Residential, dining, and social facilities

Residential, dining, and social facilities for undergraduates, which now occupy some fifty University buildings, were once concentrated in Nassau Hall, after the College of New Jersey moved to Princeton from Newark in 1756.

All undergraduates lived in Nassau Hall (or had lodgings in town) until 1833, when the first dormitory, East College, was built. As other dormitories were erected, Nassau Hall in time was taken over exclusively for administrative and faculty use, but one or two students continued to live there as late as 1903.

By 1973, when Spelman Halls, the first to offer apartment living, were completed, Princeton had built forty dormitories, all but six of which were still being used for their original purpose. Three had been razed: East College in 1896, Upper Pyne in 1963, and Reunion Hall in 1965. Three had been converted to other uses: Lower Pyne in 1950 for business offices, Seventy-Nine Hall and West College in the early 1960s for departments of instruction, and administrative offices, respectively.

Nassau Hall also contained the College's dining room and kitchen (originally in the basement, later in a connecting wing) until 1804, when they were moved to the first floor of Philosophical Hall, built that year where Chancellor Green now stands. For a dozen years, starting in 1834, a second refectory, situated on William Street, supplied board at a cheaper rate for those desiring it (one dollar and fifty cents a week rather than the regular two dollars). Students called it the ``poor house.''

Meals in those early days were Spartan. Breakfast often consisted of bread and butter with coffee, supper of bread and butter with milk and occasionally chocolate. Students sometimes filled out their meagre evening fare by stealing chickens or turkeys in town and roasting them over their chamber fires -- a common college custom at that time. Midday dinner was more adequate, usually offering meat, fish, or poultry, potatoes, fresh vegetables in season, ``small beer and cyder,'' and sometimes for dessert ``pye'' or cake. Not surprisingly, one of the rules for refectory conduct issued in 1759 directed that ``none shall eagerly catch at a share, but wait till he is served in turn.''

In diaries and in letters home, students complained about the poor quality and sameness of their meals. In the 1840s their protest began taking a forceful turn: at a given signal, up would go the windows and out would fly the tablecloths and all that was on them.

Beginning in 1843 students were permitted to take their meals with families in town, where the cost was somewhat higher than in the college refectory, although in some cases, the college catalog announced, ``select associations of students have been formed, whose expenses do not exceed $1.25 a week.''

The college refectory gradually lost out in competition with the local boardinghouses and was finally closed in 1856 (as Harvard's had been, for similar reasons, seven years earlier). The ``select associations of students'' in boardinghouses grew in number and gradually evolved into a system of eating clubs. Attempts to revive the college commons in 1877 and 1891 failed, and it was not until 1906 and 1908 that first freshman, and then sophomore, commons were instituted in the old University Hall. Their place in campus life was made more secure in 1916 by the erection of Madison Hall.


Two years after introducing the preceptorial system, President Wilson tried to translate its principles into a plan for the social reorganization of the University, which he also hoped would check the domination of the eating clubs and thus rectify what he feared was ``the almost imperceptible and yet increasingly certain decline of the old democratic spirit of the place.'' The Quad Plan called for the establishment of residential quadrangles or colleges, each with its own dining hall, common room, resident master, and resident preceptors. Every undergraduate would be required to live in a college, the particular one to be determined by lot or assignment. Although the trustees approved the Quad Plan in principle, they later withdrew their support in response to the opposition of club alumni and undergraduates, and their own concern about the cost.

After the defeat of Wilson's Quad Plan, a campus center, strongly favored by President Hibben, was frequently urged as a means of improving the fabric of student life. Plans for a million dollar complex containing a University club, theater, and quarters for undergraduate activities were announced in the mid-twenties, but suspended during the Depression. A campus center for servicemen established in Murray-Dodge during World War II continued in use for undergraduates until 1954 when the University created Chancellor Green Student Center, renovating the north wing of Pyne Library for the cafeteria, and the large reading room in Chancellor Green Library for the main lounge. The Center's accessibility made it an instant success. To meet the heavy patronage of students, faculty, and staff, a second cafeteria was set up in the main lounge. When the legal age for drinking was lowered to eighteen in 1973, a pub was installed there also, and student bartenders began serving draught beer, wine, and soft drinks, and student cooks started to bake ``the best pizza in town.''

In the late 1960s a special committee of the trustees working with the faculty committee on undergraduate life concluded that more diverse social opportunities were needed -- not only to reduce the disproportionate emphasis on membership in the upperclass eating clubs but also to create an improved social environment for all undergraduates. These objectives soon began to take shape, and by the time the University entered the seventies, it could offer students a variety of alternatives ranging from a modified version of the club life of earlier years to an approach to Wilson's ideal of residential colleges. Though some eating clubs became nonselective and two were converted in 1969 to a University-operated social facility, named Stevenson Hall, others continued to maintain their former autonomy.

Modern Princeton's first approach to the Quad Plan had come in 1968 with the creation of Wilson College. Two years later when additional space was needed following the advent of coeducation, the Princeton Inn College was founded. Another option first offered in this period was the student-organized Madison Society, a low-cost alternative to the eating clubs that provided up to two hundred members varied dining opportunities -- breakfast at Wilcox Hall, lunch at Commons or the Student Center, and ``candlelight and beer'' dinners in the restaurant atop the New South Building. Some hardy ``independents'' preferred to choose their own bill of fare, sometimes by shopping around in restaurants, more often by cooking their meals in dormitory kitchens.

All things considered, Princetonians of the 1970s were faring better than their hungry forebears in the lean days of the college refectory.

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

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