When Jon Hlafter ’61 *63 took a course on visual perception as part of his architectural studies as an undergraduate, a typical test would ask the class to draw a cross-section of Alexander Hall or to reproduce the color of the curtain in the Garden Theater.
“It caused me to notice details more than ever before,” Hlafter recalled in an interview with PAW last month. “I learned something about the campus virtually every day” — and even today, he says, he finds something new each day as he travels around the campus.
Hlafter has been overseeing the Princeton campus since 1968 — first as director of physical planning and, since 2004, as University architect. This month he is stepping down, just short of his 69th birthday, amid praise for his role in shaping everything that has happened physically to the campus for four decades — the buildings, the landscape, the walkways.
During that time the University has grown from about 6 million square feet of building space to more than 9 million square feet — an increase of about 50 percent. Hlafter said he does not see himself as a master builder, however. “I am basically a steward,” he said. “My role is to connect new things to old things, to make connections as helpful and as inspiring as they can be.”
President Tilghman cited Hlafter’s “deep understanding of and appreciation for the aesthetic qualities that make up the experience of living and working in our community.”
Hlafter has been closely involved with planning for the campus as a whole as well as with individual building projects from their inception to their completion, said Robert K. Durkee ’69, University vice president and secretary. This includes coordinating the list of architects invited to submit proposals for specific projects, as well as being the University’s primary contact with an architect during design and construction work.
As an example, vice president for facilities Michael McKay said that Hlafter worked very closely with architect Demetri Porphyrios *80 in “guiding the overall design” of Whitman College.
Hlafter said he wanted to see the completion of Whitman College, which opened in September, and the Lewis Science Library, which is largely finished and expected to open in the fall, before he retired. Tilghman praised the two projects as “the capstones” of Hlafter’s career at Princeton, saying they capture “his insistence that its buildings, vistas, and walkways are of the highest quality.”
Hlafter is well known to alumni for his trademark bow ties as well as campus tours and visual presentations on how the campus developed historically. “He has an incredible reservoir of knowledge about the campus,” said Stan Allen *88, dean of the architecture school. “He’s got a story about every building.”
Don’t ask Hlafter which are his favorite buildings on campus, however — he says that would be like asking which of his children he likes best. He likewise declined to say which building project has been most controversial. “I try not to keep score on that stuff,” he said, adding that a single project can prompt one critic to complain it is too traditional while another says it is too modern.
He said he enjoyed projects that have given new life to old buildings, citing the 2003 renovation of East Pyne. Perhaps his most critical role, he said, has been to represent the University in securing approval of building projects from local officials.
McKay said he hopes that a new architect will be announced by the end of March. Hlafter, who will be named University architect emeritus upon his retirement, has agreed to work on special projects for a year.
“Jon’s contributions to Princeton can be measured by the way people feel about the campus,” Durkee said. “For most alumni, it is exceedingly attractive and appealing.”