Nassau Hall Roof Replacement, Cupola Repair Are Center of Nine-Month Restoration Project
REPAIR AND RESTORATION: Princeton University’s historic Nassau Hall will undergo work to replace its existing slate roof and restore and repaint the cupola. The project is expected to be completed next March.
By Jean Stratton
Nassau Hall, Princeton University’s iconic building, is in the midst of a reconstruction project: specifically to replace the existing roof and to repair and repaint the cupola.
Work began on June 18 and is expected to be completed in March 2019. Scaffolding and fencing will surround the entire building to support the craftspeople and materials needed for the project. Building entrances will remain open, however, and staff may continue to work inside.
During the upcoming restoration, the entire slate roof and copper gutters will be replaced, and snow guards will be added. The structure of the cupola will be restored and repainted, including the cupola’s four clocks and weathervane. Also, the Class of 1879 bronze tigers flanking the front steps will be boxed for protection. University Facilities will oversee the project
“Even though the public will see lots of fencing and scaffolding, the project is really simple repair and restoration,” explains Donald Lowe, the University’s assistant vice president of facilities operations. “We will also include a few modern day safety improvements.”
According to Alexis Mutschler, facilities assistant director of special projects, the roof was last replaced around the early 1960s. The decorative cupola was part of Nassau Hall’s original design, though its look has changed following two significant fires and other renovation work. The clocks on the cupola were modernized in the 1950s, and the clock mechanism was changed from analog to digital in the 1980s.
A slate roof has a very long life, points out Lowe. The new roof is expected to last 75 years or more, and the color will not fade.
A University and national landmark, Nassau Hall has a long and storied history. Built in 1756 on land donated from Nathaniel FitzRandolph (for whom the University’s FitzRandolph Gate — the official entrance to Princeton University— is named), it was originally intended to house all college facilities — classrooms, dormitories, library, chapel, kitchen, and offices. When it was built, it was one of the largest stone buildings in the American colonies.
“For the first 50 years, Nassau Hall and the president’s house were the only structures on campus,” reports Daniel J. Linke, University archivist, Princeton University Library.
Initially, only a few dozen students attended the institution, which was then known as The College of New Jersey, he adds. Founding Father and fourth American President James Madison was a student, and his class of 1771 numbered 15 members. The class of 1800 included 33 students.
During the Revolutionary War, the building was occupied both by the British redcoats and the Continental soldiers. It was shelled by both sides during the Battle of Princeton in 1777, after which it was retaken by the Americans under the command of General George Washington. A scar left from an American cannonball on the south side of the west wing remains visible today.
After the shelling, “the damage was severe enough that funds needed to be raised to do the restoration,” says Linke. “Also, it survived two fires, one in 1802 and another in 1855.”
These were accidental, he adds, noting, “At the time, open flames were the main source of cooking.
“The 1855 fire devastated the interior of the building, and it needed significant reconstruction. Interestingly, when the trustees commissioned the construction of Nassau Hall, they suggested it be built of high quality brick, if it was available, but if not, then of quality stone. It was built of stone, which really saved it from total destruction in the 1855 fire.”
History continued to unfold at Nassau Hall when it served as the location for the Continental Congress from July to November of 1783. Members of the Congress had been forced to flee from Philadelphia when they feared for their safety when angry Continental soldiers who had not been paid, mutinied, notes Linke.
It was also the site where the Congress first learned the British had surrendered and signed a peace treaty granting independence to the former colonies.
The U.S. Department of Interior designated Nassau Hall a National Historic Landmark in 1960, “signifying its importance in the Revolutionary War and in the history of the United States.”
In 1956, the first U.S. commemorative postage stamp printed on colored paper honored Nassau Hall on its bicentennial. It depicted a front view of the building on orange paper, and was presented at the then first class rate of three cents.
“The way I like to describe Nassau Hall is that Nassau Hall was there before the country was a country,” observes Donald Lowe.
Today, Nassau Hall serves as an administrative building, and is the focus of the University’s commencement which is held on the lawn in front of the building.
Continuing to maintain and preserve Nassau Hall in prime condition is of the utmost importance not only to Princeton University but to all those who appreciate its history. As Alexis Mutschler says, “It is an honor to be part of the restoration of such an historic and monumental building as Nassau Hall.”