Stewarding a precious resource: Hlafter spends 40 years making connections on the campus

Jon Hlafter

University Architect Jon Hlafter has spent the past 40 years overseeing planning and development of Princeton's campus in a time of massive change. During his tenure, some 3 million gross square feet of building space was added and scores of renovation projects were completed. Photo: Denise Applewhite Below: Over the last two-plus years, Hlafter played an integral role in developing the 10-year Campus Plan unveiled this winter. Here, he participated in "Plans in Progress," an open forum for members of the campus and local communities to learn about the plan and provide comments, held in Chancellor Green in November 2006. Photo: John Jameson

From the March 10, 2008, Princeton Weekly Bulletin

After earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture from Princeton, Jon Hlafter was completing an internship at a firm in Boston. A friend recommended him for an opening in the University's campus planning office.

"I decided to come down and interview for what I thought was going to be about a five-year commitment to help plan for coeducation," Hlafter said. He joined the staff in 1968, was named director of physical planning in 1969 and became University architect in 2004.

Forty years after accepting Princeton's offer, Hlafter finally may be ready to say he has finished his commitment -- sort of. His official retirement date is set for March 14. He will take two weeks off, then come back to work full time through June. On July 1, he will cut back to part time.

He plans to spend the time better organizing his notes and consulting with his successor, who is yet to be named.

"I would hope that my successor has an opportunity to stay here perhaps not for 40 years, but for a good long time. There are parts of the campus that you don't understand immediately and get to know only by seeing them or experiencing them time and time again," he said. "Eventually certain things make more sense, and you're better able to figure out ways to improve the campus."

Balancing tradition with modernity

Improving the campus has been Hlafter's primary concern throughout his management of hundreds of construction projects over the decades at Princeton. His work has ranged from overseeing the renovation of the Princeton Inn (now Forbes College) from a hotel to a residential college in 1971 to the construction of the massive Whitman College, the University's sixth residential college, completed in 2007.

In addition to dormitories, he has worked on the construction and renovation of many classroom buildings and laboratories. His work also is reflected in Princeton Stadium, the Frist Campus Center and the Berlind Theatre. He has coordinated award-winning projects by notable architects such as Robert Venturi and I.M. Pei. He has served as the principal staff adviser for the President's Advisory Committee on Architecture, which makes key decisions and formulates critical policies for the campus.

"For four decades, Jon Hlafter has been the guiding hand overseeing the development of the Princeton campus, one of the most magnificent college campuses in the world," President Shirley M. Tilghman said. "He has brought to this role a deep understanding of and appreciation for the aesthetic qualities that make up the experience of living and working in our community. He has balanced a respect for tradition while embracing the best of modernity. The capstones of his brilliant career are Whitman College and the Lewis Library, which capture so well Jon's love of this University and his insistence that its buildings, vistas and walkways are of the highest quality."

When asked to identify his favorite projects, Hlafter refused. "In a way, working on projects here is a little bit like having children," he said. "You shouldn't pick favorites. I like different projects for different reasons."

He is proud of the fact that the character of the historic campus has changed little in 40 years, although there have been improvements to Nassau Hall and its surroundings. He said he was pleased with the renovations of East Pyne and Chancellor Green and the restoration in and around Holder and Hamilton halls.

But he said the projects he has enjoyed the most are those that are a combination of old and new -- "because that's what the real challenge here has been." He pointed out that the campus had around 3 million gross square feet of building space when he was a student (he earned his bachelor's in 1961 and his master's in 1963). By the time he returned, the square footage was approaching 6 million and today it surpasses 9 million.

"Because the newer buildings have generally been different from the older buildings, most of my time here has been spent trying to make connections between old and new," he said. "I have been particularly interested in transitional buildings, like Wu Hall, that help make those connections."

Hlafter said it's critical to him not so much that he feels he has left his "stamp" on the campus, but that he has helped make the walkways and spaces between buildings feel right. "They are as important to the success of the campus as the mortar in a stone wall," he said.

Hlafter should be somewhat of an expert in stonework, following the construction of Whitman College. At the peak of the project, almost 80 stone masons worked on the walls with more than 6,000 tons of stone from two quarries in New York.

"There was a great deal of conversation about how we would make sure the material from two quarries was mixed in a way that would make it seem as though it was from one location," said Mark Burstein, executive vice president. "We were also very concerned that the stone masons on the project had not worked on a project of this magnitude and so their skill may not be up to the challenge. Jon calmed my concern by reassuring me that he would personally inspect the work of the masons for the first weeks on the site until he felt comfortable with the mix and workmanship.

"The stone masons started on the retaining wall on the west side of the project," he continued. "Jon went to the site every day and provided in his usual fashion respectful but clear feedback to the crews. They were not allowed to move to another section until their work rose to Jon's standard. This training and evaluation took many hours and was a key ingredient to the success of the project."

No detail too small

Hlafter's attention to detail is legendary, and part of what has made him excel in his work, according to colleagues.

Natalie Shivers, associate University architect for planning, remembers an incident from a campus tour she took with Hlafter during her job interview a few years ago.

"As we were walking around this large and complex campus, with centuries-old buildings and landscapes and bulldozers and cranes appearing on almost every horizon, we strolled past a not-very-large hole in the ground next to a building," she said. "Jon stopped, looked at it and wondered what the hole was doing there -- it was a construction or repair effort that he didn't know about. I was so amazed that he knew every inch of the campus so well that he was aware -- or felt he should be aware -- of holes in the ground, not to mention all the new buildings, interior renovations, landscapes, courtyards, etc.

"His remark seemed to signify not only his familiarity with the campus whose physical development he has stewarded for so many decades, but also his concern with all details of that development, knowing how much the small and seemingly mundane issues matter to the physical well-being of the campus and how that translates into the well-being of the people who live and work here," she said.

Pam Hersh, who served as the University's director of community and state affairs from 1990 to 2006, relied on Hlafter's vast knowledge and expertise to help shepherd many projects through the various local boards.

"My one overriding impression about Jon is the creative glint in his eye when he gets talking about his campus," said Hersh, who is now vice president for government and community affairs for the Princeton HealthCare System. "His whole demeanor lights up -- he is not a rah, rah, back slapping, loud orange and black kind of guy -- but nothing matches his animation when you get him talking about a walkway, a particular nook and cranny, a garden, the materials used in a building, etc. No detail escapes his love. He is a parent par excellence to every millimeter of the campus architectural creations."

That "creative glint" emerged in a conversation about two recent projects -- the Collegiate Gothic Whitman College designed by Demetri Porphyrios that was completed last year on the west side of campus and the postmodernist Lewis Library that was designed by Frank Gehry and will be finished this year on the east side of campus.

How can we have two such extremely different buildings on one campus? After a conversation with Hlafter, it all makes sense. Unrolling an aerial rendering of the southern part of campus, he showed the Collegiate Gothic corridor stretching north from Whitman to Holder and Madison halls on Nassau Street. Then he pointed to the ellipse bordering Poe and Pardee fields.

Moving from west to east along the ellipse, he indicated how each building changes slightly from more traditional to more modernist, from Bloomberg, to Scully, to Icahn -- with its futuristic atrium. By the time one reaches Washington Road, a Gehry building with its signature bold, curved shapes, seems to make sense. That look in his eye was there. 

Jon Hlafter

Continued influence

Hlafter's efforts have been recognized from the local to the national levels. In 2002, he received the Historical Society of Princeton's Historic Preservation Award for his leadership in building and landscape preservation. In 2004, he was honored for his significant contributions to the profession by selection to the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows.

Thomas Wright, who began working with Hlafter when he joined the administration in 1972, said, "During his remarkable career, Jon almost certainly has had more impact on the built Princeton campus than any other one person in its more than 250 years -- including the estimable architects of Nassau Hall and the various Collegiate Gothic dorms. Literally hundreds of buildings, renovations, additions, interiors, labs, libraries, fields, courtyards, pathways, gardens, benches, vistas, sculptures and more bear his personal imprint.

"All of this has been done by him, over the years, with completely consistent devotion to the hallmarks of his work: an eye for beauty, insistence on functionality, commitment to quality construction, careful stewardship of University resources, and all in the service of a profound understanding for and love of Princeton," said Wright, who retired as vice president and secretary of the University in 2004. "Many of the most distinguished architects, builders and landscape architects in the world of the past half-century did work at Princeton, always overseen by Jon -- every one of them whom I got to know well repeated at some point the familiar adage that an architect does his best work in the service of an exceptional client; and all invariably added that Princeton, under Jon's leadership, represented for them that truth."

In the 1990s, Hlafter collaborated with Machado Silvetti Associates, a Boston firm of architects and planners, to develop and implement a master plan for campus growth. Over the past two-plus years, he again played an integral role in developing the 10-year Campus Plan unveiled this winter by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners of New York.

"As a part of our research, the campus planning team went on a tour of Beatrix Farrand-designed landscapes," said Neil Kittredge, a partner of Beyer Blinder Belle. "As we stopped for lunch at the beautifully restored Wyman House garden, Jon pulled me aside for what I assumed would be one of our many discussions about the design of the campus. To my surprise instead he said that as long as we were right there, he felt compelled to tell me that we were standing near the spot where he had proposed to his wife.

"I remember this because it reminds me how much the campus is a space where the lives of so many people have unfolded (which now includes my own), and how the stewardship of the campus and its special sense of place was both a personal and professional journey for Jon," Kittredge said. "I am very honored to have had the chance to work closely with Jon and learn from him over nearly three years of our involvement with the Campus Plan, and I am proud to say that countless of Jon's ideas and aspirations for the campus, both large and small, and cultivated over many years, have enriched our planning effort, and through the plan will continue to influence the development of the campus for years to come."

Hlafter said he looks forward to spending more time with his wife of 43 years, Patricia, and hopes they will have more opportunities to travel. They also anticipate spending more time with their children, Meredith, who graduated from Princeton in 1991 and now lives in Woodbridge, N.J., and Jon, who graduated from Princeton in 1997 and now lives in New York City, and their spouses as well as two granddaughters.

Looking back over the career he dedicated to Princeton, Tilghman concluded, "Jon leaves a tremendous legacy for the University, for which we are deeply grateful."