Skip to content

1. Introduction

Characterless and Utilitarian

To this day, Robert Goheen '40*48 feels uncomfortable being called a "building president." In his view, to emphasize the tremendous expansion of the Princeton campus during his tenure as president (1957-1972) masks far more significant achievements: coeducation, strengthening academic programs, and maintaining the social fabric of the University during the turmoil of the 1960s, among others.

Yet Goheen will also be remembered as Princeton's greatest bricks-and-mortar president, a man who supervised over a building boom that surpassed even the efforts of John Grier Hibben in the 1920s. In the Goheen years, Princeton built or acquired 50 buildings at a cost of $108 million; combined, this expanded the University's physical plant by 45 percent. A few notable buildings and many that defined the perimeter of Princeton's modern campus were built during Goheen's presidency including the Woodrow Wilson School's Robertson Hall, the Engineering Quadrangle, Jadwin Gymnasium, the Fine-Jadwin academic complex, the School of Architecture, the Woolworth Music Center, the Art Museum, and the sprawling group of modern dormitories at the southern edge of the campus. The campus essentially was one enormous construction site for ten years.

From an architectural standpoint, however, this period marks one of the low spots in the evolution of the Princeton campus. Much as the Victorian structures of the McCosh era were reviled by the turn of the century, so too have the buildings of the 1960s construction boom fallen out of favor three decades later. Unlike Harvard and Yale, which erected modernist landmarks that still command interest and respect, Princeton achieved only architectural mediocrity during this period.

What accounts for this mediocrity? In large measure, the designs of the Princeton campus buildings in the 1960s reflected the tension between a vastly changed, post-war architectural climate on one hand and the fundamental conservatism of the Princeton trustees on the other. The world of architecture was moving one way; the trustees were resolved to keep things the way they had "always" been. The compromises that resulted did credit to neither the future nor the past.

In retrospect, it is little wonder that Princeton responded so timidly to the modernist challenge. With traditionalists on the board such as Dean Mathey '12 and architect Stephen Voorhees '00 controlling the selection of architects and designs, the University deliberately sought to preserve the feeling of the old Gothic campus and not to press the frontiers of design. Accordingly, the commissions for the first new wave of modern buildings stayed within the narrow Princeton family; Voorhees himself was awarded the design of the new Engineering Quadrangle.

It was not until mid-decade, with the outcry against these uninspired new buildings growing, that Princeton tried to shrug off its extraordinary architectural conservatism. The University recruited new blood in the form of such noted architects as Minoru Yamasaki, Hugh Stubbins, and I.M. Pei, and the quality of the building designs improved accordingly.

Characterless and Utilitarian

Princeton University. Property of the Trustees of Princeton University.

Despite this increase in standards, the sixties are remembered today as an era of characterless, utilitarian structures, perhaps best represented by the New South administration building. Certainly, this period was remarkable more for the prolific number of buildings erected rather than for their aesthetic quality.

Yet ironically, this great wave of construction failed in its ultimate purpose of providing enough room for a growing Princeton. The University had barely finished expanding its facilities to meet pent-up, post-war demand than it took the momentous decision to admit women. This action immediately boosted the enrollment and put a strain on all the other campus facilities. Fifteen years later, the University was still struggling with the consequences of coeducation for the physical plant.