Web Exclusives: Under the Ivy
a column by Jane Martin paw@princeton.edu

March 8, 2006:

‘The vital power of a great affection’
Moses Taylor Pyne 1877 was one of Princeton’s most influential supporters

In late January Princeton announced that Peter Lewis ’55 had pledged $101 million to foster the teaching of the arts at Princeton – a gift that brought his total donations to his alma mater to more than $220 million. “Peter’s extraordinary gift,” said President Tilghman, “firmly establishes him as one of the most significant benefactors in all of Princeton’s history.”

Indeed, Lewis’s many contributions recall the generosity of another munificent Princeton donor: Moses Taylor Pyne 1877.

Financially, it’s hard to compare the two, because no one knows how much money Pyne actually gave to the University. Son and grandson to presidents of the National City Bank in New York City, Pyne was born into a large fortune. After his graduation from Princeton, where he played football and, according to a remembrance in PAW in 1955, “acquired a lasting taste for Latin and Greek,” he went to work for another family business, the Lackawanna Railroad. In 1891, however, he retired to manage his finances and charitable causes – chief among them Princeton. He had already moved to Drumthwacket, the sweeping estate south of the campus on what would become Route 206 (Drumthwacket itself would later become the New Jersey governor’s mansion).

He had also, at the tender age of 28, already been named to the Board of Trustees at the urging of President James McCosh, who reportedly complained that the existing board was “full of old dotards and sometimes they go to sleep.” More important, PAW pointed out, “they spent their waking hours in opposing Dr. McCosh and the modern educational world.” So McCosh finagled a spot for Pyne on the board in 1884, a move that would have an enormous impact on the University.

After Pyne’s retirement from the railroad, he threw himself into the development of Princeton in almost every imaginable way. He had a significant impact on alumni involvement with their college, pushing for the formation of alumni clubs and the Alumni Council, writing out in longhand and distributing a directory of Princeton alumni, and, in 1900, helping to start PAW, of which he was the first chairman of the editorial board.

He also guided the physical development of the campus. As chairman of the buildings and grounds committee of the trustees, PAW noted, he “took such a proprietary attitude toward College property that in his letters he used to talk of ‘my vines about East and West Colleges.’ ” Pyne was an early proponent of the use of the Gothic style for campus buildings, fearing that with the variety of buildings erected to date, Princeton might “become a sort of visual history of American passing tastes.” The buildings erected during his time on the board, from Blair Hall to his namesake Pyne Halls to the Graduate College, reflected this sensibility.

Pyne was a leading figure in the development of the Graduate College. Before the Graduate College was built, he bought an estate that he gave to the University rent-free for the housing of graduate students. In the epic Princeton battle between Dean Andrew Fleming West and President Woodrow Wilson over the Graduate School, Pyne sided with West, with the result that the Graduate College was built at a distance from the undergraduate campus. Nonetheless, Wilson always counted Pyne as a friend. When Wilson resigned as president in 1910, Pyne’s name was at the top of the list of possible replacements, but he declined the offer, believing he could be more effective on the board.

As to his financial contributions, that’s where the accounting becomes murky. For 25 years Pyne regularly gave money whenever asked. “It became apparent,” PAW recorded, “whenever the college needed a classroom building or a row of houses or a parcel of land, after a decent interval there it was – Pyne either by himself or with a group of friends had met the subscription and named it after someone else, e.g. McCosh Hall. During his lifetime it was persistently rumored that he used to meet the annual deficit of the University with a personal check on the day of Commencement.” He gave money for professorships and even, according to PAW, helped to pay off some of Woodrow Wilson’s personal debts as a young professor if he promised to remain at Princeton for at least five years.

When Pyne died in 1921, the University canceled classes and businesses on Nassau Street closed. His funeral procession from Drumthwacket to Princeton Cemetery wound through both the Graduate College and the undergraduate campus, followed by hundreds of townspeople and students. An editorial in The Saturday Evening Post wrote that “he found more time to work consistently for the welfare of one of the great educational institutions of the country than most successful men give to their businesses. … He went around doing good … like a man on a secret errand. …He was a full example of the vital power of a great affection.”

To which Pyne might have replied, as he did to Wilson upon being honored after 25 years of service, “Non sum dignus, amici”: Friend, I am not worthy.


Jane Martin ’89 is PAW's former editor-in-chief. You can reach her at paw@princeton.edu