Evolution of Nassau Hall

Nearly Two Centuries of Cultural and Political History Exemplified in the Present Building

By Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker

Chairman, Department of History

This article is based on material Professor Wertenbaker has collected for the architectural section of an extended work to be called The Transit and Development of American Civilization. In that study he will define the national origins of our culture, note how the elements drawn from European countries were modified and combined in the New World, and trace the final emergence of a distinctly American civilization.


Nassau Hall may justly claim to be the most famous college building in the United States. Within its rough stone walls have lived and studied a long line of eminent men - judges, diplomats, statesmen, soldiers, scientists, theologians; around it hover the spirits of Jonathan Edwards, Aaron Burr, John Witherspoon, and James McCosh; here sat the first legislature of the state of New Jersey; here the first state governor was inaugurated; here thundered Washington's cannon in the Battle of Princeton; here lodged at one time the British troops, at another a group of Continentals; here convened the Continental Congress in 1783.

Ground was broken for Nassau Hall on July 29, 1754, and shortly thereafter the cornerstone was put in place in the northwest corner of the foundation. "We have begun a building at Princeton which contains a all, library, and rooms to accommodate about one hundred students," wrote President Aaron Burr on December 3, 1755. The building embraced the entire college and its activities, for in it the students and tutors had their rooms, their meals, their class exercises, their morning prayers, their literary societies. And so closely did the building become identified with the college, that for many years it was customary to speak of graduating, not from the College of New Jersey, but from Nassau Hall.

The Trustees secured the services of one of the ablest architects in the colonies. Robert Smith was a prominent member of the Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia, the group which so profoundly influenced the architecture of eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. He it was who designed Carpenters' Hall, famous as the meeting place of the First Continental Congress, charming old St. Peter's Church, the old Pine Street Church, and other important buildings in Philadelphia.

Associated with Smith in designing Nassau Hall was a "Dr. Shippen," possibly the trustee, Edward Shippen, or more probably, William Shippen, the eminent Philadelphia physician. It is now impossible to determine which played the chief role in the shaping of the famous old building, but it is probable that Smith drew the plans and Shippen modified them to suit the needs of the college. An Account of the College of New Jersey, a pamphlet issued in 1764, does not mention Shippen, declaring that the building was "designed and executed by that approved architect Mr. Robert Smith of Philadelphia." They may have drawn their inspiration from some of the contemporary books on architecture, for Smith seems to have possessed an extensive library. Volumes by Langley, Campbell, and Palladio, all inscribed in Smith's bold hand, are preserved in the library of the Carpenters' Company.

Similarity to King's College
"We do everything in the plainest and cheapest manner, ... having no superfluous ornaments," President Burr stated. If we remove the "superfluous ornaments" from King's College, Cambridge, shown in Gibbs's, A Book of Architecture, at that time in the hands of almost every American builder, we have a fair approach to Nassau Hall - the long rectangular form, the hipped roof, the successive rows of windows, the central pavilion topped by a pediment with a round window, the three ornamental urns. The central doorway of Nassau Hall, surmounted by the flat cornice and flat arch with a head of Homer in the keystone, no doubt was borrowed from Batty Langley's Builder's Treasury of Designs, a copy which Smith owned. The cupola bears a significant resemblance to the upper part of two "drafts of steeples" for the Church of St. Mary-le-Strand, London, appearing in Gibbs's book. Whatever the source, it is obvious that Nassau Hall was essentially Georgian both in its proportions and its details. Its influence upon American college architecture has been widespread. In New England, Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth College and University Hall at Brown, and in Virginia, Cushing Hall at Hampden-Sydney, all took their inspiration from Nassau Hall.
Original Walls
The walls of the original building still stand, their twenty-six inches of stone and mortar having rendered them impervious to the two great fires of 1802 and 1855. Yet the interior arrangement was very different from that of today. On entering the central door one found himself in a hallway, on either side of which occupied the northern end of what is now the Faculty Room, and was about 32 feet by 40. Here the students were called to morning prayers before dawn. There was a gallery in the prayer-hall, and Dr. E. Shippen, Class of 1845, tells us in his memoirs: "Those of us who roomed in the second and third entries used that gallery; answering freely for each other at the roll-call, and generally coming in a state of undress. I still recall with a shudder those bitter cold winter mornings, with the wind drawing through the entries, the dim light of the lard lamp at the desk below, the darkness of the gallery, and the droning perfunctory prayer from the tutor."

The basement of the central section of the building was devoted to the culinary department, the kitchen and the steward's room apparently being under the main entrance and the dining-room under the prayer-hall gallery. It was in this room that the Continental Congress sat when it fled to Princeton because of the disorder of the troops in Philadelphia, the prayer-hall at that time being unfit for use. The two rooms over the library, which at first were probably classrooms, afterwards lodged the Whig and Cliosophic Societies.

The two wings were devoted entirely to the rooms of students and tutors. There were twelve rooms on each of the four floors, or forty-eight in all. The rooms, which were all about eighteen feet square, were designed to accommodate two or possibly three students. "Each chamber has three windows," stated John Adams, who visited the building in 1774, "two studies with one window each, and one window between the studies to enlighten the chamber." The fireplaces of the basement, over which the luckless students who lodged there hovered on wintry days, are clearly discernible today at the base of the great stone chimneys.

Damage in the Revolution
Nassau Hall was seriously damaged during the Revolution. In December 1776 the British occupied the building, lodging troops and prisoners in the three main floors and using the basement for a stable. During the Battle of Princeton, when the British fortified the themselves behind the heavy stone walls, the fire of Washington's artillery did considerable damage. At other times the building was used as a hospital, a prison, and as a commissary's department. So late as 1782 the basement and the fourth floor were described as "a heap of ruins," while only a few of the rooms on the first and second floors had been repaired for the use of the forty young men then making up the student body. The holes made in the building during the battle of Princeton remained open.

On March 6, 1802, Nassau Hall was destroyed by fire. "About one o'clock a fire was discovered issuing from the belfry," said the Trenton True American. "The wind blew extremely high. In two hours from the time it was discovered on fire the whole building, walls excepted, was reduced to ashes ... together with most of the books, many of the personal effects of the students, etc."

The Latrobe Restoration
Nassau Hall was restored by the celebrated architect, Benjamin H. Latrobe. Using the original walls, and restricted by the need for economy, Latrobe made few essential changes. Had he been free to follow his own wishes he might have attempted to turn Nassau Hall into a Greek temple under the influence of the classical revival of the day. Instead he contented himself with erecting a larger cupola, putting pediments over the three front doors and changing the circular window in the main pediment to a large semi-circular window. The interior arrangement seems to have been little altered. Could Latrobe's drawings of the ruins, now in the hands of a member of his family, become available for the student, much light would be thrown upon the original building.

The restored hall continued to be the center of life at Princeton, but it no longer embraced the entire activities of the college. In 1803 Stanhope Hall was erected, followed by East College in 1833, the old Refectory in 1834, West College in 1836, and the chapel in 1847. Gradually students and faculty began to speak affectionately of Nassau Hall as Old North. It was still used as a dormitory, but the increased accommodations made it possible to abandon the damp bedrooms in the basement, while in the other rooms the fireplace gave way to the more modern Franklin stove.

Fire of 1855
One of these, apparently, was the undoing of the building, for on March 10, 1855, when sparks burst from the fire in a student's room on the second floor, once more it was ruined. "the town engines were soon on the grounds," says the New York Weekly Times, "and succeeded in getting their hose into the second story ... but the supply of water soon gave out ... and by 12 o'clock all of the building that could burn was in ashes, nothing being left standing but the walls."

Once more it became necessary to restore the Hall, and for the third time the trustees turned to a Philadelphia architect. John Notman, noted as the designer of St. Mark's, the Church of the Holy Trinity, St. Clement and many residences in the Philadelphia region, and of "Prospect" and "Guernsey Hall" in Princeton, was a devotee of the Florentine school of architecture so popular in the fifth and sixth decades of the century. Marked by square towers, stone balconies, rounded arches for doors and windows, flat roofs, and quoins, it was a wide departure from the Jeffersonian classical school and the more recent Gothic revival. Queen Victoria's palace, "Osborne," begun in 1845, conformed strictly to this new style. Many builders' books both in England and America began to carry Florentine designs, and here and there in the suburban sections little Italian residences made their appearance.

The Florentine Restoration
Notman could not resist the temptation, in remodeling Nassau Hall, to make it conform to the new style. Fortunately he too was restrained by the necessity of using the old walls, but within these limits he struggled hard to convert Old North in to an Italian villa. The central Georgian door was ripped out, and together with the widow above was converted into an arched window reaching up through the cornice to the very eaves of the front gable-end. At either end were erected square towers, similar to that of "Prospect," rising a full story above the roof line. The right and left front doors, with the steps leading up to them, were removed. The old prayer-hall, was extended some forty feet to the south, for a new library room, and lighted by great rounded windows. The whole was surmounted by a cupola graceful in design, but much larger than either of its predecessors, which, together with the changes in the front door and the window above it, tended to dwarf the building and to rob it of the impressiveness which was so often remarked in former days. The two projecting "ears" of the towers on either side threw the entire structure out of proportion, so that the graceful lines laid down by Robert Smith were completely obscurred. Although Nassau Hall today is no longer purely Georgian, removal of the upper part of the towers has restored much of its old beauty.

Upon the erection of a small chapel in 1847, the old prayer-hall served no more useful purpose than a picture gallery. So the trustees, in restoring the building in 1855, decided to make the room fireproof and enlarge it so that the college could have a place "in all respects suitable for a library." Book cases were placed around the room at right angles to the walls, with portraits hung above, while reading tables occupied the center. When the books were moved to the Chancellor Green library in 1873, the room was converted into a museum of natural history, becoming the resting place, not only of fossils, paintings of fauna and flora, but of plaster casts of Flying Mercury, the Apollo Belvedere, and other famous works of art. In 1905 these treasures were removed, and the room was entirely remodeled and converted into the Faculty Room.

"Barring Out"
In moving the stairs to the new towers, the trustees sought to secure greater quiet for the students' rooms, and also to discourage the practice of "barring out" professors by piling furniture or firewood at the top of the steps. The east and west hallways, which formerly ran the entire length of the building, were now cut by partitions at the central pavilion, to put an end to the cannon ball rolling which had been a source of perpetual annoyance to the tutors. Every precaution was taken to prevent a repetition of the disastrous fires, the floors resting on iron beams arched over with bricks, the staircases being stone, the roof covering slate, the Franklin stoves giving way to furnaces installed in the basement.

In 1879 the movement to abandon Nassau Hall as a dormitory began when the trustees set aside the entire east wing for geology and archeology. The second and third stories were converted into a single hall, with a wide gallery supported by columns, and skylight above. Around the walls were rows of glass cases and in the center mounted upon a platform, the bones of prehistoric animals. On the first floor was a large lecture room, the professor's office, and studies for special students. For two more decades the west wing was devoted to bedrooms, but here too the need for laboratories and lecture rooms, together with the building of more dormitories eventually drove the lodgers out. In 1902 a few students roomed on the second floor but soon even these were transferred to other buildings.

It is to be hoped that in the future the grand old building will be protected from changes, both externally and within, unless indeed they tend to restore it to its original form. We must see to it that it loses none of the charm, lent not only by old age and sacred associations, but by its correct proportions and simple dignity.


In his study of Nassau Hall Professor Wertenbaker was assisted by Dr. Charles P. Stacey.

1934Princeton Alumni Weekly Vol. XXXV, No. 10 November 30, $5.00 A Year