Princeton and the Gothic Revival: 1870–1930

Arthur Page Brown, American, 1859–1896: Art Museum, Princeton College: front elevation, 1886. Pen, black ink, and watercolor on tracing paper, 68.4 x 80 cm. Gift of A. Page Brown (x1963-33).

One of the prominent images in Princeton and the Gothic Revival: 1870–1930 depicts Princeton’s University Chapel, a masterpiece of Collegiate Gothic architecture built in the 1920s. At first glance, the image seems to represent the chapel as we know it today. A closer look, however, reveals such discrepancies as the arcaded walkway attached to the south side of the building—an element that does not exist. This image and two others on view in the exhibition are, in fact, early proposals for the chapel structure.

Ralph Adams Cram (1863–1942), the principal of the Boston-based firm of Cram and Ferguson, was first hired by the University in 1906 to create a master plan for the campus. His plan called for the creation of quadrangles based on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, the inspirational models for the Collegiate Gothic style. Cram noted that in order to create these quads a number of existing buildings would have to be demolished or moved, including the Victorian-era Marquand Chapel, whose mash-up of architectural styles Cram found offensive. Although Cram’s request to move the chapel was never granted, its destruction by fire in May 1920 provided him with the opportunity to design a new building that would serve as a summa of his architectural ideals.

Cram championed a return to the architecture of the Middle Ages as a way to combat the evils he saw in modern society, which recently had been ripped apart by war and revolution in Europe. For Princeton’s new chapel, Cram envisioned a structure that would evoke the universities the administration sought to emulate in both architecture and pedagogy. The task of turning Cram’s ideas into finished, detailed designs fell to one of the firm’s junior partners, Alexander Hoyle (1882–1967). Hoyle worked up at least two options for the exterior in the style of fourteenth-century English Gothic architecture—the first is shown in the graphite drawing (above right) and the second in the watercolor (left). Both designs feature a single arched entry portal below a monumental stained-glass window and flanked by shallow buttresses, but they differ in decorative details.

The second option, which is very similar to the building as constructed, changed the window tracery of the first option (designed in a French style with three quatrefoils above six lancet windows) to a hybrid of English and French designs, with ogive-arched lancets topped by sexfoils (six-lobed shapes) encircled by roundels. The multiple niches in the buttresses in the first design were removed, and the buttresses themselves were streamlined. The portal was given more elaborate moldings and was surmounted by a balcony. Finally, the detailing of the gable was changed—instead of a single tracery element, a seven-arched arcade was inserted and the crosses along the roofline were removed in favor of a single small finial.

The English-French hybrid was continued in the plan, elevation, and vaulting structure. While the plan reflects English precedents, an early proposal for English-style fan vaults, as seen in a watercolor below, was eventually rejected in favor of a French model, the quadripartite ribbed vault. By combining French and English elements, Hoyle’s creation alludes to Gothic buildings but does not copy any one specific model or style; it is a wholly American invention, one that borrows from European traditions but is not bound by them.

Cram’s vision of a world renewed by a Gothic Revival never materialized. In fact, University Chapel was the last true twentiethcentury Gothic Revival building to be built on the Princeton campus, and even then it could be seen as a relic of a bygone era in architectural design. By January 1930, the date of the dedication of the four main choir windows in the chapel, the Empire State Building was under construction in New York City, Frank Lloyd Wright was designing homes in his Organic style, and Swiss architect Le Corbusier had completed his Villa Savoye. Nevertheless, University Chapel remains one of the most beloved buildings on the Princeton campus and stands as a testament to the enduring ability of Gothic forms to resonate with students, faculty, alumni, and visitors.

Johanna G. Seasonwein
Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Academic Programs

Princeton and the Gothic Revival: 1870-1930 has been made possible by the generous support of Christy Eitner Neidig and William Neidig, Class of 1970, in memory of Lorenz E. A. Eitner, Graduate School Class of 1952; and by Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Princeton University. Additional funding has been provided by Herbert L. Lucas Jr., Class of 1950; Exxon-Mobil Corporation; and the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum.