May 16, 2001: Features

Centuries of different planners formed and changed Princeton's layout

by Ben Kessler

At last year's Reunions, a forum entitled "The Look of Princeton" was convened to assess the current state of campus architecture. The panel consisted of architectural professionals representing six different decades of Princeton education, a lengthy period marked by significant shifts in theoretical canons and stylistic trends. It was remarkable, then, that each and every participant tended to agree on one salient point: The ambience of the campus was shaped as much by the spaces nestled in between and around the buildings as by the buildings themselves.

The history of the Princeton campus may be interpreted as the evolution of a spatial entity in a changing relationship with the immediate community and, by extension, with the world beyond. This development has been characterized by two conflicting impulses: the need to maintain the sense of order and containment inherent in the campus's earliest forms, and the imperative of expansive, organic growth. Over time, as the campus consumed more and more acres, growth naturally prevailed. Order could be implied in later years only by subtle or symbolic means.

Space itself has always been a Princeton luxury. When, in 1753, the trustees of the College of New Jersey sought for the school's permanent home a site more central to the colony and more salubrious than Newark, they also happened to choose a location with plenty of room to grow. While the original parcel of land donated by Nathaniel FitzRandolph is minuscule in comparison with today's campus, the rural setting of Princeton, which, at the time, was hardly more than a dusty stagecoach stop on the King's Highway between New York and Philadelphia, ensured breathing space for generations to come. Yale, by contrast, was early on locked into the incipient urban grid of New Haven; its original campus, by necessity, has been cannibalized over the years by successive rebuilding campaigns.

The original Nassau Hall, depicted in a 1764 print, comprised the entire college; only the president had his own home (today Maclean House), at right.

Nassau Hall, completed in 1756, is said to have been the largest stone building in the colonies of its day. Perched on the height of land on which the modern town now sits, it must be imagined without any surrounding structures or, for that matter, trees, as most of the land was then cleared for agriculture. Rising above the surrounding fields, it must have been an astounding sight, utterly dominating the landscape. There was no campus to speak of -- just the huge, solitary edifice, entirely out of scale with the small village it faced. Every function of the college -- classroom, dormitory, chapel, library, and refectory -- was housed under its roof. Only the president had a home of his own, today's Maclean House, present quarters of the Alumni Council.

Notwithstanding the depredations of the American Revolution, the college remained the same throughout the 18th century. In 1802, however, disaster struck when a fire gutted the interior of Nassau Hall. The rebuilding effort occasioned the putting up of two smaller, flanking structures. These new buildings, which contained classrooms, a small library, and a dining hall, became known as Philosophical and Geological Halls. Philosophical Hall was razed in 1870 to make way for the Chancellor Green Library, but Geological Hall survives today as Stanhope Hall.

A primitive drawing from circa 1825 (page 25) shows an ensemble of buildings grouped around what we now call the Front Campus, with Nassau Hall in the middle, Philosophical and Geological Halls to either side, and faculty houses, no longer extant, in between. The President's House, on the far right, is mirrored on the left by what was known as the Vice-President's House (this is not to be confused with the Joseph Henry House, which was moved to its current location in 1946). The axial symmetry of the arrangement reflects the classical ideals and measured rationality of the Enlightenment thinking that guided the college in its early years. The tableau presented a self-contained scholarly community, a humbler version of Thomas Jefferson's "Academic Village" that rose contemporaneously at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. If only reality had conformed to this model; this period is generally considered to be Princeton's lowest ebb, marked by shrinking enrollments and serious disciplinary problems.

In the 1830s, the campus expanded southward. After many years of housing students in the dank basement of Nassau Hall, two dormitories were constructed on either side of what was the college's backyard. These became known as East and West College. Around this time, members of the rival American Whig and Cliosophic debating societies, which existed uncomfortably in cramped offices in Geological Hall, decided to build new lodgings. They enlisted the aid of Joseph Henry, first in a long line of eminent physicists to teach at Princeton, to help plan the new site.

In 1836, Henry devised what essentially became the first master plan for the college. Behind Nassau Hall, he situated a quadrangle, today's Cannon Green, incorporating the recently built dormitories along the sides and placing the intended Whig and Clio Halls at the far end, along sight lines on either side of Nassau Hall. Henry suggested the space between the two debating halls as the site for a future chapel. The plan formed an extension of the axial rationality of the Front Campus and symbolically represented the division of functions of the college, with the seat of secular learning, Nassau Hall, and the seat of religious learning, the proposed chapel, on opposite sides of the green.

As it happened, a chapel was raised in 1847, not on the site recommended by Henry, but next to Nassau Hall, at the spot now occupied by the "hyphen" between Chancellor Green and East Pyne. The space between Whig and Clio was put to an entirely different purpose, when, after a rash of wooden outhouse fires, a more permanent sanitary facility was built in 1861. The small, sunken plaza, lined with individual privies between square granite pillars, was almost immediately dubbed the Cloaca Maxima, after the sewer system of ancient Rome. For several years, this prosaic feature marked the southern edge of campus.

When James McCosh, esteemed Scottish philosopher and theologian, crossed the Atlantic in 1868 to become 11th president of the college, he found a campus neatly encapsulated in the rectangular confines of the Front and Rear Campuses. Only a new observatory (1865) and some service buildings existed beyond these bounds. McCosh also found a somewhat provincial institution with a hidebound course of study. His 20-year presidency ushered in an era of modernization in which a rapidly expanding curriculum embraced the arts and sciences -- a transformation of educational mission that resulted in an ambitious building program.

The train station at Blair Arch (1896): For decades this was the functional entrance to the campus.

An aerial perspective made in 1875 indicates the extent to which new construction had changed the shape of the campus. To the west, two dormitories, Reunion and Witherspoon Halls, and the Bonner-Marquand Gymnasium have been added. In the other direction, along Nassau Street, a new academic complex has risen, including the John C. Green School of Science, the classroom building Dickinson Hall, and the Chancellor Green Library. The replacement of Philosophical Hall by Chancellor Green broke the original symmetry of the Front Campus, which was effectively elongated eastward, in a very public display of institutional growth. None of this sense of openness to the world is evident today: The School of Science and Dickinson Hall succumbed to fires in the 1920s and were replaced eventually by the forbidding back side of Firestone Library (1946-48), while Chancellor Green, clearly meant to be seen from Nassau Street, was occluded by the insertion of the Joseph Henry House.

As enrollment increased during the McCosh era, three new dormitories were built in a line stretching southeast from Witherspoon: Edwards Hall, Dod Hall, and Brown Hall. These buildings formed a diagonal progression that conformed not with the established axial layout of the Rear Campus, but with the natural contour of the land, following a slope of high ground. McCosh's attitudes toward architecture are not particularly documented, but he expressly stated his interest in laying out the expanding campus along the picturesque lines of an English nobleman's park. That is, he favored an emphasis on varied and irregular forms rather than geometric linearity. Thus, as the college grew in the latter part of the 19th century, the unified rationality of the earlier plan gave way to a freer-flowing design in which each new building expressed its individuality in an eclectic profusion of historical styles. McCosh may have drawn inspiration from Prospect House, which, originally built as a private residence, was purchased by the college to be the president's home in 1878. The asymmetrical eccentricity of its profile might serve as a leitmotiv for the idiosyncratic development of the campus in this era.

The campus was also shaped in this period by the coming of the railroad. In 1865, a spur was built from the main trunk line between Philadelphia and Jersey City. Until 1918, when it was removed to its present location, a railway station of one form or another existed directly adjacent to the campus, just below the western edge of the high ground upon which the school was situated. If the formal entrance to the college was the Front Campus, then the functional entrance, for several generations, was the station at the foot of the hill. This fact was accentuated in 1896, when a new dormitory, Blair Hall, was built above a preexisting stairway that ascended from the railway platform. The archway piercing Blair's massive, crenellated tower formed a monumental gateway to the college, renamed Princeton University in that year.

Blair Hall was soon joined by Little Hall and University Gymnasium, all designed by the architects Walter Cope and John Stewardson to create an ensemble that meandered along the edge of the railway. Military in bearing, this sequence of structures formed an undulating escarpment of gray stone that dramatically redefined the western boundary of the campus. Consciously emulating the Tudor Gothic of Oxford and Cambridge (and realistically addressing the problem of facing a rail yard), the architects emphasized a sense of enclosure, an inward turning that would influence the layout of campus construction for years to come.

The legacy of Cope and Stewardson, whose careers were both cut short by untimely death, was carried on by Ralph Adams Cram, the foremost Gothic Revival practitioner in America. In his capacity as supervising architect for the university (1908-31), Cram promulgated what became known as Collegiate Gothic as an institutional style. Cram arrived at Princeton when the school was embroiled in controversy over the siting of the new Graduate College. Woodrow Wilson, president at the time, favored placing the graduate school in the midst of campus as a potential salutary influence on the undergraduate population. Had Wilson had his way, the graduate school would have existed on the eastern side of campus, roughly where the School of Architecture and the Woolworth Music Building stand today. But Wilson was opposed by the head of the Graduate College, Andrew Fleming West, who, mindful of his prerogative as dean, favored a separate, more isolated location. West eventually prevailed, and Cram was put to work designing the complex, a mini-campus in its own right, that rises over the Springdale Golf Course.

Cram was a fervent champion of formal unity; the eclectic hodge-podge left over from the McCosh-era expansion offended his aesthetic sensibility. He wrote about these buildings: "The principle of rugged individualism had run riot for years and the result was confusion confounded." Cram formulated a master plan for the campus, published in PAW in 1908, that was intended to restore compositional order to this perceived disarray. Incorporating preexisting structures into a new, presumably Collegiate Gothic fabric, Cram's plan unfolded as a series of linked cloisters. The layout particularly suited Woodrow Wilson's ideal -- his so-called Quad Plan -- of integrating students and faculty in small communities modeled after the residential colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Wilson's concept never took hold, at least not until the advent of residential colleges in the 1980s. But the interwoven pockets of space suggested by Cram became a hallmark of life at Princeton in the 20th century.

For all his Gothic predilections, Cram was a Beaux-Arts classicist at heart. His design was anchored around a bold axis leading south from Nassau Hall -- a reinvigoration, in spirit, of the Henry Plan -- that broadened into a grand promenade. As proposed, the plan necessitated the removal of Dod Hall, which ruined the symmetry of the scheme. Cram's great axis was not realized (and probably just as well, as it would have constrained everything else that followed), but his influence on the shape of the campus cannot be underestimated. During his tenure as super-visor a host of new buildings went up, mostly designed by other architectural firms, but following the general precepts of Cram's vision. He succeeded in moving the railroad station to its current location and filling the vacated area in the 1920s with the dormitories that line University Place. Decorated with plantings by the renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, this residential cluster, sarcastically known today as the "Junior Slums," is actually one of the handsomest spots on campus.

Throughout the 20th century and especially after World War II, the campus spilled down the hill toward Lake Carnegie and eastward across Washington Road, following no guiding principle save the logistics of agglomeration. To some extent, the motif of small, enclosed spaces was maintained. Even the unprepossessing New Quads of the 1950s and 1960s, now home to Wilson and Butler Colleges, were based on this idea. But some of the more ambitious postwar architectural projects, such as the Woodrow Wilson School's Robertson Hall, or the Jadwin-Fine science complex, tended to occupy space rather than enliven it. The design of the Spelman dormitories, specifically meant to emphasize the diagonal axis leading to the Dinky Station, managed, despite its geometric rationale, to reduce this crucial passageway to the status of a tenement back alley, thus defeating the original spatial intent. Clearly, another era of rugged individualism was afoot without much regard for the "big picture."

In recent years, however, concern for the overall shape of the campus has reemerged. The architectural firm of Machado and Silvetti was commissioned in 1996 to compose a strategic master plan. Many of the principles suggested in the plan have been adopted by the university and some of the prescriptive steps have now begun to take shape. Among other issues, the plan recognized the importance of reorganizing the southern periphery of the campus, which hitherto had been a haphazard edge determined by wherever the last construction stopped. As more and more visitors approach the campus by automobile, this aspect has become one's first impression while heading along Elm Drive from Faculty Road. Machado and Silvetti projected for this spot a semicircle of buildings that would partially envelop existing athletic fields. Although the resulting construction has not taken the strict elliptical shape proposed in the plan, the general concept is being followed. Scully Hall, a dormitory designed by the authors of the plan, is the first and central piece of the arrangement. To the east, ground has been broken for the building that will house the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, designed by Rafael Viñoly (who also designed Princeton Stadium). To the west, a dormitory complex will rise, completing the hemicycle.

The master plan proposes reinforced sight lines along traditional thoroughfares, extending McCosh Walk to the East Campus, connecting Goheen Walk on

the south side of campus with the Dinky Station, and establishing a series of crosswalk plazas along Washington Road. Even Cram's axis south of Nassau Hall may be revived, albeit on a much more modest scale, with new paving and landscaping. The plan also projects long-term growth on the other side of Lake Carnegie, with proposed zoning for academic, residential, and athletic facilities reaching almost to Route 1. The Princeton campus is becoming inexorably larger, but, as the legacy of Princeton planners shows, the inherent disorder of rampant growth can be controlled to a reasonable extent under the aegis of well-conceived planning.


Ben Kessler is director of slide and photography collections in the art and archaeology department.


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Evolution of the Campus: