Princeton: America's Campus
W. Barksdale Maynard
Penn State University Press, 2012
288 pp., 26.61
Inner Sanctum: Memory and Meaning in Princeton's Faculty Room at Nassau Hall
Princeton University Press, 2010
128 pp., 45.00
Princeton and the Gothic Revival: 1870-1930 (Publications of the Art Museum, Princeton University, 20)
Johanna G. Seasonwein
Princeton University Art Museum, 2012
128 pp., 39.95
Matthew J. Milliner
Ghosts of Princeton Past
There is a place in Princeton wherefrom one can (figuratively speaking) see all of America. I am referring to the top of a particular parking garage. To the left can be seen, through power lines and foliage, the tomb of Jonathan Edwards, third president of the revivalist enclave known as the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was then called). To the right can be seen the finials of the University Chapel, designed by the great American neo-Gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram. Within that chapel Jonathan Edwards is depicted twice: in pollard oak at the high altar, and in sumptuous stained glass as well. Edwards' Puritan forbears had escaped the luxuriant Gothic of Cambridge and Oxford, but traces of medieval beauty lingered in Edwards' writing and homiletics, demanding materialization. Overlooking Princeton's bric-à-brac skyline, dappled by what remains of evening light, it seems as if Gothic Princeton sprang up spontaneously from the seed of Edwards' holy bones.
I have a hard time believing that such an impression could be conveyed to 10,000 students at once in one of Princeton's MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses). One needs to be on premises. Notwithstanding overconfident prophecies that "the residential college campus will become largely obsolete," college students, most reports seem to indicate, are as yet embodied creatures—and where they study matters at least as much as what. Liberal arts advocates scrambling for the latest justification for their endangered endeavor have many recent defenses at their disposal, but they would do well to also pick up three recent publications regarding Princeton's campus, for renewed attention to the importance of American college environs has every reason to begin with the place where the term "campus" was coined.
The subtitle of W. Barksdale Maynard's long awaited overview of Princeton's complex formation—"America's Campus"—broadcasts that a place which once served as the nation's capital is no private possession of the Ivy élite. Maynard, himself a graduate of Princeton's Department of Art & Archaeology, has valiantly fought for the preservation of Princeton's historic campus. His lovingly wrought narrative transcends traditional campus guide or encyclopedic reference work by taking the best of both genres, weaving archival photographs and measured judgments into a rigorously researched, beautifully told architectural history, which—due to Princeton's Puritan, Classical, Romanesque, Gothic, Venetian, Modern, and now Postmodern phases—is also a condensed history of American architecture itself.
Two specialized studies complement Maynard's history. Inner Sanctum, a collection of superb essays edited by Karl Kusserow, compellingly details the history of Princeton's core building, Nassau Hall, the largest building in the colonies when it was constructed in 1756. The volume contains a reproduction of Toni Morrison's memorable address that elucidates the spirit of Princeton as a place—including her statement that the College of New Jersey at its founding stood for "the belief that inner experience counted for more than accepted doctrines of the church." Morrison's statement is followed, only a few pages lager, by the colonial governor of New Jersey's description of his motivation for supporting the new college, namely that at Harvard and Yale, "Arminianism, Arianism and even Socinianism, in destruction of the doctrine of free grace are daily propagated." Of course, Morrison and the governor are both, in their own ways, correct: The College of New Jersey was intended to be a place where the inner experience of the First Great Awakening inhabited (without contradicting) the necessary contours of orthodox faith.
At first, the buildings did not seem to matter much to this Christian educational enterprise. Nassau Hall's plain style embodied the humblebrag by Aaron Burr, Sr., that at the College of New Jersey, "[we] do everything in the plainest … manner … having no superfluous ornaments." Embarrassed by such simplicity, later architects Benjamin Latrobe and John Notman did their best to enhance this Puritan plain style with European refinement. But the effects were awkward. Notman's Italianate interventions are described by Sean Wilentz in Inner Sanctum as "an imitation Tuscan villa … an architectural vandalizing of Nassau Hall more damaging than anything [done by] the redcoats and rebels of 1777."
The renovations of Nassau Hall's storied interior were more successful. It began as a prayer hall, then became a museum of geology and archaeology until its most recent transformation as the Faculty Room, patterned after London's House of Commons. This American Valhalla is now home to some of the most famous portraits in American history. Therein a portrait of George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale replaced one of King George II (the head of which—legend has it—was lopped off by a canon ball fired at General Washington's command). The same frame was used for both. "Few American paintings, and indeed, few portraits anywhere," explains Karl Kusserow, "are so elaborately involved in their own history." There also is in the Faculty Room what might be called an American version of Raphael's School of Athens: a portrait of the Idealist Edwards serving for Plato, and the Scottish Realist John Witherspoon for Aristotle. It was not just their ideas that were talked about—these famous teachers had also to be seen.
Princeton and the Gothic Revival 1870-1930, a result of the painstaking curatorial work of Johanna Seasonwein, takes up the middle chapter in Princeton's architectural past. Among its many merits is the author's uncovering the neglected (for having been destroyed) architectural splendor of what we might call evangelical Princeton, the time when the campus functioned for many students as "something of an Ivy League Bible College." In the mid-19th century, construction of the college's first free-standing chapel was halted due to its cruciform design. Presbyterian trustees threatened to withhold building funds because the cross smelt of popery. But Scottish Presbyterian president James McCosh overcame this suspicion, insisting that buildings could "at best [be] an outward expressions and symbols of an internal life," helping to inaugurate Princeton's Richardsonian Romanesque phase—a halfway house to the Gothic. The style's strong presence in Protestant Gemany's Rundbogenstil ("round arch style") made it a safe first step to medieval splendor.
The next step, surprisingly enough, was Byzantine. "The Byzantine church, without doubt," wrote architect Richard Holman Hunt, "presents superior advantages over all other types for Protestant worship." Hunt's Marquand Chapel (destroyed by fire in 1920) was a postmodern mélange before its time. Seasonwein makes the fascinating case that its tower deliberately resembled Sacré Coeur overlooking the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris, itself a neo-Byzantine structure. Marquand Chapel even had a polykandelon such as one can see in Orthodox churches on Mount Athos! When it whirls during the liturgy, it feels like the gears of a giant saint-making machine—and it is thrilling to think that something similar went on at Princeton. The chapel's stained glass windows conveyed the essence of college life, with Jonathan and David (evoking friendship) flanking the verse, "Remember now the Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them" (Ecc. 12:1).
But the Aesthetic Movement eclecticism of Marquand Chapel was deemed insufficient. Princeton president Woodrow Wilson's trip to Oxford and Cambridge sealed his conviction that only the English educational model could resist the Germanic research ideal that he had so disliked in his training at Johns Hopkins. Hence, Cambridge's St. John's College Main Gate was directly reflected in Princeton's Blair Hall (1885-1912), and Princeton's Holder Tower (1893-1927) is a reprise of the 15th-century tower of Canterbury Cathedral. And while the jewel in the campus crown is rightly understood to be Ralph Adams Cram's University Chapel, Princeton's Graduate College is an equally magnificent Gothic encapsulation of the Christian liberal arts ideal.
Wilson had hoped the Graduate College would be more integrated with the undergraduate campus, but the victory went to Dean Andrew West, who argued for a graduate school set apart—and the commission went to Ralph Adams Cram, who designed a medieval cloister with a magnificent refectory featuring a hammerbeam ceiling worthy of Hogwart's. Therein, the west window unfurls a traditional personification of the seven liberal arts as seven women, with Christ—who embodies all wisdom—centrally depicted teaching in the temple below. The starry night above alludes to Daniel 12:3, hoping that the effect of education will be to "instruct many to justice, as stars for all eternity." The window's salient impression is best conveyed by a poem published by Tom English in Scribner's (August 1920), which describes the fading of the glory of blue, green and gold at evening:
The figures from the window fade away.
Vanish the sister arts of Christian lore,
Vanish the reverend doctors of the Law;
Yet from the darkened panes shines as before
One Face that fills the soul with love and awe.
So, when the arts are dead, and systems fail,
Knowledge is dimmed, and wisdom's works decay,
Hidden all signs behind the obscuring veil,
From Thine own face will shine the saving ray—
English's poem describes a condition in which all learning fades, and we are left only with Christ, who disputed among the doctors without the benefit of a liberal arts education. The window also foreshadows the expansion of this theme in the Princeton University Chapel, which would further fuse the teachings and life of Jesus with each of the liberal arts. So moved by English's poem was William Willet, the window's creator, that he invited the poet to his home. There the poet met the artist's daughter Rachel, who had served as one of the models for the personified academic pursuits. Sweetly enough, they later married. Talk about falling in love with the liberal arts.
"I dreamed of what a hundred years will do. The gray walls will mellow and the soft-tinted stones will be lichened." So mused one Princeton scholar in a provocatively titled address, "Humanizing the Ph.D." just after Proctor Hall was constructed. Thankfully, much has changed over the last century at Princeton—not least the inclusion of women in this educational vision (Princeton was once for men only) and minorities who were also unjustifiably barred.
But less favorable changes have come as well. It is disheartening to slip into Proctor Hall today and realize it functions as a casual food court where meals, unlike those at the Oxbridge dining halls that inspired it, are unceremoniously consumed. The dark-robed processions and Latin prayers have ceased, and the German research ideal, so odious to Wilson, seems to have had its way. Hyper-specialized graduate students mostly live in scattered, comparatively soulless apartments. The Graduate College is now known chiefly for the "DBar" that meets in its bowels, heavily patronized by snickering seminarians. And yet, the inscription below the great west window has not been removed: Nec vocemini magistri: quia Magister vester unus est, Christus ("Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, Christ," Matt. 23:8). Paul Griffiths may be right to complain that "the rhetoric of mastery, dominance and control is everywhere in our academic institutions." But that in no way applies to this sense of mastery, one at the foundation of what it means to pursue graduate and undergraduate study in the United States.
I once heard of a fellow graduate student—an atheist—who complained of the effect that this campus was having upon him. He was right to be annoyed. Ralph Adams Cram's expressed architectural intention at Princeton was to "work silently and subconsciously towards bringing back once more … those supra-material, supra-intellectual forces which, to say the least, add so immeasurably to the joy and the fullness of life." Cram called his campus plan for Princeton "a walled city against materialism and all its works," and it was amusing to discover that his protest, a century later, was still doing its work. To preserve his atheism, my colleague would do better (just to be safe) to switch to a more nondescript campus. Perhaps the University of Phoenix, or maybe—lest there be any unexpected intrusions of transcendence—just an online degree.
Matthew J. Milliner, a graduate of the Department of Art & Archaeology at Princeton University, is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.
1. Nathan Harden, "The End of the University as We Know It," The American Interest (January/February 2013, the-american-interest.com/article?.cfm?piece=1352.
2. P. C. Kemeny, Princeton in the Nation's Service: Religious Ideals and Educational Practice: 1868-1928 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1998), p. 56.
3. Another curious Byzantine comparison, brought to mind by the photographs of Marquand Chapel reproduced by Seasonwein, is Studenica monastery, the great 12th-century Serbian Orthodox complex in central Serbia, which will be of particular delight to the many Serbian art historians who studied at Princeton under Slobodan Curcic, a career celebrated in Mark J. Johnson, Robert Ousterhout, Amy Papalexandrou, eds., Approaches to Byzantine Architecture and Its Decoration: Studies in Honor of Slobodan Curcic (Ashgate, 2012).
4. The Daily Princetonian, Vol. 52, No. 185, February 22, 1928, p. 27.
5. Paul Griffiths, "From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Learning," in David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith, eds., Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith (Eerdmans, 2011).
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
See all comments