Princeton University’s Gothic Love Affair

By Doug Wallack

Photography by Charles R. Plohn 

“Here we were taught by men and gothic towers democracy and faith and righteousness and love of unseen things that do not die.” — H.E. Mierow, Class of 1914

So reads the inscription in the arch of Princeton University’s McCosh Hall. It’s not entirely clear how Gothic towers inculcated such lofty virtues in students, but it is clear to anyone who visits campus how the University’s architecture could exercise a powerful influence on them.

Its palette of spires, vaults, and gargoyles is at once imposing and inviting, invoking a cozy romanticism and a timelessness that are central to the University’s sense of place. But Princeton’s castle-like architecture is far from timeless. In fact, at the time of Mierow’s graduation, the University had been home to Gothic buildings for less than two decades.


In the 1890s, Princeton University administrators were planning to expand the campus — as is their habit — and they wanted their new builds to lend the grounds a more unified aesthetic. For the first century and a half of its operation, Princeton University, then known as the College of New Jersey, had planned and sited buildings somewhat haphazardly. The modest rough-hewn stone of the Colonial-era Nassau Hall was offset by the temple-like neoclassicism of the Whig and Clio debate halls, the wild Victorian stylings of Witherspoon Hall, and the staid Renaissance architecture of Brown Hall. Ralph Adams Cram, who was hired as the University’s supervising architect in 1907, would later write that it was “the old ‘park scheme,’ each structure plumped down on its ‘squatter sovereignty’ site, quite self-contained and self-satisfied, with no suspicion of such a thing as team work.” This was fine, he explained, because the campus was so sparsely developed that there was little crowding. But further construction would require that future structures on campus interact more harmoniously.

Princeton’s choice to bring architectural harmony to campus through Gothic buildings reflected a shift in the philosophy of many American university administrators, who in the late 1800s looked to Oxford and Cambridge as models. The OxBridge colleges were fully residential, and administrators at many of their U.S. counterparts began to admire the way a residential college could create a community of scholars, set apart from the world, fully devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. They also came to believe that English collegiate architecture best facilitated this sort of serious scholarship; its enclosed courtyards and cloistered seclusion were ideal for the life of focus they desired for their students. And, of course, they were well aware of the prestige that the appearance of age lent to a university. Later, Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, would approvingly reflect that “by the very simple device of building our new buildings in the Tudor Gothic Style, we seem to have added to Princeton the age of Oxford and Cambridge; we have added a thousand years to Princeton by merely putting those lines in our buildings which point every man’s imagination to the historic traditions of learning in the English-speaking race.”

Princeton commissioned the Philadelphia-based architectural firm Cope and Stewardson to build Blair Hall and Little Hall, which would set the tone for construction on campus for well through the next half century. Walter Cope and John Stewardson, the firm’s partners, were a precocious young duo, neither of whom—perhaps ironically —had completed college. While they were not the first architects to design Gothic educational facilities, their early work at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania established them as leaders in the field. Their buildings utilized modern construction techniques and local building materials while still maintaining the general aesthetic principles of OxBridge buildings. In Princeton, the dormitories they built engendered the desired sense of separation from the outside world, while still allowing for an openness within the campus. That is, rather than building a series of inward-facing courtyards as the English might, Cope and Stewardson built Blair and Little Halls as a long, gently meandering wall that formed the western border of campus. When students arrived at the train station at the foot of Blair Hall and headed up the steps of the arch that framed the richly decorated Alexander Hall in the near distance, it would be clear that they were leaving the rest of the world behind.

John Stewardson died in an ice skating accident in 1896, one year before the Blair and Little were completed, and though his younger brother Emlyn then became a partner in the firm, Cope and Stewardson received no further commissions from Princeton University. Even so, their impact on the subsequent development of campus, and their popularization of the Collegiate Gothic style beyond Princeton, was tremendous. If the American public imagines collegiate architecture as castles and ivy-covered ramparts, it is in large part due to their work.

A Grotesque Legacy

For anyone who visits campus now, one of the easily overlooked charms of Princeton’s Gothic architecture is its wide assortment of gargoyles — those stony men and beasts that peer down, year after year, upon blithely ignorant Princetonians. Some of the gargoyles are meant to blend seamlessly into their apparently centuries-old environment, as is the case with the carving of La Gargouille, a legendary French dragon from the 7th century, who terrorized the people of Rouen, and who — on Princeton’s campus — remains in shackles on the northwest doorway of the chapel. Often, though, the stone carvers and architects didn’t opt for pure historicism with Princeton’s gargoyles, preferring to indulge in minor anachronisms here and there. Above the archway through 1897 Hall, which abuts Prospect Avenue, a monkey sits with a camera — an uncomplaining and eternal security guard for the eastern side of campus, perhaps. On McCosh Hall, a football player sprints toward an end zone that’s always just beyond him. Dinosaurs adorn Guyot Hall, home to the Department of Geosciences. Sometimes we just need to look up.

Castles No More?

By the middle of the 20th century, the American fascination with Collegiate Gothic began to wane, particularly as the sleek modernism and glassy cantilevered creations of the International Style grew in popularity. By the late 1950s, Princeton’s peer institutions had buildings commissioned by the boldest and most important architects of the time: Louis Kahn designed Yale’s renowned modernist art gallery, completed in 1953; and Harvard’s Harkness Commons was completed in 1948 by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School. That same year, Princeton completed its Firestone Library—another Gothic behemoth.

In the eyes of its malcontents, Old Nassau’s architecture was becoming frustratingly and bafflingly old fashioned; Princeton was falling behind. By 1967, The Architectural Forum ran an article by architect and critic John Morris, who lamented that “of all the U.S. universities that have been addicted to Collegiate Gothic architecture, Princeton has probably had the longest and most severe withdrawal pains.” In 1960, Morris writes, Italian architect Enrico Peressutti “resigned publically from the architectural faculty as a reproach to the archaic policy of Princeton’s trustees.” The campus architectural consultant Douglas Orr had been trying to promote the construction of more current buildings, but it was only in that year that Princeton finally began once again to change directions architecturally. The year 1960 saw the completion of the stark brick and cinderblock enclosures of the New Quad (which would shortly become known by their present name—Wilson College). The striking New Formalism of the Woodrow Wilson School, by Minoru Yamasaki—who later designed the former World Trade Center—arrived in 1965, marking another clear departure from Collegiate Gothic. The same year witnessed the completion of the New South Administration Building, which Morris praises at great length, remarking that, “among Princeton’s architecturally informed minority, it is widely admired for its discipline.” In total, by the end of the decade, the University had constructed 26 new buildings, none of which was even remotely Gothic.

But just when it looked like Princeton had fully embraced an eclectic and cosmopolitan campus architecture, in 2004 construction began on the Whitman College, the enormous Gothic fortress designed by Demetri Porphyrios. Completed in 2007, Whitman is a testament to the enduring appeal of the Collegiate Gothic style. It’s a slick rendition, too—one would likely fool most visitors into believing that it is as old as any of Princeton’s Gothic dormitories. Woodrow Wilson would be proud.