So expensive was the cost of rooming in the new dormitory (as rates varied
from room to room) that within a few years McCosh felt compelled to build a
dormitory intended explicitly for the poorer students. The result was Edwards Hall
, completed in 1880.
A modest and functional building, Edwards was on the other extreme from Witherspoon: no fancy suites, no waterclosets or other amenities, and lower room rental fees. Its out-of-the-way location, below and behind Witherspoon and not far from the old Cloaca Maxima, also spoke to the low status of this dormitory.
Before he retired, McCosh initiated the construction of two more dormitories,
Albert B. Dod Hall
and David Brown Hall.
Both designed by John Lyman Faxon, the former was modeled after a dormitory at Harvard built by Henry Hobson Richardson, and the latter modeled after the New York townhouses pioneered by the firm of McKim, Mead, and White. Both were gifts to Princeton from Mrs. Susan Brown and were named after her brother and husband, respectively.
The placement of these four McCosh-era dormitories forms a diagonal line
heading from northwest to southeast along what was the western boundary of the
The first and last in line, Witherspoon and Brown, are essentially square; the two middle buildings, Edwards and Dod, are both rectangular and oriented north-south. The contrasting orientations of these four buildings represents in miniature the stylistic evolution of the McCosh campus, away from quadrangles to a more park-like setting.
One other structure built during the McCosh era merits inclusion in this
discussion of student life. Although not commissioned by the College, the University Hotel
was built in 1875, and was an important addition to both the town and the campus. A group of alumni, noting the lack of convenient and suitable accommodations in Princeton, secured the backing of the College to build and operate a hotel at the corner of University Place and Nassau Street.
The University Hotel was designed by Potter and his partner, R.H. Robertson, in the High Victorian Gothic style. It remained solvent for only eight years, at which point it was taken over by the College. McCosh promptly converted it into dormitory rooms and student dining facilities. Eventually it became the first underclass Commons.