by Sara Bush
In his University Chapel, Ralph Adams Cram, the supervising architect on
campus since 1907, provided the ideal philosophical architectural counterpoint
to President Hibben's arguments as to the symbolic value of a chapel on
The two worked together to develop a building that would function on many levels at once, reinforcing an awareness of the university's history, its chosen mission, and its relatively new status as a university.
After the destruction of the Marquand Chapel by the fire in 1920,
Hibben outlined the need for a new chapel and its place in a university, declaring that "A new chapel is ... an immediate necessity, not merely as a matter of comfort and convenience, but for the purpose of preserving the continuity of the religious tradition of Princeton, which had its origin in the faith and hope of the early founders of the College 175 years ago." Hibben placed himself in the line stretching back to President Dickinson by emphasizing the educational and spiritual value of religion.
In the 1920s, Princeton and other American universities could not rest on the laurels of their religious beginnings. They had to meet the special challenges of the post-war decade. Yet Hibben was interested in the extent to which the traditional qualities of beauty and holiness could work effectively, in the appropriate chapel setting, to combat what he perceived as a decline in morals and values.
Hibben had to combat the apparent position of undergraduates on this issue. According to student commentary in The Daily Princetonian, students mocked the value of attendance at compulsory morning chapel, the visiting preachers, and student activities during chapel (such as reading the newspaper). The results of a 1927 questionnaire sent more than 1,000 students and printed in The Daily Princetonian revealed that religious belief among students actually decreased in their four years on campus. At this time, the student population remained overwhelmingly Presbyterian, but perhaps in name only. The most desired reform among freshman was the abolition of compulsory chapel.
President Hibben was convinced that the way to encourage the undergraduates' religiosity was through a beautiful building whose sheer aesthetic grandeur would outweigh any criticism of its expense. To justify his actions, Hibben spoke of buildings as means to an end, rather than an end unto themselves. Hibben wrote that the chapel's beauty was a means by which to express religious adoration and present a record of Christian art and history.
Hibben's enthusiasm for beautiful, Gothic architecture was shared by Cram, whose conviction that Gothic was the most appropriate style for this structure was related to his own religious beliefs. Originally a Unitarian, he had become a High Church Episcopalian, whose thoughts and writings were included even in Roman Catholic publications. He believed that the coming religious ecumenicism would require a common foundation that art could provide. Cram believed that the collegiate chapel had an important role to play on the campus. He wrote that it should represent the college in form and spirit and "should gather up, epitomize, and in a sense glorify the whole architectural quality of the University," and be "a great and lasting example of religious art, linked with the highest standards of secular education."
The conception of the University Chapel, but not its form and dimensions, is found in the collegiate chapels of Oxford and Cambridge. The chapels of Oxbridge were sources of examples and inspiration, but they were not something that Cram intended to copy directly. Most Oxbridge chapels are very small, with their interiors closer in design and proportion to the choir section of the University Chapel. The nearest comparison within this genre is the chapel at King's College, Cambridge. King's Chapel is also divided into two main sections, the choir and the nave, and uses the former primarily for daily services. It has no tower at the crossing of the nave or transepts. The plan of the Princeton chapel is actually closer to that of the English medieval parish church or cathedral.
Several sites for the new chapel were proposed. The three top choices were at the east end of campus on Nassau Street (where Firestone Library now is), the location of West College, or the site of the burned Dickinson Hall and Marquand Chapel. Cram preferred the last, as it offered a sentimental connection to the destroyed chapel, would make the building visible from the street, and would be the new center of the campus, once expansion began beyond Washington Road.
As built, the University Chapel is considered to come largely from the hand of Alexander Hoyle, a member of Cram's firm who had been educated at Harvard and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Certainly it was Hoyle's drawings that were corrected by Cram and published. Nevertheless, the basic massing and proportions first laid out by Cram remained the same throughout the development of the design, and it is that which dominate the building's character.
On November 12, 1921, the general plan of the chapel was made public. The information included in newspaper accounts at the time was drawn from the statement released from the Boston office of Cram and Ferguson. According to this account, its dimensions made it the second largest collegiate chapel in the world at that time. Its total width was 58 feet, its interior length was 270 feet, and the height from the pavement to the crown of the vault was 76 feet. There was no single medieval prototype, and Cram discouraged those who hoped to find an original after which it was modeled. It had seating for nearly 2,000 and an organ loft in the west. The break between the choir and the nave allowed the choir to be used separately for daily services. There was no tower over the crossing, as Cram felt that Princeton had enough towers already (although Cram left open the possibility of adding one later). The foundations and footings were in concrete, but the upper structure was of solid masonry construction (of Pennsylvania sandstone and Indiana limestone). The wood in the choir was pollard oak from the Sherwood forest, and the pews in the nave were made from gun carriages originally constructed for use in the Civil War and never used. Ground was broken during the June Commencement in 1924. The cornerstone was laid by Cram and Hibben during a ceremony on June 13, 1925. The construction, done by the Matthews Construction Company, proceeded slowly and the building was finally dedicated on May 31, 1928. The total cost was $2,325,457.