Web Exclusives: More


May 16, 2001:
Nassau Hall, Princeton, New Jersey

By Sean Wilentz, Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Nassau Hall. See related feature

From the Book American Places: Encounters With History, edited by William E. Leuchtenburg, copyright - 2000 by Oxford University Press, Inc. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

In June 1956, Edmund Wilson, Class of 1916, returned to Princeton University to receive an honorary degree, in conjunction with the fortieth anniversary of his class's graduation and the bicentennial of Nassau Hall. The occasion was slightly awkward. Wilson had great affection for his old college, and especially for the memory of his departed teachers Norman Kemp Smith and Christian Gauss. A few years earlier, when presiding over a set of the prestigious Princeton seminars named in Gauss's honor - and presenting work that would eventually wind up as part of his monumental study, Patriotic Gore, edited by another Princeton graduate, Sheldon Meyer - Wilson one day took his friend Leon Edel on a private tour of his former stomping grounds, enthusiastically showing off the architectural highlights. But Wilson had never partaken of the rah-rah bonhomie for which Princeton graduates were, and are, so famous. And more than a few Princetonians regarded Wilson - the bookish, oft-married ex-radical and (thanks to Memoirs of Hecate County) reputed pornographer - as a disloyal odd duck.

Wilson and his latest (and last) wife, Elena, sensed the underlying tension. The day before the big event, from their guest quarters, they could hear the nearby banging of the carpenters who were erecting the ceremonial graduation stage and dais outside Nassau Hall.

"Come and look, dear," Mrs. Wilson remarked (or words to that effect). "They're building your scaffold."

Of course, Princeton did not hang Wilson, even metaphorically, but honored him. And so, outside Nassau Hall, tension gave way to paradox. Wilson was never shy about showing his disdain for the American academy and for what he regarded as its obscurantist obsessions. He did teach now and again, to help make ends meet (though his monotone lecturing style turned off his audiences in droves). Otherwise, he said, "writers are much better off outside colleges." And yet, there he stood, the supposedly defiant freelance man of letters, happily picking up another Princeton degree in front of the most storied academic building in the United States, two hundred years after its completion.

It was not the first ironic moment, nor would it be the last, in the sometimes unfortunate history of Nassau Hall.

To walk past Nassau Hall, as I do two or three times each workday, gives only the slightest hints of that history. With its massive brown stone outer walls, the place appears to have been there forever. Dominating the university's Front Campus, it looks, to any well-traveled academic, like the quintessential college administrative headquarters: imposing, serene, and official. (Even the bronze tigers that guard the main entrance are at ease.) Apart from small knots of tourists being led around campus by one of the university tour guides, no one ever seems to enter or exit Nassau Hall. The life of the campus is elsewhere, around the classrooms and dormitories, where gaggles of undergraduates, women and men - including, in good weather, the Frisbee players - are perpetually in motion: Nassau Hall is more like a machine that quietly goes of itself. The building is certainly important, especially to a Princeton faculty member, as the Place Where Big Decisions Are Made. But in its tranquil self-assurance, it betrays, at a glance, little of its turbulent - and sometimes paradoxical - past.

While it was still under construction, the place came perilously close to being named Belcher Hall. In 1747, Jonathan Belcher, a devout Massachusetts Congregationalist, was chosen royal governor of New Jersey, and he immediately made a pet project of supporting the fledgling College of New Jersey, then located in Elizabeth. Belcher was shocked at the degraded spiritual condition of Harvard and Yale - where, he said, he had reason to believe that "Arminianism, Arianism and even Socinianism, in destruction of the doctrines of free grace are daily propagated" - and he saw the New Jersey seminary as a potential bulwark of the Lord. Seven years later, when work began on the college's new building in Princeton, the trustees tried to honor the governor for his support by naming it after him. ("And when your Excellency is translated into a house not made with hands, eternal in the Heavens," the trustees entreated him, "let Belcher Hall proclaim your beneficent acts.") Belcher graciously declined, and suggested instead the name Nassau Hall, dedicated "to the immortal memory of the glorious King William III, who was a branch of the illustrious house of Nassau." Thus, thanks to Belcher's modesty, began the tradition that in later decades would lead to the composing of "Old Nassau" - imagine a school song entitled "Old Belcher" - as well as to the adoption of orange and black as Princeton's official colors.

The village of Princeton had been chosen as the college's new home in part because of its proximity to New Light Calvinist Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, and in part because of its salubrious location on a high ridge, well protected from the then-fearsome New Jersey mosquito. For the new college building, the trustees wanted the finest and most imposing design they could find. A basic plan, offered by the trustee Edward Shippen in 1753, called for a structure 190 feet long and 50 feet deep. Thereafter, Shippen's brother, Dr. William Shippen, in collaboration with the distinguished Philadelphia architect Robert Smith (who had designed Carpenter's Hall, later the meeting place of the First Continental Congress), translated the rough plan into a formal proposal. The cornerstone was laid on September 17, 1754, and for nearly two years workmen raised the walls of local stone and then plastered the interior. In November 1756, as the finishing touches were still being applied, the College of New Jersey officially moved in, claiming an edifice that, though fourteen feet shorter than Edward Shippen's original outline had dictated, still impressed the trustees as "the most spacious on the continent."

A huge, stylistically up-to-date, Georgian pitched-roof building, the original Nassau Hall was gracious as well as spacious, more so than its later remodeled versions. In contrast to the Old World universities, wrote the college's president Aaron Burr Senior, "[w]e do everything in the plainest ... manner,... having no superfluous ornaments." A depiction of the head of Homer did dominate the flat arch above the building's central doorway, and some decorative urns appeared on the central facade, but otherwise the building had a remarkable lightness for all its solidity, topped off by a bell-tower cupola patterned after the upper part of the cupola of the recently built St. Mary- le-Strand in London, much better proportioned than the current structure.

Befitting the college's primary function as a trainer of clergy, the original Nassau Hall was a place of devotion as well as of instruction. After entering the central doorway, one passed into a hallway that led straight to the Prayer Hall, flanked on either side by classrooms. Here, in the unheated north end of what is now the Faculty Room, students would be summoned by the cupola bell at the crack of dawn for morning worship - an exercise (especially during winter) of bone-chilling piety that did not sit well with later, more secular generations of undergraduates. Below, in the basement, were the kitchen, dining room, and steward's quarters. On the second floor, in a single room, was the library, above which were two rooms probably used for recitations. The building's wings consisted of small suites, most of which included a bedroom and two tiny studies. In 1762, an increase in student enrollment necessitated the completion of student chambers in the basement - gloomy, damp rooms that housed the unluckiest of the first-year pupils.

Like an Anglo-American cloister, the early Nassau Hall almost completely enclosed college life. Here, the college's tutors as well as its students slept, ate, prayed, and attended class. (Only the college president was permitted separate quarters, in a Philadelphia Georgian dwelling, also designed by Robert Smith.) Yet no sooner was the all-encompassing edifice completed than bad fortune descended on the college.

In February 1757, President Burr had to step in to fulfill the duties of one of the college's tutors, the Rev. Caleb Smith, who had fallen ill. Six months later, Burr, worn out from overwork, presided extemporaneously at Smith's funeral; then, after a taxing trip to Philadelphia, Burr rode north to Elizabeth to preach a funeral sermon for the suddenly departed Governor Belcher. Finally, himself overtaken by a raging fever, Burr weakened and died on September 24. Five days later, the trustees named Burr's eminent father-in-law, the renowned Massachusetts evangelist and theologian Jonathan Edwards, as Burr's successor.

In January 1758, Edwards arrived at the President's House to great acclaim from the tutors and students. Unfortunately, smallpox was prevalent in Princeton that year, and Edwards, who had never been exposed, decided to submit to an inoculation from the same Dr. William Shippen who had had a hand in designing Nassau Hall. The inoculation did not take, and on March 22, the great Edwards died. His successor, Samuel Davies, was young, eloquent, and learned - but he had also, for years, suffered from tuberculosis, a condition the trustees apparently overlooked. After punishing himself with a dawn-to-midnight work schedule, the dedicated President Davies died after a little more than a year's service. For the third time in the five years since relocating to Princeton, the college solemnly buried its president in the old cemetery down the road from Nassau Hall.

Here, seemingly, was providence ill enough to chill any Calvinist's soul. Supposedly wholesome Princeton had become a president's graveyard. Davies's death, one correspondent reported, "spread a gloom all over the country" and plunged the college into despair.

It was only under the leadership of the eminent Scots emigrÈ and eventual American patriot John Witherspoon, who served as president from 1768 until 1794, that the College of New Jersey truly began to flourish. Witherspoon steadied the institution's finances, increased its endowment, and ventilated Its curriculum with the bracing ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. Before Witherspoon's arrival, the college's scientific equipage was sorely lacking, especially in comparison to Harvard (which boasted numerous stuffed birds and animals, the skull of an Indian warrior, and the tanned skin of an unidentified Negro); but beginning with the purchase of the famed astronomer David Rittenhouse's intricate orrery (a sort of miniature planetarium, installed in Nassau Hall in 1770, Witherspoon quickly closed the gap. Under Witherspoon, the college also generated a hot republican spirit, carried forth into the American Revolution by, among others, three illustrious members of the class of 1771: Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Philip Freneau, and, most auspiciously, James Madison. Witherspoon himself signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Under Witherspoon, Nassau Hall even served temporarily, in 1783, as the new nation's capitol. Yet it was also under Witherspoon (and because of the Revolution) that Nassau Hall suffered the first of a succession of devastating physical blows. And for several years, immediately after the Declaration of Independence, it seemed that the new nation's good fortune was the college's bad fortune-and vice versa.

On December 7, 1776, British forces, fresh from their victories over General Washington's troops in New York, occupied Princeton and commenced what one eyewitness called the "twenty days tyranny." Redcoats pillaged and burned the town's great houses; and suspected rebels wound up imprisoned inside an abandoned Nassau Hall, where a regiment of regulars had taken up quarters, ravaged the library, and turned the basement into a horse stable. Even worse was yet to come. Washington's men rallied on the other side of the Delaware River, and on January 3, 1777, after an all-night march from Trenton, they inflicted their famous disastrous defeat on the British about a mile outside Princeton village. Some of the fleeing British regulars took refuge in Nassau Hall, knocked out windows, and prepared to counterattack- but Washington's artillery hit the building with such lethal force that the British were forced to surrender. (Gouges caused by the cannonade can still be seen on the buildings south exterior wall.) Toward the end of the fighting, a rebel cannonball flew through one of the Prayer Hall windows and smashed the college's portrait of King George II- the signal, legend has it, that led the redcoats to lay down their arms.

Though returned to patriot hands, Princeton was a wreck. ("You would think it had been desolated with the plague and an earthquake Benjamin Rush observed; "the college and church are heaps of ruins, all the inhabitants have been plundered.") And for Nassau Hall, Washington's victory proved a prelude for further depredations. American soldiers took up residence and stayed for five months, turning benches and doors into firewood, stripping the walls of plaster, destroying the college organ, and covering the floors with what one report politely called "an accumulation of... filth." Rittenhouse's orrery, which the British had carefully preserved along with the rest of the college's scientific instruments, became a plaything for the idle Americans and wound up so severely damaged that it could not be fully repaired. When the troops departed in October 1777, doctors converted Nassau Hall into a military hospital where, for over a year, ill and wounded men tried to recover amid the squalid debris.

Slowly- and, in view of what had happened, miraculously- the college also recovered. President Witherspoon, who served in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia from 1776 until 1782, returned to Princeton as often as he could, and with the assistance of one tutor and one professor of mathematics, he oversaw the resumption of classes in nearby private homes during the summer of 1777. Witherspoon also handed Congress a bill for the damage inflicted on college property, and by the end of 1779, he had actually managed to collect nearly twenty thousand dollars in Continental currency. Yet by the time the money arrived, it had so depreciated in value that it could barely cover the cost of patching Nassau Hall's roof, replacing the broken windows, and making stopgap repairs to the classrooms and student living quarters. In May 1782, a newly enrolled student remarked that, inside and out, the building remained badly scarred by the war, with two of its four floors "a heap of ruins."

Local spirits revived in 1783, at a perilous moment for the republic. Menaced by a massed body of mutinous, unpaid Continental soldiers, Congress fled Philadelphia and, at the instigation of their president, Elias Boudinot (a College of New Jersey trustee), the members reconvened in Nassau Hall's barely restored library room. During the war, the British had twice forced Congress to leave Philadelphia; but now, two years after the British surrender at Yorktown and with a peace treaty in negotiation, internal discord sent the representatives packing. For four months (until Congress relocated yet again to Annapolis, Maryland), the New Jersey crossroads village and its battered college served as the capital of the United States- an embarrassment that made it difficult to gather a quorum of seven states, let alone the nine states required by the Articles of Confederation to ratify a treaty.

Despite the immense difficulties, for representatives and townsmen alike, the interlude greatly improved Princeton's morale. Once they had settled in, the temporary congressional residents found the place suitable, even attractive. ("With respect to situation, convenience & pleasure, I do not know a more agreeable spot in America," Charles Thompson, the Congress's secretary, wrote to his wife, Hannah.) And tutors, students, and townsmen got to share in the excitement of a rousing official Fourth of July celebration, the arrival of George Washington in August for a two-month stay, and, at the end of October, the receipt of the exultant report that the Treaty of Paris had, at last, been signed. "The face of things inconceivably altered," the young student Ashbel Green later commented, amid "the passing and rattling of wagons, coaches, and chairs, the crying about of pine apples, oranges, lemons and every luxurious article." After attending the college's September commencement ceremony, General Washington presented the trustees with a personal donation of fifty guineas. The trustees, much encouraged, duly commissioned Charles Willson Peale to paint a portrait of Washington, which still hangs in the Faculty Room, surrounded by the same frame that had contained the battle-destroyed picture of George II.

Congress proved much less grateful than Washington and repeatedly rejected Witherspoon's requests for additional appropriations to restore Nassau Hall. In a preview of Princeton strategies to come, Witherspoon instead turned to graduates and friends of the college for support. He raised more than seventeen hundred pounds, a respectable sum considering the hard times (though, once again, currency depreciation sharply curtailed the collected money's actual value by the time it arrived in Princeton). With the return of fee-paying pupils, along with occasional gifts from graduates, Witherspoon was able to lay aside enough cash to commence rebuilding in earnest. In 1794, the year Witherspoon died, the French traveler Moreau de Saint-Mery remarked that the college's courtyard looked "dirty and unkempt," and that the enclosure wall was in "a deplorable state." Still, the third floor of Nassau Hall had been restored, its roof completely replaced, and its floors and windows repaired. Inside the students' chambers there were new bedsteads and tables; and the hall's interior walls, partitions, and stairways were all thoroughly reclaimed. In 1800 student enrollment climbed above one hundred, and the trustees had to refurbish the basement rooms in Nassau Hall's perennially wet west wing, in order to accommodate "the expected additions." There was even talk of enlarging the faculty with new endowed professorships and of erecting additional buildings.

"Every sign pointed to a continued rapid growth," noted the university's later official historian, T. J. Wertenbaker. Then, disaster struck again.

At one o'clock in the afternoon on March 6, 1802, as students were filing into Nassau Hall for their midday meal, a fire broke out in the belfry. A senior named George Strawbridge rushed upstairs and unsuccessfully tried to quench the blaze with a pitcher of water, while other students and teachers grabbed what books, furniture, clothing, and personal effects they could carry away. By evening, all but a hundred of the college library's three thousand volumes had been destroyed, and Nassau Hall stood a blackened hulk. President Witherspoon's successor, the devout Samuel Stanhope Smith, had no doubt that one or more members of the college's small knot of freethinking Jacobinical pupils had been responsible. ("This is the progress of vice and irreligion," Smith exclaimed as the fire was spreading.) In fact, a neglectful chimney sweep appears to have been at fault. But the trustees, goaded by Smith, summarily suspended a group of "undesirable characters" suspected of foul play.

Smith's judgment was just as swift - and much less questionable - about rebuilding Nassau Hall. While the students lived and attended class in local homes and boardinghouses, Smith left the supervision of the college to subordinates and spent more than a year canvassing wealthy graduates for contributions to a rebuilding fund. His efforts, along with those of several trustees, quickly raised considerable cash, and the college commissioned the distinguished Philadelphia architect Benjamin Latrobe to commence reconstruction plans. Latrobe made some minor alterations, enlarging the cupola, installing new pediments over the three front doors, and paving the hallway floors with brick. (Unfortunately, Latrobe's major contribution, a new iron roof, proved so leaky that it had to be replaced completely.) But because the building's massive original walls had survived the destruction, Latrobe decided against completely overhauling the place in his preferred Classical Revival style, and Nassau Hall retained its essentially Georgian character. The fund-raising efforts, meanwhile, proved bounteous enough to break ground for two entirely new structures - the Philosophical Building (on the site of the present Chancellor Green Library), which housed the college kitchen, dining hall, recitation rooms, and the observatory, and the still - extant Stanhope Hall, set aside for study halls, a new college library, and rooms for the college's two literary societies.

A student rebellion five years after the disastrous fire caused temporary damage to Nassau Hall and lasting damage to the college. In March 1807, three students were suspended, one for getting drunk in a local tavern, one for cursing and insulting a tutor, and one for insulting Professor of Chemistry John Maclean, frequenting taverns, and "bringing strong liquor into the college." Convinced that the suspensions were based on partial and prejudiced evidence, the accused students' friends organized a petition drive, which wound up leading to the suspension of 125 additional students - roughly three fourths of the entire student body. The same night that the penalties were announced, the discharged pupils ransacked Nassau Hall, warding off alarmed tutors and townsmen with bludgeons fashioned from the building's banisters.

President Smith immediately canceled the classes that remained before the five-week spring vacation; and in due course, with peace restored, fifty-five of the rebels were readmitted. (One of those who was not, Abel P. Upshur of Virginia, went on to become secretary of state under President John Tyler, only to get blown to pieces in 1844 when a cannon on a great ship he was inspecting - eerily, the USS Princeton - unexpectedly exploded). "We will probably have fewer students," one trustee wrote in the aftermath of the riot, "but a few under discipline is better than a mob without any." The first part of this prediction proved true - by 1812, the student body had shrunk to fewer than one hundred, down from the nearly two hundred students enrolled in 18o6-7 - but the result was penury and stagnation. Pious families feared Nassau Hall was too licentious for their offspring; others feared it was too draconian; and college receipts rapidly dwindled. Thereafter, the college entered nearly two decades of institutional and intellectual decline, a period that Wertenbaker described as "Princeton's nadir."

The turning point - arguably the most important moment in the college's early institutional history - came in 1826, when a group of loyal graduates organized the Alumni Association of Nassau Hall. After electing the aging James Madison as their president, the members dedicated themselves to promoting the interests of the college - including expanding its endowment - and scheduled annual campus reunions at commencement time. The formation of the association was to have a lasting impact on the sum and substance of Princeton life, giving the alumni an unusually close connection to the college's continuing development and originating the annual reunion celebrations that, over the years, have become spectacles of great iconographic (and even anthropological) interest to observers of elite American mores. More immediately, the association raised the money needed for Princeton's first great period of physical and intellectual expansion, including the hiring of new distinguished faculty to endowed professorships (none more celebrated than Joseph Henry, professor of natural philosophy) and, in time, the erection of two new dormitories, dubbed, respectively, East and West College.

Nassau Hall (which gained the nickname North College) was dingy and drafty compared to the newly built dorms, but into the 1850s it kept its reputation as the "swell" residence on campus. Aside from the somewhat larger cupola, it would have seemed little changed to anyone who had seen the original as constructed a century earlier. But in March 1855, yet another fire, this one starting in a student's room on the second floor, reduced the place once again to nothing more than its exterior walls. President John Maclean Jr., in office for less than a year, following his predecessor Stanhope's example, turned to the alumni for rebuilding funds, and looked to Philadelphia for an architect. Unfortunately, Princeton's choice, the fashionable designer John Notman, was far less circumspect than Latrobe had been, and he initiated an architectural vandalizing of Nassau Hall more damaging than anything the redcoats and rebels of 1777 or the hothead students of 1807 could have imagined.

Notman was a champion of the Florentine Italianate Revival style, first made popular by Queen Victoria's Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and imitated thereafter, in the 1850s and 1860s, by mansion owners and church builders all across England and the United States. Notman himself had brought the style to Princeton with his design for the Prospect mansion on the old Morgan estate near the college (later the president's house, and currently the university's faculty and staff club); and when given the commission to remodel Nassau Hall, he tried his best to turn the old Georgian pile into a squat, squared-off, archwindowed imitation Tuscan villa. He was restrained by the college's demand that he utilize the surviving original walls; otherwise, though, he let his imagination run wild. The old central doorway was replaced by an arched stone entrance, above which Notman built a stone balcony with a large arched window. At either end of the building, he added square Italianate towers, both of them rising a full story's height above the roofline. Atop the entire building he placed a new cupola, much larger than its predecessors, that utterly dominated the building beneath it.

Notman also changed the building's interior. The old staircases flanking the central entrance were replaced by winding red-stone steps in the new towers. Partitions arose across the east and west hallways, in order to discourage student pranksters and rioters; new hallways connected adjacent rooms to create single rooms; a new library room was placed on the building's south end; and the entire place was joisted with galvanized iron as a fireproofing precaution. The improvements, especially in the spacious new library, were obvious; and when workmen hung Peale's portrait of Washington (which had been rescued yet again from the flames) on the library's north wall, a clear connection was made with the old Nassau Hall. But when students finally returned in August 1856, they occupied a very different structure from the one completed exactly one hundred years earlier.

Nassau Hall's second century, from John Notman's restoration to the awarding of Edmund Wilson's honorary degree, was much less turbulent than the first - and, architecturally, much kinder. During the decades after the Civil War, the building of additional dormitories led to the departure of the resident undergraduates, replaced first by museums and laboratories and, after the completion of Palmer Laboratory and Guyot Hall in 1909, by academic administrators. (John Grier Hibben, president from 1912 until 1932, was the first president to have his office in Nassau Hall; and beginning in 1924, the building was devoted completely to offices of the university's central administration.) Notman's most egregious error, the brooding Italianate towers at the building's eastern and western ends, was partially corrected in 1905, when the tops of the towers were cut down to conform with the main building's roofline. (Notman's grandiose cupola had been earlier improved by the installation of a fourfaced neo-Georgian clock in 1876, a donation from the Class of 1866 in honor of their tenth reunion.)

The outstanding positive contribution of the 1856 restoration, the new college library, was rendered superfluous when the nearby Chancellor Green Library was completed in 1873. After serving for more than thirty years as the college museum, the room was handed over in 1906 to the firm of Day and Klauder, which designed the impressive Faculty Room. Modeled on the British House of Commons, the room is still used for faculty meetings, debates, and official convocations. Thirteen years later, in the patriotic aftermath of World War I, Day and Klauder also redesigned the entrance hall as a marble memorial to Princeton's war dead, beginning with the names of ten ex-students killed in the American Revolution.

Decorative elements also sprouted up outside Nassau Hall, at odds with President Burr's old admonition against "superfluous ornaments," but not with the building's basic integrity. Beginning some time in the 1860s or 1870s, successive groups of graduating seniors have planted ivy around the building's wall, marked off by discrete inscribed stone tablets.' In 1879, the graduating seniors - including one Thomas Woodrow Wilson - presented a pair of sculpted lions (adapted from the House of Nassau's crest) to guard the hall's entryway. Thirty-two years later, when the lions were much the worse for wear - and by which time, worse still, the tiger and not the lion had become Princeton's mascot - the same class donated the two recumbent, placid bronze tigers, designed by the renowned sculptor A. P. Proctor, that continue to adorn the main entryway.

A year after Proctor's tigers appeared, President Hibben, the first president to move his office into Nassau Hall, was inaugurated - and the young Edmund Wilson arrived for his freshman year. A generation later, when Wilson received his honorary degree, Nassau Hall was virtually unchanged. And so, apart from some interior and minor exterior alterations finished in 1967, Nassau Hall remains the same today.

Time has softened most of the old wounds, including the self-inflicted ones. Not that the old spirit of unrest has completely departed. By moving the administration's nerve center to Nassau Hall, the university (so renamed in 1896) ensured that, from time to time, Nassau Hall would be a staging ground for protests, by activist students (most notably over the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and over Princeton's investments in South Africa fifteen years later) and, more decorously, by complaining faculty members (over the entire panoply of university issues).

Still, the prevailing note today is of sturdiness and tranquility. It takes some historical research, and a little historical imagination, to see beyond all that to a deeper appreciation of what the building has been through, and what it stands for. No longer the largest structure in town, dwarfed by the towers of Gothic dormitories and postwar science labs, Nassau Hall is, on close inspection, far more than an administration building: it is a battle-scarred monument to the university's - and the nation'scontinuities and changes. As I pass by and see it, artificially illuminated, at workday's end, it glows as an emblem of Princeton's better nature, which is to be (as Woodrow Wilson proclaimed in 1896) a university "in the nation's service."

Inside the truncated unfortunate Italianate towers, countless footfalls have worn down the stone steps into venerable slopes, blending in with the genuine Georgian surroundings. And, from a distance, even Notman's cupola looks more graceful with the passing of years, vaulting above the small forest of the Front Campus, breaking through the modern car-infested clamor of Nassau and Witherspoon streets, beckoning to what Edmund Wilson called the "languid amenities" of a place of great privilege and great learning.