Nassau Hall

Nassau Hall was, at the time of its completion in 1756, the largest stone building in the colonies. It was much admired and provided the inspiration for other college buildings, notably Hollis Hall at Harvard, University Hall at Brown, Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth, and Queens Hall at Rutgers.

``We do everything in the plainest and cheapest manner, as far as is consistent with Decency and Convenience, having no superfluous Ornaments,'' President Aaron Burr, Sr., wrote a benefactor in Scotland, and this was the guiding principle in the design of Nassau Hall. The trustee minutes mention a plan by William Worth, a local stonemason, and another plan by Dr. William Shippen of Philadelphia and Robert Smith, a carpenter-architect who later designed Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia. No doubt Dr. Shippen contributed to the design of the building, as William Worth may have done in addition to the considerable contribution he made to its execution, but the major responsibility must have been Smith's, since an account of the College published by the trustees in 1765 declared that Nassau Hall was ``designed and executed by that approved architect, Mr. Robert Smith, of Philadelphia.''

The trustees originally voted that ``the College be built of Brick if good Brick can be made at Princeton and if sand can be got reasonably cheap,'' but they later changed their plans and ``the College'' was built of a light brown sandstone from a nearby quarry. That it was good stone and that it was well and truly laid by William Worth, the mason, is substantiated by the fact that the exterior walls, which were twenty-six inches thick, withstood the extraordinary shocks and strains the building had to endure: the depredations it suffered during two years of military occupation in the Revolution, devastating fires in 1802 and 1855, and disturbances of rebellious students, who on one occasion exploded a hollow log charged with two pounds of gunpowder inside the main entrance, cracking the adjacent interior walls from top to bottom.

It took two years to erect this building and even before it was completed the trustees voted to name it for the governor of the Province, Jonathan Belcher, who staunchly befriended the College in many ways. ``Let BELCHER HALL proclaim your beneficent acts . . . to the latest ages,'' they wrote the governor, but, ``with a rare modesty,'' as President Maclean later noted, the governor declined the honor, and at his suggestion the building was named Nassau Hall in memory of ``the Glorious King William the Third who was a Branch of the Illustrious House of Nassau.''


Smith's Nassau Hall had three stories and a basement. It was about 176 feet long and 54 feet wide at the ends, with a central element projecting about four feet in front and about twelve feet in back. Over the center of the hip roof was a modest cupola. There were three entrances at the front of the building and two at the back.

On each of the three floors, a central corridor ran the whole length of the building east to west and all the rooms opened on these corridors. There was a two-story prayer hall, 32 by 40 feet, at the rear of the central projection, and a library on the second floor above the main entrance hall. On the three main floors were 42 chambers, some used for classes and for tutors, most of them for student lodging. In the basement were the kitchen, dining room, steward's quarters, and, after 1762, additional rooms for students.

Nassau Hall suffered severely in the Revolution. British and American troops quartered there at different times plundered the library, ruined the organ in the prayer hall, and used furniture and woodwork for fuel. In the Battle of Princeton, Nassau Hall changed hands three times and once when the British were in possession, felt the effects of Washington's artillery. One American cannonball came through a window of the prayer hall, destroying a portrait of George II, and another hit the south wall of the west wing and left a scar that is visible today.

Funds being in short supply, recovery was slow; yet by 1783 Nassau Hall was ready to serve as the national capital. For four months that year, July through October, the Continental Congress met in the library on the second floor, using the prayer hall for state occasions. Here Congress congratulated George Washington on his successful termination of the war, received the news of the signing of the definitive treaty of peace with Great Britain, and welcomed the first foreign minister -- from the Netherlands -- accredited to the United States.

At this time, Washington complied with a request of the trustees to sit for a portrait by Charles Wilson Peale, which, at their direction, was placed in the prayer hall in the frame that had been occupied by the portrait of King George II.


The fire of 1802 left only the outside walls of Nassau Hall standing. To restore the building the trustees called on Joseph Henry Latrobe, the first professional architect in America, who later worked on the restoration of the national capital after it was burned in 1814.

The changes Latrobe made in Smith's original design were chiefly practical ones to lessen the hazards of fire. Instead of wood, the floors were laid with brick and the stairs rebuilt of stone with iron railings. The building was given a sheet-iron roof -- a new idea in this country and an experiment on the part of Latrobe.

The roof was raised about two feet from its former position to allow space for transom lights over the doors; this improved the whole exterior appearance of the building. The horizontal lintels over the three entrances at the front of the building were replaced by triangular pediments, and the circular window in the central pediment rising from the eaves line was replaced by a fan-light. The belfry was raised on a large square base to accommodate a clock and to give the cupola added height. Latrobe's changes gave Nassau Hall a Federal rather than a Colonial style, adding grace without marring the original simplicity.


The fire of 1855 was just as disastrous as the fire of 1802, and once more only the walls of Nassau Hall were left standing. Again the trustees called on a Philadelphia architect, this time John Notman, who had designed three residences in the village (``Prospect'' and those later named Lowrie House and Guernsey Hall). Notman's modifications were far more extensive than Latrobe's and reflected his predeliction for the Italian Renaissance style, then much in vogue.

Interior changes again were chiefly concerned with fireproofing. Iron beams and brick arches were used to support the floors. The roof was made of slate, laid upon and fastened to ironlaths. Most important of all, since the 1855 fire was believed to have been caused by a spark from a stove in a student's room, nine furnaces were installed to provide central heating. The old prayer hall, no longer needed for that purpose since the erection of a separate chapel, was extended further southward to more than twice its previous size for use as the College library.

Notman made even greater changes in the exterior appearance. Two of the three entrances at the front of the building were removed and towers built on either end to house the stairways that were removed from interior halls. The doorway at the center of the building was replaced by a larger, arched doorway of Florentine style with more massive steps below and a similarly arched window, with a balcony, above. The vertical emphasis thus achieved culminated in a cupola even loftier than Latrobe's.

The tops of the Italianate towers housing the staircases on either end of the building, which rose high above the roof line, were removed in 1905.


The use of Nassau Hall as a dormitory declined steadily toward the end of the nineteenth century with the erection of new dormitories, and as students moved out, museums, laboratories, and classrooms moved in. In the east wing, part of the third floor was removed to create a two-story well for a natural history museum and a skylight cut in the roof to provide light. With construction of Palmer Laboratory and Guyot Hall these facilities were no longer needed, and in 1911, Nassau Hall began to be used for administrative offices; President Hibben (1912-1932) was the first president to have his office there. By 1924, when Eno Hall was completed and the Department of Psychology had departed, Nassau Hall was devoted entirely to offices of the central administration.

In 1967 additional space was obtained by flooring over the two-story well in the east wing, and the exterior appearance improved by the removal of the skylight above it.


A bell rang from the cupola of Nassau Hall soon after its completion. Made in England, it had to be recast after the fire of 1802 and was completely melted in the fire of 1855. A second bell cast in West Troy, New York, was hung in the cupola in 1858.It struck the hour and called students to classes and chapel for ninety-seven years. In time it developed a slight crack and by 11:30 a.m. on February 18, 1955, its peal was reduced to what the Alumni Weekly called ``a plaintive croak.'' Thanks to the generosity and foresight of Charles D. Hart 1892, a new bell, which had been cast in France under the direction of the University Bellmaster, Arthur Bigelow, was waiting in the wings. It was hoisted into place on February 22 and the following day at 9:00 p.m. rang out the hour in a D tone, a half note lower than that sounded by the earlier bell.

For many years, the Nassau Hall bell was rung with a rope pulled by a campus policeman or, in the hour-long ringing after a football victory in New Haven or Cambridge, by freshmen and, at least on one occasion, by a dean, whose signature, Christian Gauss, appeared on the wall among the other bell ringers'. With the electrification of bell ringing in 1962 visits to the third floor bell rope by policemen, freshmen~~, and deans came to an end.

Another custom, which persisted for almost a century, began in the 1860s when an undergraduate disrupted the College's schedule by removing the clapper from the bell one dark winter's night. In later years the stealing of the clapper lost some of its excitement as the College authorities became resigned to the custom, and the Grounds and Buildings Department kept a barrel of clappers on hand to assure rapid replacement. Clinton Meneely '30, president of the family company that made the 1857 bell, said his firm received more orders for clappers for the Princeton bell than for any other bell in the firm's history.


A tower clock was first installed sometime after Latrobe's restoration of 1802 when the cupola was raised; it was probably destroyed in the fire of 1855. The clock with the four faces one sees today was donated by the Class of 1866 at the tenth anniversary of their graduation. The works of this clock were modernized in 1919 and again in 1955; its faces are periodically regilded to offset weathering.


In Notman's rebuilding after the fire of 1855, the former prayer hall was more than doubled in size for use as the College library and portrait gallery. After the completion of Chancellor Green Library in 1873, this room was used for the College museum until 1906 when it was remodeled by Messrs. Day and Klauder as the present Faculty Room. The cost was defrayed by a bequest from Augustus S. Van Wickle, a descendant of Nathaniel FitzRandolph, who gave the land on which Nassau Hall was built; Van Wickle's bequest also provided the FitzRandolph Gateway. When the Faculty Room was formally opened on November 2, 1906, President Wilson, in accepting the bequest on behalf of the trustees, said ``there could be no more appropriate gift from a descendant of Nathaniel FitzRandolph than one which touched with added beauty his original gift.''

Peale's portrait of Washington still hangs in the place of honor in this room along with replacements of the portrait of King George II, damaged in the Battle of Princeton, and of Governor Belcher, lost probably in one of the fires. Now they are accompanied by a portrait of William III, Prince of Nassau, as well as portraits of all of Princeton's presidents and some of its illustrious early graduates.


The bronze tigers on either side of the front steps were presented in 1911 by Woodrow Wilson's classmates to replace the lions that they had given on their graduation in 1879. The lions were beginning to show the effects of weather and the tiger had become established as the symbol of Princeton. The tigers were modeled by A. P. Proctor, noted for his animal sculptures. Recumbent, with a ``placidity suiting their decorative purpose'' (as one critic put it), they have invited generations of small boys and girls to climb up on their backs.


The entrance hall, remodeled in 1919 by Day and Klauder as a war memorial, bears on its marble walls the names of Princetonians who have died in this country's wars: ten in the American Revolution, one in the War of 1812, seventy in the Civil War, five in the Spanish-American War, 152 in World War I, 353 in World War II, twenty-nine in Korea, and twenty-four in Southeast Asia.

From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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