McCosh 50’s squeaky floor and aging seats have been replaced, but it has retained its familiar look.
John McBay/Perfect Exposure Imaging

Ron McCoy *80, University architect
Courtesy Office of the University Architect
When it comes to rooms that embody Princeton’s aesthetic, few can rival McCosh 50, the venerable lecture hall that has hosted Supreme Court justices, Nobel laureates, and some of the University’s most popular courses. 

“It is one of the most iconic spaces on campus,” said University Architect Ron McCoy *80. “It’s just a glorious space that has all kinds of character-defining elements of the Princeton campus. It also is a real workhorse as a place for teaching.”

The University recently completed an overhaul of the 113-year-old hall, upgrading the technological tools that today’s faculty rely on — including the largest video screen in an academic building on campus — while aiming to maintain the character of the space. 

McCoy said the project included improvements in visibility and acoustics. Subtle changes were made to the lighting, seating was adjusted to enhance sight lines, and acoustic-performing insulation was added to the ceiling, along with tiny perforations in the new wooden ceiling panels. The most noticeable change may be at the ground level:  The installation of new wood flooring and subflooring has removed the familiar squeaks that made it nearly impossible for latecomers to slip into the room without being noticed. 

The seats are also new, but at first glance, they appear nearly identical to the distinctive McCosh chairs used by generations of Princetonians. The new version includes a soft cushion — “to make those long lectures more comfortable,” McCoy said — and is about two inches wider and two inches deeper than the original (also for comfort, but perhaps a reflection of how body shapes have changed in the span of a century).

COVID-19 has delayed the renovated McCosh 50’s use for classes and events, but McCoy is looking forward to the hall’s next public lecture, whenever it may be. “I think the first impression will be that nothing has changed but it looks better,” he said.

While many of the University’s daily activities have been disrupted by the pandemic, construction on campus has progressed steadily. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy allowed higher-education construction work to continue in April and early May, when other projects were restricted by the state’s stay-at-home rules. In addition to the work at McCosh, two notable projects were completed over the summer: an interior renovation of Robertson Hall, which McCoy said will foster community and “serendipitous encounters”; and a reconfiguration of the engineering library, which has moved from the Friend Center to the space that bridges the Lewis Science Library and Fine Hall. 

Renderings of the two new residential colleges
Courtesy of Deborah Berke Partners
South of Poe Field, the foundations have been laid and steel framing is being erected for two new residential colleges — Perelman College and a yet-to-be-named eighth college — that are scheduled to open in the fall of 2022. Those colleges will usher in an expansion of the undergraduate student body, increasing enrollment by 125 students per year for a total of 500 additional students.

The renovated interior of Robertson Hall
Nic Lehoux/Architectural Photography
The site of the residential colleges spans approximately 10 acres, including space formerly occupied by athletics facilities for soccer, softball, and tennis. New homes for those teams (as well as the varsity squash programs) are being built elsewhere. Soccer’s new Roberts Stadium will be east of Jadwin Gym and Princeton Stadium, and the FitzRandolph Observatory is being demolished to clear space for it. Stones from the observatory, which were originally part of its predecessor, the Halsted Observatory (1869–1932), will be saved for possible use in future projects, McCoy said.

Softball will move to the new Lake Campus, on the southern side of Lake Carnegie. That area also will house the racquet center, which features courts for indoor and outdoor tennis and squash. The racquet center will have a fitness facility that will be open to the campus community, including those living in the new Lake Campus graduate housing, targeted to open for the 2023–24 academic year.

Other campus projects on the horizon include: 

  • New environmental-studies and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences facilities on Ivy Lane to provide state-of-the-art research space for several departments and programs, including geosciences, ecology and evolutionary biology, the High Meadows Environmental Institute, chemical and biological engineering, and bioengineering. This work is in the design phase, McCoy said.
  • Schmidt Hall, the expanded and refurbished Guyot Hall, which will be home to the computer science department as well as the Center for Information Technology Policy, the Center for Statistics and Machine Learning, and the Princeton Institute for Computational Science and Engineering (see PAW’s July 10, 2019, issue).
  • A new home for the Princeton University Art Museum, designed by Sir David Adjaye and Cooper Robertson (see PAW’s November 2020 issue).
  • Hobson College, designed by the team of PAU, Hanbury, and Joel Sanders/MIXdesign. This will replace First College (the former Wilson College) after the two new residential colleges are completed.

Beneath some of the new construction will be what Princeton’s facilities staff sees as the future of campus energy: geothermal wells — each about 850 feet deep — used in a system that circulates water for heating and cooling buildings. Converting the campus from steam to the more energy-efficient geothermal system will play a significant role in the University’s quest to be carbon-neutral by 2046, McCoy said. A new building known as TIGER (Thermally Integrated Geo-Exchange Resource), on the corner of FitzRandolph and Faculty roads, will manage the system on the East Campus. “People will not see [the geothermal system] the way you see a new art museum, but it’s a significant investment in the infrastructure of the future campus,” McCoy said.

What are your favorite McCosh 50 memories? Send your memories of lectures, speakers, and more to or send a comment to Inbox below. Responses may appear in a future issue.