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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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