The original Nassau Hall 1756-1802. Design: Robert Smith
Although the history of Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey), started years befor the college actually moved to Princeton, the College was only able to grow once it found a permanant home--and a place to build. Formerly, the "college" was a small collection of young men studying for the ministry in the homes of the first two College presidents, Jonathan Dickinson and Aaron Burr, Sr., who lived, respectively, in Elizabeth and Newark, New Jersey. The senior Aaron Burr would follow the nascent college to Princeton, but died soon after the move.
The foundation of the College was the result of a doctrinal dispute at Yale, where radical Presbyterians, known as the "New Lights," found themselves at odds with the more conservative beliefs of the established synod on how ministers should be appointed. In 1741, four New Light ministers and three Presbyterian church members decided to form their own college, appointing Jonathan Dickinson head of the institution. They also began looking for a permanant home for the College.
Despite the fact that the College was so strongly tied to a particular religious sect, it was invited to come to in the predominantly Quaker Princeton. The local Quakers believed that they would also benefit from the higher education provided by the College, and made a gift to The College of New Jersey of 10 acres of land and some woods at the edge of their community. The College was granted an official charter in 1748, by the then Governor of South New Jersey, Jonathan Belcher.
The physical college took shape in the form of Nassau Hall and the President's House (now Maclean House), both built in 1756. The architect of both buildings was Robert Smith, a Scots-American from Philadelphia, who had alreaday claimed fame for his commissions in that city, including Carpenters' Hall Hall and Benjamin Frankin's house.
Smith is a very common name in Great Britain, however the design characteristics of Smith's buildings suggest he may have been part of a famous family of designer/builders active in Scotland. This family had an association with James Gibbs, and were influenced by his treatise on classical architecture. The early Nassau Hall shows such an influence.
How can you recognize the first Nassau Hall?
- Three front doors
- No side towers
- Occulus (round window) in the pediment over the main entry.
The new college hall narrowly escaped being called "Belcher Hall," but the Governer wisely thought it would be more suitable to name the building after the Protestant champion, King William III of England, who also once held the tile of Duke of Nassau, (not to mention Prince of Orange, which came in handy when it was time to chose a school color in the late 19th century).
Nassau Hall originally held all the functions of the college: classes, library, chapel, and dormitory. Temporary buildings were built as stables, and for the refectory, a wooden building behind Nassau Hall that changed frequently, as fires were common. The building continued to be used partially for student housing until the Fall of 1902.