Collegiate Gothic Isn't Just for Snobs

A historical defense of architecture's most unfairly stereotyped form


Dan Bischoff is one of my favorite critics, and his Newark Star-Ledger review of an exhibition on collegiate Gothic at the Princeton Art Museum gets many things just right. So I hate to quibble about an excellent review. But the following deserves comment:

[T]he idea behind Princeton's design was the cloister, the special preserve removed from the larger society and, in some ways, protected from it. Privilege is a given and the Gothic style hints at aristocratic social forms when compared with, say, the Doric-ordered Beaux-Arts style of Columbia University, its Renaissance-based aesthetic echoing the mercantile politics of the city that surrounds it. For most of its history, Princeton had been a rural school for white, Anglo-Saxon, wealthy men, who sought not just practical training but intellectual refinement beyond their immediate social needs.

Mr. Bischoff is absolutely right that Princeton's post-Civil-War-architecture was a conscious move to make the campus more welcoming to the sons of the nation's new industrial dynasties. Victorian Gothic Witherspoon Hall (1877) was originally described by contemporary critics as "one of the most commanding college buildings in the world"  "the most beautiful and luxurious college dormitory in the country." (By the time I got there as a freshman, things had gone downhill considerably since the days of L. Rodman Wanamaker 1886.)  Edwards Hall, also Gothic and completed in 1877, was intended for the 99-percent contingent of the day. The student newspaper later commented: "Naturally dark and dirty, the Hall is made the object on many contemelious [sic] remarks, and the general opinion is that it takes courage backed up by more or less impecunious circumstances to spend a year or more in those dark and dusty entries."

Whether many wealthy Princeton fin-de-siecle preppies were pursuing "intellectual refinement" is debatable. Cheating was rampant throughout the Ivy League and openly justified as mutual assistance by the circles of private school alumni who dominated college social life. Princeton's Honor Code was a partly successful countermeasure, but it applied only to examinations, not term papers and the like. (More about the history of academic plagiarism here.)

Most importantly, it's misleading to call Gothic "aristocratic" and Beaux-Arts (at Columbia or elsewhere) "mercantile," which to me implies a plain, commercial style. 

With some huge exceptions like the Schwab Mansion, most of the New York homes and social clubs of the ultra-wealthy in the late 19th century were in Renaissance style, while the mercantile Woolworth Building was Gothic. As Mosette Broderick has written of McKim, Mead, and White and their Beaux-Arts style: "They built for clients who wanted to fit in with an international set and not appear as provincials. The partners could be entrusted to create buildings for their clients that would put a spin on their personas and make them, the modern Medicis, look as if they knew who the real Medicis were." And where are Columbia's "Doric" columns? It most iconic building (1895), Lowe Library, has an Ionic portico and interior columns. The Depression-era sister building, Butler Library, is known for its Ionic colonnade. The gender implications of Doric (male) and Ionic (female) columns are known only to scholars and enthusiasts today but were once part of the education of every architect.

In truth every generation projects its own values and fantasies onto the Gothic style. It was widely shunned as "barbaric" through much of the 18th century, then seen by Romantics as the mark of a more egalitarian age of beauty, spirituality, and social harmony before the class distinctions of the early Industrial Revolution; even in the late 19th century, this spirit echoed in London's famous settlement house, Toynbee Hall.  At the other extreme, the style was adopted by industrial magnates like Lord Armstrong of Cragside (an artillery inventor and arms magnate no doubt well aware of the role of cannon in the decline of Gothic castles). The distinguished French architect Viollet-Le-Duc and Princeton's Ralph Adams Cram valued it for rationality, not antiquarian sentiment. Even now it's unclear: Veblenian conspicuous consumption? Hommage to craft, skill, and 500-year sustainability? Invented tradition? Mr. Bischoff is entitled to his own interpretation, but the record is ambiguous.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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