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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark NASSAU HALL
New Jersey

Location: Princeton University, Princeton.

Ownership and Administration (1961). Princeton University.

Significance. Nassau Hall was the first important college building in the Middle Atlantic Colonies and the first permanent building at Princeton University, which was founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey. Although established by Presbyterian churchmen, the college was not intended for the education of clergymen only. The founders emphasized that the principle of religious freedom would be observed carefully. In 1752 the college was formally located at Princeton, and 2 years later ground was broken for Nassau Hall, named to honor the memory of King William III of the House of Nassau. Seventy undergraduates moved into Nassau Hall in the autumn of 1756, and for almost half a century thereafter it was the only college building, containing dormitory, dining room, chapel, and classrooms.

Nassau Hall served on occasion during the Revolution as a barracks and hospital for both British and American troops. It was the scene of the last stand of the British in the Battle of Princeton. From June to November 1783, the Continental Congress convened in Nassau Hall, receiving there the news of the signing of the treaty that ended the Revolution. Here also the first diplomatic representative accredited to the new Nation was received, the Minister of the Netherlands. The hall has been visited by scores of distinguished public figures in the course of its long history, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lafayette, the Adamses, and virtually every other President of the United States.

As an outstanding example of the growth of educational facilities in the Colonies, and as the principal edifice of an institution that has played a major role in the cultural growth of the Nation, Nassau Hall is a notable historical resource.

Nassau Hall
Nassau Hall provided sleeping and dining accommodations as well as chapel and classrooms for the entire student body of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), from 1756 for almost half a century. (Courtesy, Princeton University.)

Present Appearance (1961). The building was designed by Robert Smith and Dr. William Shippen, of the Carpenters Company of Philadelphia. A central pavilion, topped by a pediment, breaks the 170-foot facade, and three doors lead to corridors separating the various classrooms and offices. Brownstone dug from a nearby quarry makes up the walls, which are unadorned except for the quoined and corniced entrances and the keyed flat arch lintels of the windows on the first two stories. A cupola and many chimneys crown the low-pitched hipped roof. The simple, solid lines appear to have influenced the design of later college buildings elsewhere, including Hollis Hall at Harvard (1762-63), University Hall at Brown (1770-71), and Dartmouth Hall at Dartmouth (1784-91).

Nassau Hall was damaged during the Battle of Princeton and virtually destroyed by fires in 1802 and 1855. The fire of March 6, 1802, left only the walls standing. The architect for the reconstruction was Benjamin H. Latrobe. On March 10, 1855, Nassau Hall was destroyed again by a fire that left only the walls standing. The building was reconstructed and reopened on August 7, 1856, reflecting architectural changes more drastic than those of 1802. Architect John Notman's rebuilding employed a pseudo-Renaissance design of massive character.

Memorial Hall, in the center of the building, was installed after World War I to honor Princetonians killed in all wars. It was altered after World War II. The bronze tigers flanking the main entrance of Nassau Hall were executed by A. Phemister Proctor and were presented in 1911 by the class of 1879, a member of which was Woodrow Wilson. Nassau Hall is now used solely for administrative offices. [35]

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Last Updated: 09-Jan-2005