When it comes to architecture, Princeton students live in the past

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 is teaching a course at Princeton this spring on the University’s architecture. His fourth book is Woodrow Wilson and the Battle of Princeton: The Making of an American President (Yale, 2008).

In 1954, Princeton’s building committee debated whether Nassau Hall should be brick or stone. I’ll bet voices were raised and tempers flared, because that’s how it’s been around here ever since: Campus architecture inspires strong feelings.

Everybody has an opinion, especially alumni. Nine years ago, many of them cheered when Catesby Leigh ’79 wrote a manifesto in PAW demanding a collegiate gothic future. A few years later, a plan for Whitman College was approved, in purest Oxfordian gothic. But those who hoped for more and more crenellations are disappointed by the plans for Butler College, where the much-reviled New New Quad will be replaced by something that resembles Robert Venturi ’47 *50’s Wu Hall, not Whitman. The alumni architects who called Leigh antediluvian probably are happy, but my students are incredulous — “Wu Hall? What are they thinking?” These students are unimpressed by this landmark of the Postmodern movement of 25 years ago and feel patronized by its interior, “that dining hall that looks like a kindergarten cafeteria.” I hope they aren’t sitting on the trustees’ Committee on Grounds and Buildings in 2038 when the idea comes up of demolishing it.

Fighting over Princeton architecture goes back at least as far as Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was excoriated by the trustees when his innovative metal roof on Nassau Hall leaked. There was a big blowup in the 1840s over the chapel by John Notman — its cruciform shape was considered Romish by some, its organ the entering wedge for Satan. Fifty years later it was demolished for Pyne Library, which made for the biggest battle yet, since the University also tore down adjacent East College. “The Crime of ’96” really was about growing pains, as alumni were sorry to see the little school they remembered doubling in size and pretentiously calling itself a university. Saving East College meant hanging onto their youth. It’s poignant to find, as late as the 1930s, old men writing letters in quavering script demanding it be rebuilt.

The choice in 1896 to make collegiate gothic the official Princeton style was controversial. “Wholly un-American,” critics fumed. Gothic connoted Oxford, yes, but it also meant Anglophilia at a school that had led the charge for independence in 1776 under Witherspoon — Princeton ought to be colonial, they said. As usual with architecture, there was a deeper subtext: With all that elaborate carving and leaded glass, gothic implied worldly show. Professor Stockton Axson, a minister’s son, came in 1899: “I saw that Princeton was selling its birthright; [it] was in great peril of losing the simplicity of a country college town, and becoming merely a fashionable suburb for New York City.” Gothic played into that new snob appeal.

But most people adored collegiate gothic as developed here by genius architects Cope and Stewardson, Day and Klauder, and Ralph Adams Cram. We still love it, no one more so than my freshmen. They exult to live in Rocky and Mathey. The envy of students stuck in Wilson is heartrending. Some say Whitman College is meant to spread the gothic experience more widely, as if living in proximity to Fitzgeraldesque spires and gargoyles is an inalienable right. 

It is strange how collegiate gothic retains its hold on us in spite of the fact that most of the values it celebrated are now considered repugnant. We would have been horrified if on dedication day, Whitman architect Demetri Porphyrios *80 boasted of its being “poetic, collegiate, racial.” But that’s how Cram referred to Blair Hall by Cope and Stewardson — to him, the perfect expression of the Anglo-Saxon heritage. Dormitories bristling with ye olde heraldic shields and machicolations were going up, as historian James Axtell has shown, just as the administration was seeking creative ways to scare off Catholic and “Hebrew” applicants. 

A famous donnybrook arose over the chapel in the 1920s. “A heavy artillery of criticism was brought to bear,” President Hibben sighed, “and I found myself at the center of an enfilading fire.” Of 12,000 alumni, 1,000 were ministers with definite opinions. Many wanted a colonial chapel like Harvard’s, enshrining sober Presbyterianism, and were scandalized when Cram proposed a full-blown English gothic treatment, Anglican up to its crockets and pinnacles. 

The chapel’s medieval-style stained glass still was being installed when the Depression hit like an autumn hurricane, drowning alumni fortunes and wrecking plans for future construction. Skyscraper engineer Frank Voorhees 1900 replaced Cram as supervising architect of the campus just at the time Frank Lloyd Wright arrived to deliver a series of feisty lectures. Modernism was at the door, and a struggle began that has not yet ended: Does Beauty have a place anymore?

There was plenty of time in the 1930s for arguing about the proposed library, Firestone, the construction of which was delayed until after V-J Day. Progressives foamed at the mouth over its fakery, “a modern plan encased in a late medieval frosting,” as James Breasted ’32 of the Los Angeles County Museum put it — “girder Gothic,” an “architectural sham.” William Lescaze, architect of the PSFS Building in Philadelphia, condemned Firestone in The New York Times, sparking a furor echoed in Time and Newsweek. 

After the anachronism of a medieval gymnasium and the pathetic last gasp that was 1915 Hall, the gothicists were routed and the way was cleared for New South, the architecture school building, and Jadwin Hall. When young alumnus Brice Clagett ’54 saw the drawings for the E-Quad, he raged against the plan “to deliver the Princeton campus over to these cubists.  ... I had thought that one of the major accomplishments of a liberal Princeton education was to make its students fully aware of the continuity of Western civilization, to make them participants in a culture and a tradition that began long before yesterday. Why must every generation start from scratch?” But such musty pleas were drowned out, and Modernism won — exuberantly starting from scratch, celebrating the creative genius of every pint-sized Gropius over the stultifying trammels of hoary tradition. Reunion Hall of 1869 (by a key architect, George Post) got scratched out, as did the Museum of Historic Art, but famously grotesque Alexander Hall and Chancellor Green Library somehow avoided the purge — fortunately, since they are two of the most critical buildings on campus when I tell students the story of Victorian architecture.
Fifty years later, alma mater is a fascinating Babel of Modernist designs, from I.M. Pei at Spelman Halls to Rafael Viñoly at Icahn Lab. Most great universities have gone in this direction as proof of their sophistication and broadmindedness. For us Princetonians, architectural Modernism was highly effective in overturning a stale identity: Old Nassau as inward-looking, provincial, quirky, aloof. The monastery model was abandoned in favor of the world forum. Minoru Yamasaki’s 1960s lobby at Robertson Hall connotes the United Nations, gleaming white, suffused with rational light, the antithesis of shadowy Holder Cloister. 

My undergraduates, those little aesthetic reactionaries, gladly would trade a thousand Robertsons for one Holder. They swoon like Scarlett come back to Tara when we tour Prospect House, then slander the poor architect who enlarged Woolworth Hall next door to give it that gigantic window that blazes all night above the historic gardens. I was sure I could win them over with the 1963 additions to the Graduate College, that supple reinterpretation of gothic in steel, glass, and concrete, but they refused to leave the old part of the Graduate College to go see it. 

Nor can they understand my delight at the Moderne interiors of Firestone (1946–48), flawless time capsules of the postwar architectural mentality, perfect right down to the hand-painted sans-serif lettering on all the metal doors (“TYPING ROOM”). Long live those Silvray lighting fixtures sparkling in their honeycomb ceilings, the no-frills concrete lower floors that follow the stern dictates of something called Modular Theory, the 500 sturdy steel carrels that could have done double duty as midshipmen’s lockers on a World War II battle cruiser! What Tigers don’t love, Tigers eventually devour (see New New Quad), and I wonder what will happen in the upcoming Firestone restoration — if the decision-makers will treat its reticent Modernist interior as reverentially as they do the charming Gothic exterior. It would be the Crime of  ’08 to mess with it.

I use all kinds of campus architecture to let my students peek into the past. At 18 they may not remember anything earlier than the O.J. trial, but old buildings can transport them to a place where history becomes not just intellectual, but visceral, and I think we need more of this in the humanities nowadays. Princeton is the perfect place: Here we can watch Lafayette bow to cheers on the unchanged front campus, F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 stumble out of his entryway in Little (late for class again), Einstein sneak through the back door of Jones Hall to avoid the flashbulbs. 

Sentimental nonsense, you may say, but freshmen are sentimentalists. To spoil the buildings with remodeling is to rob me of half my pedagogical arsenal — just as a faculty scientist would object to you whacking her lab apparatus with a hammer. It’s harder to imagine Woodrow Wilson arriving for work at his office at 1879 Hall now that it has sprouted a Postmodern growth called Marx. And will this year’s enlargement of the classic Ivy Club (Cope and Stewardson, 1897) leave undefiled its mellowed air of oak-paneled quaintness and still allow us to see Hobey Baker ’14 ebulliently climbing its staircase on his hands?