Last week I witnessed the relocation of Court Club, later Stevenson Hall, to its new place across Prospect Street. It was moved to make way for new campus building construction. That herculean task was also a metaphor for another moving experience: the disappearing public memory of the Court Club’s successor namesake, perhaps for a new campus narrative construction.
I’m talking about Adlai E. Stevenson ’22 (1900-1965), the great American 20th century public servant. At Princeton he majored in history, managed The Daily Princetonian, and belonged to Whig Clio and Quadrangle Club. Before World War II he served in several Federal positions. In 1945, he helped create the United Nations and was a member of its first U.S. delegations. In 1948 Stevenson became Governor of Illinois. In 1952 and 1956, he ran for president against Dwight Eisenhower. President Kennedy appointed him U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, where he helped America navigate during 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
I wrote my senior thesis on Stevenson. He had donated his papers to Princeton. I remember savoring his personally notated letters, cables, and speeches. Particularly moving was to hold his personal draft of his memorable 1952 Democratic nomination acceptance speech. “Let’s talk sense to the American people!”, he memorably intoned. That renowned speech was an apex of refined political oratory and rare civic idealism.
Stevenson a such a notable Princetonian in the Nation’s Service that the campus has three memorials to him. Today, sadly, all three suffer. First is the forgotten legacy of the Stevenson Hall itself. When Court Club (1921-1964) went broke, it was reborn in Stevenson’s name as a non-bicker University-managed dining facility started by undergrads in the Classes of 1968 and 1969. Stevenson Hall had a strong commitment to political activism “within the system.” During the Vietnam War, it headquartered the 1970 Movement for New Congress. But last year’s public debate about saving his namesake building barely referenced Stevenson Hall, instead emphasizing the anachronistic institutional heritage of a classist, exclusive, and ultimately failed eating club.
Second is the blocked Stevenson memorial window in the Chapel’s South Transept. Completed in 1969, it is a beautiful modernistic representation of the Tree of Life, with “he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water” from Psalms inscribed below. The artist, Ellen Simon, chose this symbolism for Stevenson’s humble, steadfast, and brave work for the “victory of life and righteousness in the perennial struggle against the forces of death and nothingness.” In my student days and long thereafter, I communed with that window whenever in the Chapel. Now I cannot. Some years ago, an administrator ordered that the stairs to the Undercroft near Stevenson’s window be secured. A locked door was placed in the window’s alcove entrance, forever blocking public access to this charming, cherished spot.
Third — and worst — is the ghosting of Stevenson’s bust in the former Wilson School, now SPIA. Since 1968, a handsome life-sized bust of Stevenson sat humbly on a tall, rectangular mount in the lobby. Sculptured by Elizabeth Gordon Chandler, the realistic head avuncularly canted forward, casting its warm eyes downward with a teacher’s mentoring gaze, its distinctive high forehead reflecting light back to us actually and figuratively. I passed by Stevenson’s bust innumerable times, nearly always thanking it for so well representing so admirable a public service role model.
Two years ago, the bust disappeared. I wrote to SPIA’s facilities manager to learn why. His response: “During the renovation of Robertson Hall, a committee of faculty and administrators was formed to evaluate the School’s extensive art collection and establish criteria for selection and placement of pieces displayed post-renovation. The committee elected not to display the bust of Stevenson in the lobby at the time of Robertson Hall’s re-opening ... .”
What art now graces the SPIA lobby? Mario Moore’s The Great Reckoning, 2020–21, a giant oil painting on linen. I like Reckoning’s invocation of Frederick Douglass. I relate to its Civil War imagery. However, its “moralizing epic” nature with “contesting histories” narrative, as the Art Museum describes it, feels propagandistic. The artist’s “insistence that its buyer lend it to an institution where it would be on public display” seems narcissistic and manipulative. Thus, the piece’s ethos seems opposite that of Stevenson’s. What did the faculty and administrator committee intend by simultaneously removing this modest bust of a model public servant from Princeton’s school of public service?
How can we refresh the legacy of this great Princetonian now fading from view? For Stevenson Hall, affix a commemorative interpretative plaque at its entrance. For the Stevenson Memorial Window, relocate the locked door to allow direct access to the window. For the Stevenson bust, resurrect it from its storage purgatory and return it to its rightful perch in Robertson Hall.
Here’s hoping that Princeton leadership today will continue to acknowledge, respect, and appreciate legacies of past great Princetonians in the Nation’s Service who still live in our memories. Adlai Stevenson concluded his 1952 acceptance speech with a verse from Micah 6:8. Thanks to Princeton, it became my own life’s mission verse and future epitaph. As Stevenson reminded us all, may Princeton’s current heritage stewards likewise in their work always “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.”