The Fire of 1802 and Benjamin Latrobe

At one o'clock on the windy afternoon of 6 March 1802,
[3D View] Nassau Hall was swept by a devastating fire . [42311]
According to the Trenton True American, "In two hours from the time it was discovered on fire the whole building, walls excepted, was reduced to ashes."

An investigation by the Trustees concluded that the building had been "intentionally set on fire." President Samuel Stanhope Smith , who was inclined to believe the worst about undergraduates, believed the fire a product of vice and impiety. Other contemporaries, however, thought sooty chimneys a likelier cause.

Yet all agreed that the College had suffered grievously in the fire. Meeting in emergency session ten days after the blaze, the Trustees learned that the library had been almost totally destroyed, along with many of the College's portraits and the belongings of the students. The lone bright spot was the survival of most of the College's "Philosophical and Chemical" apparatus.

Physical damage aside, to watch Nassau Hall burn must have been a crushing blow to President Smith and other supporters of the College. Nassau Hall had begun to heal from the scars of the Revolution, and now the College would have to start from scratch once more.

The Trustees nonetheless immediately resolved to rebuild. They delegated the college treasurer, Enos Kelsey, to spearhead the reconstruction. Not surprisingly, the renovation program that the Trustees authorized had as its chief goal to reduce the risk of fire in the future:

"The Entries [are] to be laid with brick or Tiles instead of Boards. The stairs [are] to be formed of Iron, stone, or other incombustible materials...The Place of the former [Prayer] Hall to be fixed so as to serve a Library and the deposit of the philosophical apparatus and a place for the reading of daily prayers, as formerly. [The roof will] be covered with Tin or other incombustible material instead of shingles."

While the repairs were carried out, classes were held in the President's House and in the Professor's House, [33-37]
then occupied by the professor of math and chemistry, John Maclean Sr., and his family.

A fund-raising campaign was launched. In a general appeal to the inhabitants of the United States -- a sort of 19th-century form of direct-mail solicitation -- Joseph Bloomfield, the Governor of New Jersey and President ex officio of the Board of Trustees, made a plea for donations:

"The fair edifice, erected by the liberality and consecrated by the prayers of our pious and public-spirited predecessors, was totally consumed and three thousand volumes of valuable books, with much private property of the students, perished in the flames. Under this inauspicious and afflictive event, which the providence of a holy God has permitted to take place, we are humbled and mourn. But can we, ought we, so far as to despond, as to suffer the establishment to become extinct? No..."

Bloomfield shrewdly targeted his appeal for help to "friends of religion," followed by friends of science, friends of civil liberty, alumni of the College, and the "wealthy and benevolent of every description."

Support was prompt, widespread, and generous. Many people apparently held with the views of an anonymous New Englander, who was moved to verse:

"Wrapt in a blaze the sumptious mansion falls/Leaving no vestige but the tottering walls/but may the lib'ral sons of Jersey raise/...another Phoenix structure."

By April 1803, the Trustees reported that their fund-raising campaign had been so successful that not only could Nassau Hall be rebuilt, but two new buildings could be constructed as well. Brought in to supervise the project was one of America's first professionally trained architects, the British-born Benjamin Latrobe of Philadelphia.

Latrobe's Nassau Hall

Although Latrobe did not remain on campus after submitting his designs -- which the Trustees did not execute faithfully in any case -- he had a significant impact on the College's architectural program. In particular, his renovation of Nassau Hall [29-60]
was the most aesthetically pleasing of that building's many iterations.

To save money, Latrobe retained the original walls and proportions of Smith's 1756 building. With a few graceful touches, however, he transformed the building's former plainness into a much more stylish and elegant finish.
[3D View]

To improve the interior lighting, he raised the roof two feet. The troublesome roof was made of sheetiron, which proved a costly and unsuccessful experiment, as well as a source of friction between Latrobe and the College. He erected pediments over the two doors to the side blocks and replaced Smith's circular window in the central pediment with a fanlight. The most important revision, however, was a new belfry. [42299]
Unlike Smith, whose squat cupola seemed an afterthought, Latrobe drew attention to the belfry by mounting it on a prominent square base.

The overall effect of these minor alterations was remarkable. Consider the rendering of Latrobe's Nassau Hall [I38a]
that appeared in a contemporary business card for "Geo. Thompson," a 19th-century Princeton book and stationary dealer. Compared to the original, [33-96]
the rebuilt structure appears better proportioned and thus more elegant. Latrobe's discrete use of ornamentation made a welcome change from Smith's visual austerity.

Philosophical and Geological Halls

None of Latrobe's renovations of Nassau Hall survives today. But one of the other structures Latrobe designed does remain, and in the Library [11-41]
-- later known as Geological Hall and now called Stanhope -- we can discern Latrobe's distinctive touch. Located to the northwest of Nassau Hall, the Library was designed with a pendant to the east, first known as the Refectory and later as Philosophical Hall. [33-39]

The Trustees officially commissioned Geological and Philosophical Halls on 13 April 1803, specifying that the buildings should be "60 feet in length and 40 feet in breadth and three stories high."

Philosophical Hall was designed to serve several purposes. It contained a room for the College's philosophical apparatus (as scientific instruments were then called), as well as classrooms for the teaching of chemistry and natural history. In addition, it was to accommodate a "Kitchen or Cooking room for the use of the Steward of the College," as well as "a large and convenient dining room for the students."

Geological Hall, meanwhile, was primarily designed to provide rooms for classes and studying. Latrobe was also instructed to provide "a room for the reception and handsome exhibition of the Library of the College." The College's two famous debating societies -- the American Whig Society and the Cliosophic Society -- were housed on the top floor of Geological Hall.

As such, Geological Hall soon became a focal point of campus life. In the early 19th century, professors as well as students belonged to Whig and Clio, and the two debating societies contributed considerably to maintaining the college's intellectual vitality.

Both buildings were executed in "Stockton sandstone" to match the walls of Nassau Hall. The masonry [42082]
work was somewhat more refined than that of Nassau Hall. Learning from their unpleasant experience with the cast-iron roof on Nassau Hall, the Trustees authorized slate roofs for the two new structures.

Latrobe was not present on campus when his designs were carried out, and it is unclear -- as no drawings are known -- to what extent the builders followed his intent. Judging by his correspondence, Latrobe was unhappy with the way and the extent to which the Trustees altered his designs.

Nevertheless, Latrobe's skill and style still come through. Indeed, the arched windows, central pavilion, and strong pediment in Philosophical and Geological Halls provide visual structure and rhythm for the building. With these elements, the two halls resemble other buildings of the Neo-Classical Revival at the beginning of the 19th century. Latrobe, for instance, used these same elements in his 1815 design for St. John's Church [33-40]
in Washington, D.C. -- the famed Church of the Presidents.

With the elegant renovation of Nassau Hall and the addition of Philosophical and Geological Halls, the front campus took on a pleasantly symmetrical form. A drawing [42299]
from the early 1800s shows how the College looked from Nassau Street: The Vice-President's House is at the northeast corner, and behind it Philosophical Hall.

To the west of Nassau Hall stands the house constructed in 1827 for the Professor of Languages, and completing the scene is Geological Hall. Out of view to the northwest are the Presdient's House and two other College structures: the Servant's House and the Market House. Another contemporary drawing, [42332]
showing a northeast view of the campus, contains the President's House.
[3D View]

Pleased with the fruits of their labors, in September 1804 the Trustees ordered that a self-congratulatory circular be printed and distributed. Announcing the "perfect restoration of the College Edifice recently consumed by fire," the circular boasted:

"In comparing the circumstances of the College at the period when they lately solicited the public liberality in its favor, with its present state, they cannot but be deeply affected by the contrast which they witness. At that time the noble structure erected by their predecessors as a nursery for Science and Piety was a heap of ruins; their library was consumed; their pupils were dispersed, and they were wholly destitute of funds, either to replace their losses by the fire, or to provide for the instruction of the youth. They now see its buildings not only restored and improved, but greatly augmented, three new professorships established, and the number of the pupils increased much beyond what it has ever been at any former period."

Perhaps the rebuilding campaign sapped the College's collective energies. Following on this building spurt, Princeton went through another long hiatus in new construction. It was not until the 1830s that the campus would experience another period of signficant growth.

The New Refectory

In 1834, the Trustees commissioned the erection of a utilitarian refectory [29-51]
on the corner of William Street and College Lane, an out-of-the-way spot across from the College garden. It was an L-shaped, two-story clapboard building with a 76-foot-long dining wing fronting William Street. A map of the campus drawn in 1851 [41745]
shows the New Refectory at the intersection of William Street and College Lane, approximately where Firestone Plaza stands today.

The students called it the "Poor House," because those of limited means ate there. The more affluent undergraduates continued to eat in the refectory in Philosophical Hall. One of the better views of the New Refectory shows its proximity to the Bulletin Elm. [29-50]
This much-visited tree served as a notice board for the entire College community during the 19th century.

The Poor House was first used in December 1834. The steward, who presided over board for the students, moved out of the old Steward's House behind Nassau Hall (an eyesore that was promptly torn down) and into the new structure. After the Fire of 1855 the College stopped serving meals -- too many students lived and boarded off campus for it to be profitable. The building was then used as a dormitory and as the home of the Philadelphian Society until 1866, when the structure was torn down.

East College and West College

[3D View] By the 1830s, increasing enrollment helped the College regain some of its institutional vitality. One of the most important steps in this revivification was the appointment of Joseph Henry , an up-and-coming scientist. Another sign of returning institutional vitality was the decision of the Trustees in 1832 to construct a "New College Edifice," or dormitory.

The Trustees laid down very specific instructions for this new dormitory, which shortly became known as East College . [29-30]
They stipulated that it be a free-standing stone structure 112 feet long, 36 feet wide, and 44 feet tall. This would provide enough space for 32 double rooms in four stories of living space.

As a contemporary lithograph shows, [29-53]
East College was located to the rear of Nassau Hall, in line with Philosophical Hall and at right angles to Nassau Hall.

The choice of this location had two significant effects: it set the stage for the rear campus to replicate the symmetry of the front campus, and it greatly improved the ventilation in student lodgings. Nassau Hall, facing north-south, never caught the predominant westerly breezes of New Jersey, and students complained about its fetid air. East College suffered none of these complaints.

It appears that the College did not formally engage an architect to design East College and West College. The College's Treasurer, Enos Kelsey, probably acted as the building agent on behalf of a committee of the Trustees; Joseph Henry may also have contributed to the plans.

As built, East College was 22 feet shorter than the Trustees had projected, but otherwise took shape much as envisaged. It was first occupied by students on 1 January 1834.

From a painstaking drawing [29-33]
left by William Rafferty, Class of 1839, who shared lodgings at 28 East College with W.E. Honeyman, we learn that the rooms were 15 feet, 6 inches wide and 21 feet, 6 inches long. This was enough space for two beds, washstands, bureaus, and tables, and one trunk -- certainly not a luxuriously appointed suite. The room had three double-sash windows facing west. As seen on a rough floorplan [29-32]
sketched by John Maclean Jr. , this suite was one of eight on each floor of the new dormitory.

By the time Rafferty and Honeyman had taken up residence in East College, their view to the west would have been dominated by a replica of East College -- West College. [11-44]
Buoyed by the success of East College, in September 1835 the Trustees authorized the construction of another dormitory. It was to be located "exactly opposite" East College, "of the same materials and dimensions with that building, and in all respect on the same model."
[3D View]

Bids on the new building came back the next spring at $13,000. Work proceeded apace throughout the summer, and by the end of September 1836 West College was approaching completion.

Both East and West College were adorned with French mansard roofs in the 1870s and porches in the 1880s. East College was torn down in 1897 to clear the way for Pyne Library -- an act long referred to as the "Crime of '07." West College continued to serve as a dormitory into the 20th century, although portions of the building were used by the University Store, beginning in 1905.

The Joseph Henry House

After the completion of East and West colleges, the College's institutional energy was spent. The next building to appear on the rear campus was more the result of the initiative of one man -- Joseph Henry -- than the product of a coherent building campaign.

In 1836, Henry had prepared a master plan [29-29]
for the college, which codified the disposition of existing structures and called for the building of several new ones: a chapel on the sloping, soggy land between the designated sites for Whig and Clio, and two new houses for professors. Only one of these was built -- Henry's own.

Legend has it that Henry was lured to the College by the offer of both a professorship and the promise to build a house according to Henry's specifications and design. Joseph Henry House [42674]
revealed Henry's skillful use of space and Greek Revival ornamentation to a small-scale architectural project. The structure itself was built of brick painted red and had wooden porches. It [29-49]
was first authorized in 1836, but because of a lack of funds, construction was delayed until 1837. The total cost came to exactly $5,000.25.

Henry left Princeton in 1846 to serve as the first Secretary of the new Smithsonian Institution. His house was taken apart brick by brick and moved in 1870 to make way for Reunion Hall. It moved twice more in its peripatetic career before landing in its current location across the front campus from Maclean House and facing Nassau Hall. It served as a professor's house, and then as the residence of the Dean of the College until 1988. It was then converted for administrative purposes.

Whig and Clio

[3D View] The buildings on the modern Princeton campus known as Whig and Clio are not the first to bear these names. The structures that stand today are 1890s recreations (and embellishments) of the ones built for the debating societies in the late 1830s. In turn, the story of the original Whig [29-39]
and Clio [29-40]
reflects the importance of these societies in undergraduate life as well as the dominance of the Greek Revival style in that period.

Bitter rivals, the American Whig Society and the Cliosophic Society dominated undergraduate life at the College of New Jersey during the late 18th and most of the 19th centuries. The Halls, as they were known, were independent entities that combined the best and worst elements of secret society, debating club, social center, library, and political organization.

As with the eating clubs of a later generation, Whig and Clio were often a thorn in the side of the College administration. In the 1820s, for example, many of the leading members of the politically liberal Whig Society were expelled for leading demonstrations against the College. It was only one of many incidents of student unrest in this period.

At the same time, however, the Halls enjoyed powerful alumni support and provided services that the College did not. During parts of the Carnahan era, for example, the College's Library was only open one hour a week. By contrast, the Halls maintained fine private libraries and collections of periodicals. The comparative sizes of the Hall's libraries versus the College's can be traced in the description of each in the College's Catalogues.

Both Societies were originally housed in Nassau Hall. After the fire of 1802 and the completion of Geological Hall, they moved into contiguous rooms in the new building. By the 1830s, both societies had outgrown their cramped quarters; what's more, their rooms were altogether too close for these secretive and competitive bodies. [I43c]
In 1835, the Whig Society organized a building committee to consider building their own separate new structure. The Clios followed soon after. Representatives of the Societies approached the Trustees in September of that year, and in September 1836 both Societies were granted permission to build Halls -- at their own expense -- in the locations indicated on Joseph Henry's plan. [29-29]

[3D View]

Today, the two Greek Revival temples seem somewhat out of place amidst the Collegiate Gothic of the Princeton campus. But in the late 1830s, when these structures were first erected, they represented the height of architectural fashion. The reference to classical Greek structures was an appropriate gesture by societies that existed to promote "democratic" debate.

Who precisely designed the Halls [29-38]
remains murky. Some believe that the Societies, with Clio following Whig's lead, commissioned the prominent Philadelphia architect John Haviland to design their new Halls. Haviland is best known for designing the monumental "Tombs" prison in New York. Others believe that the local builder/architect Charles Steadman produced the design. Steadman's work continues to be visible in the Princeton area, particularly on Alexander Road. [text_whigclio.html]

Together, the two temples anchored the southern end of the rear campus, creating the quadrangle that would later become known as Cannon Green. As seen in contemporary photographs, [II9]
Whig and Clio were much farther apart than they are today; as originally built, both were visible from Nassau Street, on either side of Nassau Hall. There were good reasons to separate the two as far as possible. Jealous of their privacy, the Societies at one point even reached a "treaty" whereby members of the opposite hall were forbidden to sit on the steps of the other Society, nor to approach within 20 yards when the other was in session.

Whig and Clio were built at the same time. The cornerstones were laid in Summer 1837 and both buildings were first occupied by the Societies in 1838. For all their classic appearance, the original Halls were elaborate fakes. Rather than being constructed of marble, they were fabricated of brick, wood, and stucco -- and lots of white paint. This kept the cost to roughly $7,500. The only discernible architectural difference between the two seems to have been a watertable that was added below Whig's [29-41]
downstairs windows in an attempt divert rain from running down the walls of a building and eroding the foundation. (Contrast this with Clio.) [11-43]

The Halls continued to play a prominent role in the social and intellectual life of the campus through the turn of the century. A diagram of the floor plan of the first Whig, [29-31]
for instance, suggests a fine facility with a spacious library and reading room downstairs and a large assembly room on the second floor. Whig, which tended to attract more affluent students, was especially luxuriously appointed inside. As another indication of the power of the Halls at this point in the College's history, the main meeting rooms in both buildings were the largest indoor spaces on the campus, except for the Prayer Hall in Nassau Hall.

The College itself never commissioned a full-blown Greek Revival building. The town of Princeton has its share -- the First Presbyterian Church [29-34]
on Nassau Street is an outstanding example of the style. Compared to many other colleges and universities, the Princeton campus was only lightly touched by this architectural movement.


1800, 1804, 1835, 1836, 1838, 1862


1) nassau hall II = close up aerial view of Latrobe's Nassau Hall renovation c.1802-1855

2) frontcampus = Nassau Hall II, Philosophical, Geological Halls, Pres. House, VP House

3) rearcampus I = rear campus c.1837, with East and West College but NOT Whig/Clio

4) rearcampus II = rear campus c.1844, E+W College, Whig/Clio, Joseph Henry House, BUT NO Old Chapel

5) rearcampus III = aerial view of rearcampus c. 1863 from south looking north, with Cloaca Maxima in front center, flanked by Whig/Clio etc.


latrobe = latrobe bio

campus = origin of the term campus

whigclio = whig and clio architectural precedents