Like a rock formation that surrenders its secrets to a geologist, the
Princeton University campus
provides the architectural historian with a slice of 250 years of buildings and academic history. And like the geologist who deciphers complex tales of ages past, the architectural historian finds in the evolution of the Princeton campus not one story, but many.
Buildings of most major American architectural styles grace the Princeton campus. Although most famous for its premier representation of the Collegiate Gothic style, the Princeton campus contains buildings that range from Georgian and Greek Revival to the Italianate Revival and Post-Modern. Some of the country's most prominent architects have designed buildings at Princeton -- Benjamin Latrobe, Richard Morris Hunt, Cope and Stewardson, Ralph Adams Cram, and Robert Venturi. Their stories are part of the evolving campus as well.
Princeton's architecture also expresses the deeply rooted religious and pedagological views of its Trustees and Faculty. It reflects the shifting profile of the student body and the rise and fall of various college traditions and organizations. Not least, the evolution of the campus mirrors the interests and vanities of the donors who made these buildings possible.
The story of the Princeton campus continues to unfold. Unlike the rock in the hand of the geologist, the campus is a living entity -- new buildings rise, old structures are dismantled, styles and materials compete for attention and approval. But to appreciate fully how the campus has evolved, and why Princetonians identify their institution so closely with its buildings, we must go back to how it began.
Cast off your memories of the affluent Princeton of modern days and imagine a
student of the late 1750s, arriving at the College of New Jersey for the first
time. Plodding north along a muddy lane -- rather grandiosely called the King's
Highway -- he would have passed through the rolling, sparsely settled fields of
central New Jersey
before crossing the bridge over Stony Brook.
There, in the distance, rising above the farmland, stood an imposing stone
Nassau Hall , reputedly the largest public building in Britain's North American Colonies and home of the fledgling College of New Jersey.
Fifty miles behind lay Philadelphia, the largest and most cultured of the cities in colonial America; fifty miles ahead, the rapidly growing port city of New York. But nothing to suggest why one would find this colossal structure in the little town
Colossal it was. For most students journeying to Princeton to take up their
studies, Nassau Hall
would have dwarfed anything they would have seen during their travels. Its massive stone walls and sturdy Georgian proportions must have exuded an air of permanence even then. To the colonial eye, accustomed to the rough and transitory life of North America, this alone would have made a powerful visual statement.
Enhancing the solidity and stature of the building would have been the stark appearance of the cleared two-acre field in which it was set. The building must have seemed anomalous and out of place, set well back from the muddy road, proudly separate from the straggling handful of houses along the King's Highway, and seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
One can thus forgive those early matriculants to the College for wondering: Why? Why build Nassau Hall here?
The short answer is that the citizens of Princeton did a better job selling
their town to the Trustees of the College than did those of New Brunswick, the
other town considered. In the end, Princeton prevailed on the strength of the
promise by Nathaniel FitzRandolph
four and a half acres
in the center of town for the College to use.
A more complete answer is religion, which should not be surprising given the paramount role of religion in American colonial history and in the founding of American universities. Many of the period's signature buildings -- Old North Church in Boston, for example -- were expressions of faith, and Nassau Hall was no exception. In fact, almost everything about the original Nassau Hall -- its design, execution, and location in farthest Princeton -- reflects the austere Presbyterian faith that had brought it into being.
Consider the 1760 engraving of Nassau Hall
that originally appeared in The New American magazine. The College's now-famous motto
-- "Dei sub numine viget" (Under God's power she flourishes) -- occupies a prominent place in the center of the image, printed on a banner born by trumpet-blowing angels.
In the upper left, an inset
depicts bright rays of sunlight piercing clouds and illuminating an array of scientific apparatus, books, and other tokens of the age of reason.
Any good Presbyterian of the time, as a product of the Enlightenment, would have recognized this imagery. In the minds of the founders, the College -- and by extension, Nassau Hall -- symbolized the union of the light of God with the light of learning. In the architecture and construction of Nassau Hall, they were proclaiming that they were here to stay -- the Great Awakening taken shape in stone and mortar.
Only the modesty of a Harvard-educated colonial governor kept Princeton from
naming its original building Belcher Hall. The Trustees wanted to name the
structure after the College's most important benefactor, Governor Jonathan Belcher
As they wrote to him in September of 1755, "Let BELCHER HALL proclaim your beneficent acts ...to the last ages."
Happily for future generations of Princetonians, he declined this offer.
Instead, Belcher urged that the new edifice be named Nassau Hall after King
of the House of Nassau. When the Trustees met again in May of 1756, they quickly adopted Nassau Hall as the official name for the building and agreed to open the College in Princeton that fall.
would be several more years in the making. In July 1754, the Trustees had authorized a Building Committee to erect "the College, a President's house, and a kitchen...as soon as they think necessary." The original plans for all three structures were drawn up by a master carpenter from Philadelphia named Robert Smith , with the assistance of Dr. William Shippen Sr., the brother of a college Trustee. A local mason, William Worth, supervised the actual construction.
Together, they devised the plans for a structure that measured 177 feet long
and 53 feet wide -- enormous for the time. Its plain sandstone walls were 26
inches thick and penetrated by dozens of tall, narrow windows.
Ground was broken for the new building on July 24, 1754, and the cornerstone -- the northwest corner -- was laid in September of the same year. By November 1755, Nassau Hall's hipped roof was raised and by the following spring the building was nearing completion.
The building rose three full stories, plus the half-basement. This half-basement not only allowed some natural light to penetrate the dank recesses of the basement, but also had the practical effect of helping keep it from flooding constantly. Central New Jersey has a high water table, and the basement rooms of Nassau Hall were perennially damp.
Smith's scheme for Nassau Hall drew on a number of antecedents. Princeton historians have tried, without great success, to find Smith's models, which he would have known through architectural patternbooks. In the view of the Princeton historian T.J. Wertenbaker , for instance, Nassau Hall resembles an unornamented version of King's College, Cambridge. According to legend, Smith owned a copy of a popular building primer of the time, Gibbs's A Book of Architecture, which included a reproduction of King's College. The cupola, Wertenbaker says, is a copy of St. Mary-le-Strand, also shown in Gibbs; the main doorway was borrowed from Batty Langley's A Builder's Treasury of Designs.
What is uncontestable is that Smith brought his architectural knowledge to
bear on the problem of erecting an impressive, functional, and appropriately
inexpensive structure to house the College. By these standards, he succeeded
and created a building worthy to stand with its peers
Structurally, Smith's Nassau Hall is a sturdy "double pile," having two blocks extending from a central pavilion. Three doors opened onto the front lawn facing the King's Highway, and two onto the back. The Trustees originally specified that the structure be built of brick -- but only if good brick could be made cheaply and easily in Princeton. Apparently this could not be done, or perhaps local sandstone was cheaper, because the building was executed in stone.
In any event, the rough, simple sandstone of Nassau Hall was well suited to the chaste sensibilities of the College. Certainly President Aaron Burr, Sr. was not exaggerating when he wrote to a donor in Scotland, "We do everything in the plainest and cheapest manner, as far as is consistent with Decency and Convenience, having no superfluous Ornaments."
Smith designed Nassau Hall to provide space for all the functions of the
College: it included a dormitory, chapel, dining hall, library, and recitation
rooms. According to a rough sketch of the foundations
made in 1754 by Ezra Stiles , then president of Yale, the central pavilion housed the classrooms and library. On the southern portion of the pavilion, the prayer hall protruded slightly. The two side blocks held dormitory rooms. The basement was devoted to the refectory and more bedchambers.
With three students to a bedchamber, and with some of the less fortunate students consigned to the damp and poorly lit half-basement, the building could house about 150 people -- far more than were enrolled at the time.
Nassau Hall had twelve chimneys -- a necessity of life in the days before central heating. In 1762, a simple frame kitchen, managed by a steward, was attached to the rear of Nassau Hall, probably through a wooden passageway. There were also the inevitable backbuildings: privies. Nassau Hall did not receive indoor plumbing for another century.
This, then, was the building into which the College of New Jersey moved in the fall of 1756. Students and tutors alike took up residence in the new dormitory rooms.
While the students and tutors occupied Nassau Hall, President Aaron Burr and
his family moved into the other college building, the President's House.
This building, still in its original location, is now called Maclean House . It served as the President's residence until 1878.
The President's House,
built for around 600 pounds, gave Robert Smith the opportunity to design a companion structure on a much smaller scale. The result provides proof of Smith's ability to address varied architectural programs. Its simple but handsome lines
and elegant proportions suitably contrast with the looming bulk of Nassau Hall. It has a brick core and wooden bays that were added in anticipation of President James McCosh's residency in 1868.
Smith designed the house to harmonize with Nassau Hall in its symmetry and original buff color. The one-story kitchen at the rear of the house was originally a separate building, but it is maintained that in the first of many renovations to this structure, President Burr had a passageway constructed that would enable his slave, Caesar (bought in 1755 for 80 pounds), to bear hot food from the big cooking fireplace in the kitchen to the dining room inside the house. The kitchen was also placed so that it could serve the residents of Nassau Hall in need.
Burr lived in the house for only a year. He died in 1757 at the age of 41, with his widow, Esther, living only a year longer before dying from smallpox. They left two young children, including a two-year-old boy named Aaron Jr.
After Burr's death, the College struggled through a rapid succession of presidents. The third president, Jonathan Edwards , died after only a year in office; it was in the President's House that he received the smallpox innoculation that killed him. He was succeeded by Samuel Davies , who served from 1759 to 1761. The fifth president, Samuel Finley , was at Princeton only a few years before passing away in 1766. Finley left the most notable mark on the house, reputedly planting the two large sycamore trees that still stand in front. These are the so-called "Stamp Act" trees, marking the year they were planted.
After 1878 the building served as the Dean's House (and was known by this name) until 1968, when it was renamed in honor of Princeton's 10th president and turned over to administrative uses. The house has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.
From an institutional perspective, the years from the 1760s through the 1790s were among the most traumatic and important in the College's history. They encompass such watershed events as the presidency of John Witherspoon; the Revolutionary War and the Battle of Princeton (which involved the occupation and liberation of Nassau Hall); Nassau Hall's use as the Capitol of the Continental Congress in 1783; and much more .
From an architectural history point of view, however, the post-Revolutionary period is barren, and much of the record concerns repairs. The rebuilding took a long time. At the turn of 19th century, the Trustees were still seeking war reparations from the government.
Finally, in 1801, they received: 1,800 pounds (about $4,800). In April of that year, the Trustees decided to use this money to repair Nassau Hall and acquire new "philosophical equipment" (as scientific apparatus was then called). The Trustees specifically appropriated $700 to repair the rooms in Nassau Hall and to raise the floors "by about a foot" in order to make the rooms "dry, airy, and wholesome."
At the same meeting, Enos Kelsey, the college treasurer, reported that
$2,273.21 had been spent constructing the third permanent structure at the
college, a house "for the accommodation of a Professor of the College."
Commissioned in 1799 as a residence for John Maclean Sr., this house
faced onto Nassau Street and served as a pendant to the President's House. During the tenancy of Philip Lindsley, Ashbel Green's Vice President, it became known as the Vice President's House. The house was next occupied by John Maclean Jr. It was demolished or removed in the early 1870s.
In its own small way, this modest new structure represented an improvement in the College's institutional health. Upon Witherspoon's death in 1795, Samuel Stanhope Smith , class of 1769, had succeeded his father-in-law as President, and under his leadership the enrollment had rebounded. With a refurbished Nassau Hall, the College could look forward to the new century with justified optimism.
Aside from the Steward's House, built behind and slightly to the east of Nassau Hall in 1762, the existence of other buildings on the campus during the period 1756 to 1803 remains conjectural. President Burr owned a farmhouse and its adjacent land near where Dillon Gymnasium stands today. He may have added to the structure during his short residency at Princeton. The Trustees Minutes for 24 September 1760 record the speedy removal of the "President's Barn."
The other building project was of an equally prosaic nature. An anonymous account of Princeton's history suggests that the third building on campus was a firehouse, constructed in 1757. The Trustees Minutes do not support this proposition, although there was mention, in 1765, of leather buckets in an "enginehouse." This enginehouse would appear to have been replaced by a larger structure (location also unknown) in 1766. These preparations, however, would soon prove insufficient. In 1802, as the College of New Jersey appeared to flourish for the first time in a long while, came the great fire.
moderncampus = projection of current Princeton campus
nassau hall I = Smith's Nassau Hall with President's House; nothing else
TEXT SIDEBARS STILL TK:
smith = bio of robert smith
pattern = role of patternbooks in colonial architecture
stiles = visit of Ezra Stiles to Pton
burr = esther burr's diaries