4. Nassau Hall Fires


Nassau Hall has burned twice during its 250-year history.  The fire of March 1802 took only two hours to reduce the building to ruins, leaving only charred walls.  The College’s trustees and President Samuel Stanhope Smith believed the cause to be arson, blaming rebellious students possessed by vice and irreligion, though students denied the charge and scholars today attribute the blaze to an incompetent chimney sweep.  Nassau Hall was rebuilt with the limited fireproofing technology of the day, such as brick floors in lieu of wood, and stone stairs with iron railings, under the supervision of Benjamin Latrobe, who later supervised the restoration of the US Capitol after the British burned that structure in 1814.  Yet Nassau Hall burned just as disastrously in 1855, again leaving only the sturdy stone walls standing.  Philadelphia architect John Notman directed the second rebuilding, incorporating extensive modifications for practical and stylistic reasons.  This interpretive woodcut of the 1855 Nassau Hall fire, commissioned by the Princeton Print Club in the 1950s, inaccurately places a large bell tower on the building; this cupola was actually added during the Notman renovation, after the devastating blaze.