Sunday, April 25, 2010

Buildings of bygone days

With recent discussions arising over the fate of the Dinky and the former Carl A. Fields Center at 86 Olden Street, one ponders what befell other landmark buildings in Princeton’s past. In looking through the archives, three structures stand out as lost wonders of Princeton’s earliest days.

East College

Located on the grounds of East Pyne, East College was the first building distinctly constructed as a dormitory on Princeton’s campus. Designed to provide enough space for 32 double rooms over four stories, East College was one of the first buildings constructed behind Nassau Hall and a fundamental piece of the “rear campus” constructed in the first half of the 19th century. First occupied by students on January 1, 1834, the dormitory allowed its occupants to make use of the prevailing westerly wind of New Jersey, which Nassau Hall could never utilize due to its north-south orientation.

East College also provided the model for the construction of another dormitory—West College—directly across the courtyard. In what many alumni and other devoted Tigers called the Crime of ’97, East College was torn down in 1897 to clear way for the construction of Pyne Library, a much-needed extension of Chancellor Green Library. In an effort to preserve the old courtyard, “with all the old College life and traditions” in the words of Woodrow Wilson, the walls of Pyne Library were laid upon the foundation of the East College.

Halsted Observatory

With the College’s need for housing fulfilled in the construction of East College and West College, Princeton sought to construct another fundamentally academic building. Stephan Alexander, an accomplished astronomer and one of the College’s foremost professors, advocated the construction of a new observatory that would put Princeton at the forefront of this field. Put on hold for the Civil War, construction was eventually started in 1865, with the first financial commitment of $10,000 from Colonel Nathaniel Halsted, one of the observatory’s most energetic proponents.

Though plagued with delays, the construction then moved forward swiftly and provided one of the first instances of Victorian Gothic style in campus architecture. Not completed at the time of President MacLean’s retirement, President James McCosh took the helm on the eve of the observatory’s completion. McCosh dedicated and named the building after its initial patron, and the Halsted Observatory became the first structure on campus explicitly named for a donor. Operating for over 60 years, the observatory was razed in 1932 to make way for Joline Hall and the completion of large three-sided quadrangle near Blair Arch.

Cloaca Maxima

Probably both literally and figuratively one of Princeton’s lowest building projects was the new excavation of a College privy, or outhouse, in the 1860’s. Due to Princeton’s emphasis on a classical education, the students titled the structure the Cloaca Maxima shortly after its opening, recalling Rome’s famous sewer system. This privy was constructed of brick, granite, and wood and placed between Whig and Clio at the rear of the campus. With 24 private stalls, this structure provided an alternative to the chamber pots used in the dormitories, but it faced problems both with drainage and student vandalism.

Having had several privies burned to the ground, the Cloaca Maxima did, however, proved resistant to vandals’ flames, for it was completely fireproof except for the wooden doors. In the end, whether for the spread of sickness or other considerations, the Cloaca Maxima was destroyed in 1880’s, and after cholera swept Princeton, the administration began installing toilets in dormitories.

By Matt Butler '12, for Opinion


Anonymous said...