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  1. The Fire of 1802 and Labrobe's Nassau Hall

Burnt remains of Nassau Hall

Burnt remains of Nassau Hall

Princeton University. Property of the Trustees of Princeton University.

Section and plan of burnt remains of Nassau Hall sketched by Benjamin Latrobe (1802-03) Source: Princeton University Archives, Mudd Library, Nassau Hall Iconography

At one o'clock on the windy afternoon of 6 March 1802, Nassau Hall was swept by a devastating fire .

According to the Trenton True American, "In two hours from the time it was discovered on fire the whole building, walls excepted, was reduced to ashes."

An investigation by the Trustees concluded that the building had been "intentionally set on fire." President Samuel Stanhope Smith , who was inclined to believe the worst about undergraduates, believed the fire a product of vice and impiety. George Strawbridge 1802 (later a supreme court judge in Louisiana) made an independent investigation and concluded that no student was in any way guilty; he thought sooty chimneys probably responsible.

Yet all agreed that the College had suffered grievously in the fire. Meeting in emergency session ten days after the blaze, the Trustees learned that the library had been almost totally destroyed, along with many of the College's portraits and the belongings of the students. The lone bright spot was the survival of most of the College's "Philosophical and Chemical" apparatus.

Physical damage aside, to watch Nassau Hall burn must have been a crushing blow to President Smith and other supporters of the College. Nassau Hall had begun to heal from the scars of the Revolution, and now the College would have to start from scratch once more.

The Trustees nonetheless immediately resolved to rebuild. They delegated the college treasurer, Enos Kelsey, to spearhead the reconstruction. Not surprisingly, the renovation program that the Trustees authorized had as its chief goal to reduce the risk of fire in the future:

"The Entries [are] to be laid with brick or Tiles instead of Boards. The stairs [are] to be formed of Iron, stone, or other incombustible materials...The Place of the former [Prayer] Hall to be fixed so as to serve a Library and the deposit of the philosophical apparatus and a place for the reading of daily prayers, as formerly. [The roof will] be covered with Tin or other incombustible material instead of shingles."


Professor's House

Professor's House

Princeton University. Property of the Trustees of Princeton University.

Source: Princeton University Archives

While the repairs were carried out, classes were held in the President's House and in the Professor's House, then occupied by the professor of math and chemistry, John Maclean Sr., and his family.

A fund-raising campaign was launched. In a general appeal to the inhabitants of the United States -- a sort of 19th-century form of direct-mail solicitation -- Joseph Bloomfield, the Governor of New Jersey and President ex officio of the Board of Trustees, made a plea for donations:

"The fair edifice, erected by the liberality and consecrated by the prayers of our pious and public-spirited predecessors, was totally consumed and three thousand volumes of valuable books, with much private property of the students, perished in the flames. Under this inauspicious and afflictive event, which the providence of a holy God has permitted to take place, we are humbled and mourn. But can we, ought we, so far as to despond, as to suffer the establishment to become extinct? No..." Bloomfield shrewdly targeted his appeal for help to "friends of religion," followed by friends of science, friends of civil liberty, alumni of the College, and the "wealthy and benevolent of every description."

Support was prompt, widespread, and generous. Many people apparently held with the views of an anonymous New Englander, who was moved to verse:

"Wrapt in a blaze the sumptious mansion falls/Leaving no vestige but the tottering walls/but may the lib'ral sons of Jersey raise/...another Phoenix structure." By April 1803, the Trustees reported that their fund-raising campaign had been so successful that not only could Nassau Hall be rebuilt, but two new buildings could be constructed as well. Brought in to supervise the project was one of America's first professionally trained architects, the British-born Benjamin Latrobe of Philadelphia.


Nassau Hall viewed from the north

Nassau Hall viewed from the north

Princeton University. Property of the Trustees of Princeton University.

Source: Engraving, hand colored, from Gleason's Pictorial Magazine, 1853. Princeton University Archives, Mudd Library, Nassau Hall iconography

Although Latrobe did not remain on campus after submitting his designs -- which the Trustees did not execute faithfully in any case -- he had a significant impact on the College's architectural program. In particular, his renovation of Nassau Hall was the most aesthetically pleasing of that building's many iterations.

To save money, Latrobe retained the original walls and proportions of Smith's 1756 building. With a few graceful touches, however, he transformed the building's former plainness into a much more stylish and elegant finish.

To improve the interior lighting, he raised the roof two feet. The troublesome roof was made of sheet iron, which proved a costly and unsuccessful experiment, as well as a source of friction between Latrobe and the College. He erected pediments over the two doors to the side blocks and replaced Smith's circular window in the central pediment with a fanlight.


New vs. old belfry

New vs. old belfry

Princeton University. Property of the Trustees of Princeton University.

The most important revision, however, was a new belfry. Unlike Smith, whose squat cupola seemed an afterthought, Latrobe drew attention to the belfry by mounting it on a prominent square base.


View of front campus circa 1842

View of front campus circa 1842

Princeton University. Property of the Trustees of Princeton University.

Source: Unknown

The overall effect of these minor alterations was remarkable. Consider the rendering of Latrobe's Nassau Hall that appeared in a contemporary business card for "Geo. Thompson," a 19th-century Princeton book and stationary dealer. Compared to the original, the rebuilt structure appears better proportioned and thus more elegant. Latrobe's discrete use of ornamentation made a welcome change from Smith's visual austerity.