Maclean House, Princeton, New Jersey

Maclean House on the campus of Princeton University, around 1894. Image from Views of Princeton University (1894).

The house in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post on Nassau Hall, Princeton University was established in 1746 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, as the College of New Jersey. The school moved to Newark a year later, and then to Princeton in 1756, upon completion of Nassau Hall. At the time, Nassau Hall encompassed all of the school’s amenities under one roof, including classrooms, dormitory rooms, offices, a dining room, and a meeting hall. However, the school did have a separate building for the college president, who lived here in this brick two-story house, located immediately to the northwest of Nassau Hall, fronting Nassau Street. Like its neighbor, the house was completed in 1756, and it was likewise designed by Philadelphia architect Robert Smith. Its first occupant was Aaron Burr Sr., who had served as Princeton’s president since 1748.

Burr died only a year after moving into this house, in the fall of 1757, leaving his widow Esther with two young children, including future vice president Aaron Burr, who was just a year and a half old at the time. Burr’s replacement as president was Esther’s father, Jonathan Edwards, the famous pastor and theologian. Edwards had begun his ministry career in Northampton, Massachusetts, where his preaching had helped to spark the Great Awakening. However, after many years in Northampton he was dismissed by the congregation in 1750, and he subsequently moved to the remote western Massachusetts town of Stockbridge. There, he served as a missionary to Native Americans until the College of New Jersey invited him to be its next president.

Edwards arrived here in Princeton in the midst of a smallpox epidemic, and one of his first priorities was to encourage students to receive a smallpox inoculation. Leading by example, he was inoculated on February 23, 1758. However, what was supposed to be just a mild case of smallpox progressively worsened over the next few weeks, and he died here at this house in Princeton on March 22, barely a month after becoming president of the college. He was buried in nearby Princeton Cemetery, alongside his predecessor and son-in-law, in a plot that later became known as Presidents’ Row because of the many college presidents interred there.

After Edwards’s death, this house was subsequently occupied by the next eight college presidents: Samuel Davies, Samuel Finley, John Witherspoon, Samuel Stanhope Smith, Ashbel Green, James Carnahan, John Maclean, and James McCosh. Of these, Witherspoon was probably the most notable. In addition to serving as president for more than 25 years, Witherspoon was also involved in politics during the Revolutionary War era. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress, and in that capacity he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, becoming the only active clergyman to sign the document.

Aside from being the residence of many Princeton presidents, this house was also home to a number of slaves over the years. Most of the early presidents were slaveowners, and New Jersey was among the last of the northern states to abolish slavery. The state enacted a gradual emancipation plan starting in 1804, but slavery in New Jersey was not fully eliminated until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. The last Princeton president to have slaves here in the house was Ashbel Green, who was president from 1812 to 1822. He had at least three slaves here during this time, including Betsey Stockton, whom he freed in 1817 when she was about 19 years old. She remained here as a paid servant for the next five years, and during this time she also received an education. Then, in 1822 she traveled to Hawaii as a Christian missionary, and upon returning to America she became an educator, eventually teaching for many years at an African-American school here in Princeton.

The last college president to occupy this house was James McCosh, who moved into the newly-acquired Prospect House in 1878. The house was then used as the residence of the dean of faculty, and seven different deans lived here between 1883 and 1967. The first photo was taken during this period, no later than 1894, and it shows the northern side of the house, from Nassau Street. This photo also shows two large sycamore trees standing in front of the house. These trees had been planted in 1765, less than a decade after the house was built, and by the time the photo was taken they were already nearly 130 years old.

Today, more than 125 years after the first photo was taken, very little has changed here in this scene. The house is now occupied by the Alumni Association of Princeton University, and it is named the Maclean House in honor of John Maclean, who lived here during his presidency and served as honorary president of the Alumni Association. Despite these changes in use, though, its exterior has remained well-preserved, and along with Nassau Hall it stands as the oldest building on the Princeton campus. Perhaps even more remarkable, though, is that the two sycamore trees are also still standing. Now more than 250 years old, they are nearly twice as old as they were in the first photo, and in the summer their leaves partially hide the view of the house from the street, as shown in the present-day photo.

Nassau Hall, Princeton, New Jersey

Nassau Hall at Princeton University, around 1903. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2019:

Nassau Hall, which opened in 1756, is the oldest building on the Princeton campus, and among the oldest college buildings in the United States. The College of New Jersey, as it was known at the time, was established in 1746, and it was originally located in Elizabeth before moving to Newark in 1747. Then, in 1753 Nathaniel FitzRandolph donated a plot of land here in Princeton to the school, and a year later the cornerstone was laid for this building. The building was nearly named for Governor Jonathan Belcher, but he demurred out of modesty, instead suggesting it be named Nassau Hall in honor of William III, who was from the House of Nassau.

Upon completion, Nassau Hall was one of the largest buildings in the English colonies, and the largest in New Jersey. It was the only building on campus at the time, so it was home to all of the school’s amenities, including a meeting hall, a dining room, offices, classrooms, and dormitory rooms. There were 70 students enrolled when the school moved here to Princeton, and its faculty consisted of the president, at the time Aaron Burr Sr., and two tutors. It was designed by Philadelphia architect Robert Smith, and one of the earliest descriptions of the building appeared in 1760 in the New American Magazine, which emphasized its rather spartan design:

There are three flat-arched doors on the north side giving access by a flight of steps to the three separate entries. At the center is a projecting section of five bays surmounted by a pediment with circular windows, and other decorations. The only ornamental feature above the cornice, is the cupola, standing somewhat higher than the twelve fireplace chimneys. Beyond these there are no features of distinction.

The simple interior design is shown in the plan, where a central corridor provided communication with the students’ chambers and recitation rooms, the entrances, and the common prayer hall; and on the second floor, with the library over the central north entrance. The prayer hall was two stories high, measured 32 by 40 feet, and had a balcony at the north end which could be reached from the second-story entry. Partially below ground level, though dimly lighted by windows, was the cellar, which served as kitchen, dining area (beneath the prayer hall), and storeroom. In all there were probably forty rooms for the students, not including those added later in the cellar when a moat was dug to allow additional light and air into that dungeon.

As was the case with most of the colonial-era colleges in the United States, the primary objective at the College of New Jersey was to prepare men to enter the ministry. However, while most were affiliated with either Puritanism or Anglicanism, this school was Presbyterian in its theology. Up until Woodrow Wilson in the early 20th century, all of its college presidents were ministers, and during the colonial era this included Great Awakening leader Jonathan Edwards and Declaration of Independence signer John Witherspoon.

Edwards arrived here in 1758, only two years after Nassau Hall was completed, but he died just a month later, after receiving a smallpox inoculation. The next two presidents also died relatively young, but John Witherspoon became president in 1768, and remained here until his death in 1794. During this time, he was also involved in politics, including serving on the Continental Congress, and he was the only clergyman among those who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Aside from these two presidents, the school also had a number of prominent students throughout the 18th century. Future president James Madison graduated from here in 1771, and one of his classmates was future vice president Aaron Burr, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, who graduated a year later. Others included Joseph Hewes, Benjamin Rush, and Richard Stockton, all of whom signed the Declaration of Independence along with Witherspoon.

After the end of the Revolution, ten Princetonians participated in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and five of them signed the Constitution: Gunning Bedford, David Brearley, Jonathan Dayton, James Madison, and William Paterson. Many other former Princeton students held other positions at the state and national level in the years during and immediately after the American Revolution. These included General Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee, who served as a cavalry officer in the Revolution and later as governor of Virginia, and Oliver Ellsworth, who served as the second Chief Justice of the United States.

However, it was not only Princeton’s students who played a role in the American Revolution; the school itself became a battleground during the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. Prior to the battle, about 1,400 British soldiers were stationed in Princeton, and Nassau Hall was converted into barracks. During this time, the interior of the building was vandalized by the occupying army, and it was damaged even further during the battle itself. When Washington’s army advanced on Princeton, about 200 British soldiers took a defensive position inside of Nassau Hall, protected by the stone walls. However, the Continental Army opened fire on the building with cannons, and at least two cannonballs hit it before the British surrendered, effectively ending the battle.

Overall, the Battle of Princeton was a relatively small battle, but it helped to provide a much-needed morale boost for the Continental Army. Throughout the summer and fall of 1776, Washington had suffered a series of defeats as his army steadily retreated from New York City and across New Jersey. Thomas Paine famously described the situation as “the times that try men’s souls,” since many soldiers were deserting or not planning on re-enlisting after their enlistments expired on January 1, 1777. However, Washington’s surprise victory at Trenton on December 26, followed by Princeton a week later, helped to motivate soldiers to re-enlist and even inspired new recruits to join the army. Two years later, the Battle of Princeton was memorialized in Charles Willson Peale’s famous Washington at Princeton painting, depicting the commander in chief leaning against a cannon on the battlefield, with Nassau Hall visible in the distance on the left side of the painting.

Following the battle, Nassau Hall was occupied by the Continental Army throughout much of 1777, first as barracks and then as a hospital. This caused further damage to the interior, but at the end of the war the building took on a very different role when it temporarily became the capitol of the United States. Since 1775, Independence Hall in Philadelphia had been the meeting place of the Continental Congress. However, in 1783 a group of about 400 soldiers from the Continental Army marched on Independence Hall, demanding payment for their wartime service. Despite Congress’s requests, the Pennsylvania state government declined to use the militia to protect the building, so the Continental Congress left Philadelphia on June 21, and reconvened nine days later here at Princeton, in the second floor library of Nassau Hall.

Nassau Hall served as the capitol building for the next four months. During this time, on October 31, 1783, Congress was notified that British and American diplomats had signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the American Revolution. That same day, Congress also held a ceremony for diplomat Peter John van Berckel, who presented his credentials to Congress as the first Dutch ambassador to the United States. Van Berckel was apparently offended that his formal reception occurred in a small New Jersey town, rather than in Philadelphia as he had expected. However, he subsequently served as ambassador until 1788, and following the end of his term he continued to live in the United States for the rest of his life.

In any case, Congress did not remain in Princeton for much longer. It met here for the last time on November 4, 1783, and subsequently departed for Annapolis, where the Maryland State House functioned as the temporary national capitol. Congress would later return to the Princeton area, meeting in nearby Trenton for a little less than two months in late 1784 before moving to New York City in 1785. The capital city would then shift back to Philadelphia in 1790, before permanently moving to the newly-established city of Washington D.C. in 1800.

In the meantime, Nassau Hall continued to function as the home of the College of New Jersey throughout this time. However, on March 6, 1802 the building was completely gutted by a fire, leaving only the stone exterior walls still standing. The school soon began raising funds for its reconstruction, and among the donors were the citizens of Princeton, who feared that the school would use the opportunity to move out of the small town. For the work of rebuilding Nassau Hall, the school hired architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who is best known for having designed the United States Capitol in Washington. His plans for Nassau Hall were largely faithful to Robert Smith’s original design, and consisted of mostly minor stylistic changes. Perhaps the greatest difference was the roof, which was raised two feet higher than the original.

Thus restored, Nassau Hall would continue to be occupied by the school for the next half century, until another disastrous fire gutted it on March 10, 1855. This time, architect John Notman was responsible for the renovations, in the process making more drastic changes than Latrobe had. Inspired by Italianate-style architecture, which was popular at the time, Notman’s plans gave Nassau Hall more of a Renaissance appearance. Here on this side of the building, his design included a new arched doorway at the main entrance, and an arched window and balcony above it. Notman’s most significant alteration, though, was the addition of two Italianate towers, with one at each end of the building. The tower on the east side of the building is hidden behind the trees in the first photo, but the western tower is partially visible on the far right side of the scene.

The first photo was taken around 1903, and just two years later the tops of these towers were removed. Otherwise, though, the exterior of the building has not changed much since the 1855 reconstruction. However, the school’s use of Nassau Hall has evolved during this time. As Princeton added new buildings to its campus, Nassau Hall no longer needed to serve as an all-in-one building for dormitory rooms, classrooms, and offices. By 1924, the building was being used exclusively for administrative offices, including the offices of the university president, and it has been used for this purpose ever since.

Today, after surviving a Revolutionary War battle and two major fires, Nassau Hall still stands as an important part of the Princeton campus. It has been heavily altered, especially after the two fires, and the only original materials left in the building are the stone walls. Regardless, though, it remains one of the oldest college buildings in the country, and it is also important for its role in the Battle of Princeton and as the temporary capitol of the United States. Because of this, Nassau Hall was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

Clio and Whig Halls, Princeton, New Jersey

Clio Hall and Whig Hall, on the campus of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, around 1903. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

The American Whig–Cliosophic Society at Princeton is one of the most prominent collegiate debate organizations in the country. Its history traces back to the 1760s, and over the years its membership has included some of Princeton’s most distinguished graduates, including many of the Founding Fathers and two future U. S. president. The organization was originally two separate groups, the Whig and the Clio, and each had its own facility on campus. However, in 1928 the two were united as the Whig–Cliosophic Society, and it remains an active student-led organization here at Princeton.

The first photo, taken around 1903, shows the view looking east on Chapel Drive from near West College–now Morrison Hall–and Witherspoon Hall. On the left side of the scene is Cannon Green, and in the distant center is Marquand Chapel. On the right side of the scene are two identical buildings, which were completed in 1893 as the homes of the Whig and Clio societies. They were both designed by noted architect Arthur Page Brown, and their marble, Greek Revival-style exteriors evoke a sense of the philosophers and democratic ideals of classical antiquity. The building here in the foreground was Clio Hall, while the one further in the distance was Whig Hall.

About a decade after the first photo was taken, a young F. Scott Fitzgerald enrolled at Princeton, and during his time here he joined the Whig society. Fitzgerald never graduated, instead dropping out to join the Army during World War I, but his experiences at Princeton ultimately formed the basis of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. This book established Fitzgerald as the leading voice of the Jazz Age, and it even included a passing mention of Whig and Clio Halls, describing how the protagonist, Amory Blaine, “wanted to ramble through the shadowy scented lanes, where Witherspoon brooded like a dark mother over Whig and Clio, her Attic children.”

After the Whig and Clio organizations merged in 1928, the Whig–Cliosophic Society occupied Whig Hall, which it continues to use nearly a century later. During this time, the debate society has continued to have a number of prominent members, including Senators Claiborne Pell, Paul S. Sarbanes, and Ted Cruz, and U. S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. In the meantime, Clio Hall was put to other uses, and it is now the administrative offices of the Princeton Graduate School. Overall, this scene has remained largely unchanged since the first photo was taken, and the only significant difference is the Princeton University Chapel. It is barely visible in the distance, mostly hidden by trees, but it was built in 1928 to replace the earlier Marquand Chapel, which burned in 1920.

The Albany Academy, Albany, New York (2)

The Albany Academy, viewed from the east side near the corner of Eagle and Elk Streets in Albany, around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2019:

As explained in the previous post, The Albany Academy was established in 1813. Four years later, the school moved into this building near the corner of Elk and Eagle Streets, just to the northeast of the present-day state capitol. The Federal-style building was designed by noted Albany architect Philip Hooker, and it stands as one of the city’s most architecturally-significant historic buildings.

The building was used by The Albany Academy for more than a century, and during this time it had many notable students, including future nine congressmen, a Supreme Court justice, and other important historical figures such as author Herman Melville. However, the building is probably best known for its association with Joseph Henry, who attended the school in its early years before returning as a science teacher in 1826. It was here that he performed important experiments on electromagnetism, including the discovery of electrical inductance. This would enable subsequent technological advances such as Samuel Morse’s telegraph, and today the SI unit for inductance is named the henry in his honor.

The school was still located here when the first photo was taken around 1908, but within a few decades it had outgrown its original building, and in 1931 The Albany Academy relocated to a new campus further from downtown Albany. This building was then sold to the City School District of Albany, which remodeled the interior and converted it into offices.

Today, the building still serves as offices for the school district, and very little has changed here on the exterior since the first photo was taken, although it is now partially hidden by trees from this angle. Otherwise, the only real change in the present-day scene is the statue of Joseph Henry, which stands in the lower center of the photo, in front of the main entrance. It was installed here in 1927, and it was the work of John Flanagan, a prominent sculptor who is best known for designing the Washington quarter, which was first minted in 1932.

The Albany Academy, Albany, New York

The Albany Academy, near the corner of Eagle and Elk Streets in Albany, around 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The building in 2019:

The Albany Academy was established in 1813 as a school for boys, and in 1817 the school moved into its first purpose-built facility, which is shown here in these two photos. The building stands just to the northeast of the New York State Capitol, in between Washington Avenue and Elk Street on the west side of Eagle Street. It is perhaps the city’s finest surviving example of Federal-style architecture, and it was designed by prominent architect Philip Hooker, whose other nearby works included the original capitol building and the old city hall.

This building was home to the academy for over a century, and during this time it saw a number of notable students. One of the earliest was Joseph Henry, who entered the school in 1819. He later returned as a science teacher in 1826, and over the next few years he performed groundbreaking experiments in electromagnetism here at the school. Probably his most important discovery here was electrical inductance, which occurred around the same time as—but independent from—Michael Faraday’s similar discoveries in Britain. This property of electrical conductors was later used by Samuel Morse in his invention of the telegraph, and today the SI unit for measuring inductance is named the henry in his honor.

Aside from Henry, The Albany Academy had many other students who went on to have successful careers, particularly in the fields of government and law. Nine future congressmen attended the school while it was located here, as did prominent federal judge Learned Hand, Supreme Court justice Rufus Wheeler Peckham, and longtime Albany mayor Erastus Corning 2nd, whose 41 years in office is a record among mayors of major American cities. Other prominent students included authors Herman Melville, William Rose Benét, and Stephen Vincent Benét, along with future World War II general and Medal of Honor recipient Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who attended the school while his father was serving as governor of New York.

The school remained here in this building well into the 20th century, and it was still in use when the first photo was taken around 1907. However, within a few decades the school had outgrown the old building here in downtown Albany, and in 1931 it relocated to a new campus on the outskirts of the city. The school is still located there today, although in 2007 it merged with the Albany Academy for Girls to form The Albany Academies.

In the meantime, this building was sold to the City School District of Albany, which renovated the interior and converted it into district offices. Today, the school district still occupies the building, which has remained largely unchanged since the first photo was taken more than a century ago. It is one of Philip Hooker’s few surviving works, and in 1971 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Widener Library, Cambridge, Mass

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, around 1914-1915. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The library in 2019:

As discussed in the previous post, Harvard’s first purpose-built library was Gore Hall, which opened here on this site in 1841. Although architecturally-impressive, this Gothic Revival building proved too small for the school’s growing collections of books. It was expanded several different times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it was ultimately demolished in 1913 to build the Widener Library, which is shown here in these two photos.

The construction of the Widener Library actually came as a result of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Among the ship’s passengers were wealthy businessman George Dunton Widener, his wife Eleanor, and their son Harry, who had graduated from Harvard five years earlier. Both George and Harry died in the sinking, but Eleanor survived and soon began planning an appropriate memorial for her late son.

In his will, Harry had asked that his rare book collection be donated to the school. However, his mother went far beyond that, and instead of simply giving his books to the existing library, she built an entirely new library for all of the school’s books. Eleanor Widener was closely involved with the details of the building, including choosing its architect, Horace Trumbauer, and she likely spent around $3.5 million on its construction.

Work on the new library began after the demolition of Gore Hall in 1913, and it was completed two years later with a dedication ceremony on June 24, 1915. The first photo was apparently taken before this, probably in 1914 or 1915. The exterior of the building was essentially complete by this point, but the interior was likely still under construction, as indicated by the pile of debris on the right side, and the “Geo. F. Payne & Co. Builders” sign on the far left.

When it opened, the library had more than 50 miles of shelves, and a total capacity of over 3 million books. Even this would not be enough for the school’s ever-growing collection. By mid century its holdings were doubling approximately every 17 years, leading to the opening of new libraries around campus that specialized in particular fields. Then, in the 1980s the school constructed the Harvard Depository in Southborough, allowing for off-campus storage of library materials.

Throughout this time, the exterior of the Widener Library has remained essentially unchanged in more than a century since the first photo was taken, and it remains the central library at Harvard. Perhaps its single most famous work here is one of only 23 known complete copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be printed on a printing press. Like the library building itself, this Bible was a gift of the Widener family, who donated it to Harvard in 1944. However, it is only one of around 3.5 million books that are housed here in the Widener, making it one of the largest libraries in the world, and the largest university library.