March 13, 2002: From the Editor

Photo: Marquand Chapel, built in 1881, was destroyed by fire in 1920. Eight years later, the new University Chapel was dedicated. (Princeton University Archives)

On the night of May 19, 1920 — Houseparties Weekend — firefighters arrived at the original Dickinson Hall, where a blaze was raging. Student revelers, some in evening dress, joined the effort, climbing the roofs of nearby buildings and stamping out sparks.

Their efforts were not enough to save Dickinson — rumor had it that the fire was started by students, anyway, in order to do away with the examination hall inside (an explanation still favored by Orange Key guides). What no one expected, however, was that the fire would spread to and destroy Marquand Chapel, an eclectic but much-loved building constructed in 1881.

Built to replace a small and undistinguished chapel designed by John Notman, (the architect of the law school building discussed in this space last issue), Marquand Chapel was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, well-known architect of the day, and funded by Henry G. Marquand 1878. In its account of the fire, the New York Sun described it as having the “rounded apse of the Roman basilica, the transept of the Gothic cathedral, the minaret of a Turkish mosque, and Romanesque arched windows.” It boasted rose windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany and a statue of President McCosh by August Saint-Gaudens, and could seat 1,000.

Writing in PAW on the occasion of the 1928 dedication of the new University Chapel, President John Hibben — who had watched Dickinson and Marquand burn, then calmly announced that services would be held as usual the following day in Alexander Hall — said, “We all cherish a peculiar pride in the Marquand Chapel, endeared to us by many sacred and stirring memories,” in particular those from World War I.

Indeed, there was the usual outcry upon the planning of the new chapel, leading architect Ralph Adams Cram to explain in the same PAW issue, “Early in the game there was much earnest talk about the impropriety of ‘Gothic’ for the new Chapel, and the very great propriety of some sort of ‘Colonial’ design.” Cram defended his style, writing, “No church conceived in this [Colonial] mode has acted or could act as a creative spiritual energy. . . . This was not part of its genre.” Gothic, he argued, embodied the “great scholastic and spiritual impulse” that created the storied English halls of learning, and captured, he hoped, “something of the thrill and the ineffable rapture of the churches of the Middle Ages.”

“Time, not this generation, will say whether we succeeded or not,” Cram wrote. Seventy-four years later, the Chapel’s stunning restoration complete, it seems safe to say they did.


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