Underneath the Arches

A view of Alexander Hall through the Blair Arch, Princeton University. Photo courtesy of the Collection of The Historical Society of Princeton. 

Exploring the Lintels, Portals, and Tunnels of Princeton University

By Ilene Dube

Several years ago, during a summer rainstorm of biblical proportions, I found myself trapped on the Princeton University campus. My car was parked on University Place, and, wading through eight inches of water, I saw that all the arches on the western side of campus had become waterfalls. Foaming liquid rushed down the stairways, like Princeton’s own Niagara Falls.

I sought shelter in the University Store, but the combination of the air conditioning and my now-soaked clothing made my teeth rattle, so I found a spot under an awning outside where I had a front-row seat to Blair Arch. It, too, had become a waterfall.

Built in 1897, Blair Arch was at one time a gateway to the University — vintage photographs show the Dinky station located on the lawn in front of its grand staircase. I have heard a cappella groups performing in Blair Arch, their sound resonating against the stone, and Blair Arch is where many a bride and groom, dressed in white lace and black tails, pose for wedding photographs.

Holder Hall. Photo by Charles R. Plohn.

I wasn’t alone under the awning. About 25 people had gathered beneath the makeshift shelter, and I was beginning to feel like an intruder. Suddenly the rain let up and water stopped flowing from the mouth of the arch.

A young couple appeared at the top of the steps to the gothic structure. Several of the folks who had been under the awning jumped out with video cameras as the young man under the arch dropped to his knees and opened a tiny box. The woman’s hands went to her face, as if in disbelief — you could see her lips mouthing “oh my god.” Several more colluders appeared on the steps carrying big letters spelling out, “Will you marry me?”

Two of the men under the awning introduced themselves as the fathers of the bride and groom.

I congratulated them, assuming the young woman did say “yes.”

One of the most beloved spots on campus, Blair Arch was designed by the Philadelphia-based architectural firm Cope and Stewardson, considered masters of the Collegiate Gothic style, and was featured prominently in the movie A Beautiful Mind (2001), starring Russell Crowe as Nobel Prize-winning economist/mathematician John Nash and Jennifer Connelly as physicist Alicia Nash.

Other films featuring the iconic architectural element include Scent of a Woman (1992) and several commercials, as well as a magazine ad for Rolls-Royce.

Blair Hall, the University’s first Collegiate Gothic dormitory, was a gift of John Insley Blair (1802-1899), a trustee of Princeton from 1866 to 1899. At one time Blair was president of 16 railroads and was reputed to own more miles of railroad right-of-way than any other man in the world.

Having the Dinky traverse right up to the foot of Blair Arch, though convenient for boarding, was not without its flaws. The puffing engine parked below kept students awake at night and the soot from its smokestack blew into their rooms. In 1918 the railroad station near the foot of the steps was moved a quarter mile south. (In recent years, the track was further shortened to accommodate the Lewis Center for the Arts.)

Blair Arch’s beauty has caught the eye, if not the lens, of many an artist including John Taylor Arms (1887-1953), whose etching is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art collection, and Thomas Wood Stevens (1880-1942), in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

It has been said that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ghost prowls near Blair Arch; it is mentioned twice in his novel This Side of Paradise and once in Emotional Bankruptcy.

An archway at Pyne Library. Pyne Library is now known as the East Pyne Building. Photo courtesy of the Collection of The Historical Society of Princeton. 

Form and Function

“Since ancient times, the use of arches, vaults, and domes in masonry construction allowed engineers and architects to design structures that would span greater distances and cover larger areas,” says Princeton University Architect Emeritus Jon D. Hlafter. “The most expressive and impressive use these engineering tools became symbols of great achievements (triumphal arches) and great aspirations (the U.S. Capitol). In addition, impressive archways have been used to mark special entrances or portals to special places, like medieval castles and churches as well as Oxford and Cambridge Colleges.

“As an architect and campus planner at Princeton, I became very interested in how archways came to mark and even symbolize entrance and passage here,” continues Hlafter.

Blair Arch symbolized Princeton’s aspirations to be regarded in the same class as Oxford and Cambridge.

FitzRandolph Gate. Photo by Charles R. Plohn.

From One Archway to Another

One of the silver linings of the coronavirus pandemic is how it enables us to be grateful for, and find beauty in, the things that surround us. Not that many of us took for granted the University campus, often cited as the prettiest in America, but the plethora of arches, creating connections on campus, adds to that beauty.

One of the first buildings visitors to campus see, when approaching from the Washington Road Allee, is the boathouse. Its broadly arched windows, reflected in Carnegie Lake, echo the arches of the nearby stone bridge. During Hurricane Irene, the boathouse arches were diminished by four feet when water from the lake flooded the building.

Though not an arch, FitzRandolph Gate, designed by legendary architectural firm McKim, Meade and White, is the official entrance to the University. Erected in 1905, its use as an entrance was largely symbolic in the early years. It was kept closed and locked except at graduation or P-rade until the Class of 1970 ensured that the FitzRandolph Gate would remain open to the town and the world beyond it. Their class motto, “Together for Community,” is inscribed in the east pillar of the gateway.

There’s actually a system of connection between the arches.

“Pyne Library (now East Pyne) was constructed with two smaller archways in sequence to continue and mark the route into the center of the campus from a public street (William Street),” says Hlafter. “A series of archways through Holder and Campbell halls into the inner campus mark an entrance from Nassau Street, while somewhat less focused archways along University Place provide campus access to important campus pathways at Lockhart Arch and at the smaller of Blair’s two archways. While seldom serving as places of entrance by the general public, several archways at Whitman College (a 21st-century example of the Collegiate Gothic style) do provide architecturally enhanced passage to and from courtyards.”

Henry Hall. Photo by Charles R. Plohn.

Doubles and Triples

Rothschild Arch — actually, a double set of pointy-topped passageways — dedicated in 1930, was designed by Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942), whose work included New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine and parts of Princeton’s Trinity Church, as well as the Princeton University Graduate College, Cleveland Tower, and the Princeton University Chapel. The pair of arches connect the Chapel to Dickinson Hall. The Rothschilds, for whom it was named, were the owners of Abraham & Strauss, at one time a major department store in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Henry Hall and Foulke Hall are joined by a set of three arches, opening to University Place. They provide a campus entrance from Dickinson Street on the west.

1879 Arch marks campus access to and from Prospect Avenue on the east and is best known for its gargoyle, “Monkey with a Camera,” carved by Gutzon Borglum, who went on to carve Mount Rushmore. (It should be noted that Borglum, according to the Washington Post and Smithsonian magazine, had ties with white supremacy organizations and aligned himself with the Ku Klux Klan.) Prospect Street is framed by the arch, where two stone tigers are perched. Nearby is McCosh Arch, with a gargoyle of a football player sprinting toward an end zone.

“For me, 1879 Arch conjures up a remembered rite of passage,” recollects Hlafter. “For most of the 20th century, the route of the annual Reunions P-rade passed through that portal on its way to a public review by spectators along Prospect Avenue. Members of the senior class would ‘fall in’ at the end of the line of march as it passed through the archway. I still remember passing through that archway in 1961 as THE moment when my classmates and I joined the ranks of Princeton alumni.”

Hlafter was saddened by the change that rerouted the P-rade through the heart of the campus to the playfields, largely along Elm Drive, “far from my remembered event of passage at 1879 Hall,” he says. “I felt that the new alternate of marching under a wind-blown arch of orange and black balloons on the fields was a diminished experience for both seniors and alumni. Consequently, I prevailed on the architect of Bloomberg Hall, completed in 2004, to incorporate a passageway to the playfields from Elm Drive. As a result, each senior class now passes through a modern portal before taking part in the modern tradition of rushing onto the field for review by the president and alumni.”

The cloister-like arches connecting Holder, Madison, and Hamilton halls, at Rockefeller College, were shown in scenes from the movie Admission (2013, from the book by former Princeton resident Jean Hanff Korelitz, starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd) as well as in Ralph Lauren commercials.

Robertson Hall. Photo by Charles R. Plohn.

Most recently the easternmost arch in East Pyne Hall was renamed for James Collins “Jimmy” Johnson, a former enslaved man who worked on campus for more than 60 years until his death in 1902.

In recommending the arch be named for Johnson, the Naming Committee said “we believe his story should be brought to the attention of future generations of Princetonians by associating his name with an arch that looks out on the places where he befriended students and sold his wares, but also one that looks out at the statue of John Witherspoon, one of the first nine Princeton presidents, all of whom were slaveholders at one point in their lives. Johnson’s experiences with Princeton students, both being turned into authorities as a fugitive slave and being befriended and defended, reflect the complex history on our campus with African Americans and with the institution of slavery.”

Arches are a hallmark of Collegiate Gothic architecture, a style with roots in the Medieval Gothic style that was popular in the early 1900s, but not all arches are of the Collegiate Gothic variety. The Princeton  School of Public and International Affairs’ Robertson Hall, designed by Minoru Yamasaki and completed in 1965, is like a modernist Greek temple with long tapering columns that form a series of arches.

Although an official tour of the University arches could not be found during the pandemic, when the University is closed, one can see arches everywhere: at Murray-Dodge in the center of campus, at the entry to Firestone Library, in the tower atop Richardson Auditorium, and at the entry to and inside of the University Chapel. If walking under an arch brings good fortune, then there is lots to be had during a stroll through the campus.

Additional Resources

The Arches of Princeton, Princeton University, 1989.
A Pictorial History of Town and Campus by Greif, Gibbons, & Menzies, Princeton University Press, 1967.
Princeton University: An Architectural Tour by Raymond P. Rhinehart, Princeton Architectural Press, 2000.

The Boathouse. Photo by Charles R. Plohn.