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.

US Capitol, Washington, DC (3)

The view of the Capitol from the west side, around 1880-1897. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

This scene shows the west portico of the Capitol, the side of the building that faces the Mall and the Washington Monument. As discussed in an earlier post, which shows the view from the east side, the Capitol has been in use since 1800, although it has undergone significant changes during this time. The building was burned by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812, and it was subsequently rebuilt. This work was completed in 1826, but the Capitol was much smaller at the time, consisting of only a low dome and the two small wings on either side. The north wing, visible immediately to the left of the dome in this scene, housed the original Senate chamber, while the House of Representatives was located in the south wing.

By the mid-19th century, Congress had outgrown the building, so in the early 1850s work began on a major expansion, with two new wings that extended the Capitol further to the north and to the south. The project included new chambers for both the House and the Senate, which opened in 1857 and 1859, respectively. These wings are only partially visible in this scene, with the present-day Senate chamber on the far left, and the House chamber on the far right. Aside from these wings, the project also included a new, much larger dome, which was completed in 1863 and topped with the 19.5-foot bronze Statue of Freedom, as shown in these photos.

With the completion of the dome, the Capitol largely assumed its present-day appearance. The first photo was taken several decades later, around the 1880s or 1890s, and very little has changed in this view since then. Today, the west portico is probably best known as the site of the presidential inauguration, which occurs here every four years on January 20. However, for most of the building’s history the event was held on the east portico, and it was not until the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan that it was held here on the west side. This was done in part as a cost-saving measure, and also as a way to allow for more spectators, with the mile-long Mall providing plenty of open space and views of the Capitol. With the exception of Reagan’s second inauguration, which was held in the Capitol Rotunda, every ceremony since then has been held here. Of these, Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 reportedly drew the largest crowd, with an estimated 1.8 million visitors gathering on the Mall.

US Capitol, Washington, DC (2)

The U. S. Capitol, seen from the northwest around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The Capitol in 2018:

This view of the Capitol is similar to one in a previous post, except it shows the building from the northwest instead of the northeast. As discussed in that post, construction on the Capitol began in 1793, and the partially-completed building was first used by Congress in 1800, when the federal government moved from Philadelphia to Washington. It subsequently burned during the War of 1812, and for several years afterward Congress met in temporary quarters on the current site of the Supreme Court building. Congress returned to the Capitol in 1819, although the building was not fully completed until 1826.

At the time, though, the exterior of the Capitol was very different from its current appearance. Instead of its current cast iron dome, it was topped with a low copper-covered wood dome, and on either side of the Rotunda were small wings for the House and Senate. However, as the country grew so did the size of Congress, and by the mid-19th century the Capitol was becoming too small. This resulted in a massive expansion project that began in the early 1850s and was completed in 1863. As part of it, new wings were constructed for the two houses of Congress, and a new, much larger dome was added above the Rotunda.

By the end of the Civil War, the exterior of the Capitol had largely assumed its current appearance. The first photo was taken about 50 years later during the 1910s, looking up the walkway towards the west portico of the building. Remarkably little has changed in this scene since then. Perhaps the only significant difference in the present-day scene is the barricade in the distance at the base of the steps, in place as a security measure. Otherwise, though, this view looks the same as it did a century ago, and the Capitol remains an iconic symbol of both Washington D. C. in general and the federal government in particular.

Statuary Hall, US Capitol, Washington, DC (3)

Statuary Hall in the U. S. Capitol, seen from the southeast corner around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in previous posts showing the north and south sides of this room, this was once the chamber for the U. S. House of Representatives, which met here from 1819 until the current chamber was opened in 1857. The room sat vacant for several years afterwards, amid a variety of proposals for its reuse. Then, in 1864 it was designated as the National Statuary Hall. Each state was invited to send two statues for display here, representing prominent citizens from the state’s history.

The states were slow in responding to this request, and the first statue, of Rhode Island’s Nathanael Green, did not arrive here until 1870. By the time the first photo was taken around 1904, there were 45 states in the union, yet only 27 statues here in the collection, 11 of which are shown in the photo. Going around the room from left to right, they are: Lewis Cass (MI), James Garfield (OH), William Allen (OH), Jacob Collamer (VT), Robert Fulton (PA), Nathanael Greene (RI), Roger Williams (RI), George Clinton (NY), Richard Stockton (NJ), James Shields (IL), and Philip Kearny (NJ).

Today, more than a century later, the Capitol’s collection is now complete, with 100 statues from all 50 states. This room still serves as Statuary Hall, although only 38 of the statues are currently here, and the rest are distributed throughout the Capitol building. Of the 11 from the first photo, only the statues of Cass and Fulton are still in this room, and only Fulton’s is visible in the second photo, just to the right of the mantlepiece in the lower right-center of the scene. Aside from the arrangement of the statues, though, very little has changed in this scene since the first photo was taken, and the room is one of several stops included on most public tours of the Capitol.

Statuary Hall, US Capitol, Washington, DC (2)

Statuary Hall in the U. S. Capitol, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in more detail in an earlier post, this room was once occupied by the U. S. House of Representatives, which met here from 1819 until the opening of its current chamber in 1857. The House has two earlier chambers here on this same spot, starting in 1801 with a temporary brick structure. A more permanent chamber was completed here in 1807, although it was destroyed just seven years when the British burned Washington during the War of 1812.

This particular view faces the semicircular northern wall of the room, with the Rotunda and the Senate wing visible in the distance down the hallway. When completed, this wall was the rear of the House chamber, so this would have been the view looking up the central aisle from the Speaker’s rostrum. The chamber is surrounded by marble Corinthian columns, and the original design also included two statues. One of these, The Car of History, is visible in this scene above the doorway. It features the muse Clio recording history as she travels in a winged chariot that represents time, and it was created by sculptor Carlo Franzoni and installed in 1819.

The chamber remained in use by the House for nearly 40 years, and during this time it was the scene of many important debates and other events in the period leading up to the Civil War. However, by the mid-19th century the House was in need of a new chamber, in part because of the poor acoustics caused by the curved ceilings, and also because the steady admission of new states began to cause crowding here. Starting in the early 1850s, the Capitol underwent a major expansion, including the addition of a new dome and two large wings to accommodate new chambers for both the House and Senate. The House wing was completed in 1857, directly behind the spot where these photos were taken, and the House subsequently vacated this chamber.

In the years that followed, this space was the subject of several different proposals, including one that would have divided it into two floors of conference rooms. However, in 1864 it was designated as the National Statuary Hall, and each state was invited to send two statues to put on display here. The statues were slow in arriving, and it was not until 1971 that all 50 states were represented here. By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century there were about two dozen statues in the collection. Two of them, representing New Hampshire, are visible here in the first photo, with John Stark on the left and Daniel Webster on the right. Both arrived here in 1894, and they were both the work of noted sculptor Carl Conrads.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, this room is still used as Statuary Hall. In 1976 it was partially restored to its original appearance, including the addition of curtains behind the columns, but otherwise this scene still looks essentially the same as it did at the turn of the 20th century. The statues themselves have been rearranged over the years, though. Because of overcrowding and structural concerns about the weight of the many statues, many have since been relocated to other parts of the Capitol. Thirteen of them, one from each of the original states, are now in the crypt below the rotunda, including New Hampshire’s statue of John Stark. The state’s other statue, of Daniel Webster, is still here in the room, although it is not visible from this particular angle.

Old Senate Chamber, US Capitol, Washington, DC

The Old Senate Chamber at the U. S. Capitol, around 1902, during its time as the courtroom of the Supreme Court. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The United States Capitol was first used in 1800, the same year that the government moved to Washington D.C. from its temporary location in Philadelphia. Aside from a short interruption in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when the British burned much of Washington, the building has remained in use ever since, although it has undergone significant changes and expansions since then.

In its original form, the Capitol consisted of two wings, connected by a central rotunda that was topped by a low wooden dome. The south wing was occupied by the House of Representatives, which met in the chamber that is now known as Statuary Hall. Here on the north side of the building was the Senate wing, which had a chamber that was somewhat smaller than the House’s, given the smaller number of senators.

As with the House chamber, this Senate chamber was rebuilt after the War of 1812, and the work was completed in 1819. It was designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and it is semicircular in shape, reflecting the appearance of an ancient amphitheater. Other classically-inspired features include the marble Ionic columns, which are similar to the Corinthian ones found in the House chamber. The room was built with two visitor galleries, with one along the curved wall behind the senators, and the other above the front of the room, as shown in this scene.

This chamber was the home of the Senate for the next 40 years, from 1819 to 1859. It was the scene of many important events in the years leading up to the Civil War, and for much of this time the Senate was dominated by the Great Triumvirate, consisting of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Representing the three major regions of the country at the time, these men were three of the most powerful American politicians of the Antebellum period, and they were involved in many debates in this room.

However, perhaps the single most noteworthy incident in this room occurred on May 22, 1856, when abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was nearly caned to death at his desk by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks. The attack was prompted by a speech that Sumner had given here two days before, in which he harshly criticized slavery in general and South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler in particular. Brooks, who was Butler’s cousin, then waited until Sumner was nearly alone here in the chamber, and began bludgeoning him with his cane while pinned Sumner under his desk.

The attack rendered Sumner unconscious, but Brooks continued to beat him until several other congressmen intervened. By this point, he had suffered serious trauma to his head and spinal cord, and it took three years before he had recovered enough to resume his duties in the Senate. In the meantime, the attack helped to further polarize the already divided nation, with southerners praising Brooks while northerners condemned his actions as an attack on free speech itself. Within less than five years, South Carolina would become the first state to secede from the Union, and it would begin the Civil War with its bombardment of Fort Sumter.

Even as the nation was dividing, though, the Capitol itself was growing. Westward expansion had led to the admission of many new states over the years, and the original congressional chambers were becoming crowded. This was particularly evident here in the Senate chamber, with the number of senators increasing by nearly 50 percent between 1819 and 1858, from 44 to 64. As a result, by the early 1850s work had begun on a massive expansion of the Capitol, creating two new, much larger wings beyond the original ones. The new House chamber was completed in 1857, followed by the new Senate chamber in 1859.

Both of these new chambers are still used today, and the old ones have since been repurposed. The former House chamber became the National Statuary Hall, and starting in 1860 the Senate chamber was occupied by the U. S. Supreme Court, which had previously met in the room directly underneath it. It would go on to be used as the courtroom of the Supreme Court for the next 75 years, before its current building opened across the street from the Capitol in 1935.

During this time, the Supreme Court heard a number of important cases here, perhaps the most notable of which was the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which ruled that segregation was legal under the “separate but equal” doctrine. This was followed by the Lochner era of the court’s history, from 1897 to 1937, when the court took a politically conservative approach to economic regulations. Using the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the court struck down many state and federal laws, including those that limited weekly working hours, prohibited child labor, and established minimum wages.

Many prominent Supreme Court justices served on the bench here in this room. When the court first moved here in 1860, the chief justice was Roger B. Taney, who had served in that capacity since 1836. He remained on the court until his death in 1864, making him the second-longest tenured chief justice in history, but he is probably best known as the author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Other notable justices who served here included John Marshall Harlan, the sole dissenting vote in the Plessy case; Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who coined the phrase “shouting fire in a theatre” in a 1919 court opinion; Charles Evans Hughes, the chief justice who frequently clashed with Franklin D. Roosevelt over the president’s New Deal policies; and former President William Howard Taft, who served as chief justice from 1921 to 1930.

It was during Taft’s time as chief justice that he began lobbying for a separate building for the Supreme Court. This would not only relieve the overcrowding here in its Capitol quarters, but it would also reflect the court’s role as a separate, independent branch of the federal government. After Taft’s retirement and death in 1930, his successor Hughes continued these efforts, and two years later construction began on the present-day Supreme Court building. The site was directly across First Street NE from the Capitol, on the spot where the Old Capitol Prison had previously stood. The building was completed in 1935, and the court subsequently vacated this space here in the old Senate chamber.

The first photo was taken around 1902, and it shows the room’s appearance when it was used by the Supreme Court. At the time, the layout of the room bore little resemblance to its time as the Senate chamber. The senators had taken their desks with them when they moved in 1859, and the vice president’s dais at the front of the room was replaced by a long bench for the justices, as shown in the first photo. Probably the only object left from the Senate in that photo is the gilded wood eagle, located in the center above the chief justice’s chair. It was installed here as early as 1838, and it originally sat atop a wood shield. After the Supreme Court moved into here, the shield was placed above the door on the outside of the chamber, although the eagle remained at its perch the front.

After the Supreme Court left in 1935, this room was used intermittently for meetings, committee hearings, and even by the Senate itself on several different occasions during the mid-20th century, while its current chamber was undergoing renovations. Then, in 1976 the room underwent a major restoration in order to return it to its Senate-era appearance. This included the installation of 64 replica mahogany desks, which are arranged in four semicircular rows, reflecting the arrangement of the room in 1859.

Several original furnishings were returned to the room, including the vice president’s desk at the front, although the table in front of it is a reproduction. The eagle and shield were also reunited as part of this restoration, and they once again hang at the front of the room. Another original object here is the portrait of George Washington, visible directly above the eagle in the present-day photo. It was painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1823, and the Senate purchased it in 1832 and hung it here above the gallery. The painting was removed when the Senate left in 1859, but it was returned here in 1976.

Today, the room remains in its restored appearance, and it is periodically used by the Senate for special events, such as mock swearing-in ceremonies. Photography is not allowed in the Senate chamber, where the senators typically take their oaths of office, so the mock ceremonies here allow the press to take photographs of the occasion. Aside from these types of events, the room is also open for some public tours, although visitor access is limited to just the central aisle, as shown in the present-day photo.