Once upon a time, when you turned off Route 1 onto Washington Road, you knew you were approaching a rare and wonderful place. A long avenue flanked on both sides by towering elms, columns of forsythia, and empty fields, it lured you onward. You followed the road over the canal, over Carnegie Lake, and across the stone bridge. Past the elegant boathouse, up the hill, and there you were—in the magical kingdom of Princeton University.
New Jersey’s Route 1 is a deadly strip of malls and office parks, motels and “living communities”—a monument to everything ugly, banal, and cheap. But all that was forgotten as soon as you made the turn.
Princeton. Princeton was Gothic towers and wooded fields. It was learning, tradition, eating clubs, and Triangle’s all-male kickline. The land of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jimmy Stewart, and John Nash. It was as close as the New World would ever get to the glories of Oxford and Cambridge. Princeton was beauty and truth. Or so it seemed to us in the four years our daughter spent there.
Ralph Adams Cram never got to test his theory that a revival of Gothic architecture would cure the ills of society, but he did, in 1907, create a master plan for the university, much of which has, until recently, been followed. His majestic neo-Gothic chapel stands at the heart of it all. Here, also, is Nassau Hall, built in 1756 and briefly home to the Continental Congress. Nearby are the 1897 East Pyne Hall and Blair Arch, perhaps the most photographed spot on campus. Princeton championed Collegiate Gothic in America, and many of its buildings were lovingly designed accordingly.
There were also, of course, the usual 1960s and ’70s eyesores that blight American campuses everywhere. Student tour guides always joked that Princeton’s School of Architecture was the ugliest building on campus, and they made sure to stay away from the newer dorms because no prospective student has ever dreamed about sleeping or eating in a sterile box. No, the “Harry Potter” dining rooms and dorms loomed large on the tours, while the bland or ugly kept a discreet distance.
Our daughter graduated in 2017, and we have watched since then as Princeton indulges in an absolute orgy of building. For years, the campus has been essentially a glorified construction site. The art museum in the heart of campus was demolished, and new plans were introduced with great fanfare. The previous building, completed in 1966, was a dull affair, so one hoped for something truly exciting to take its place. Alas, the new museum bears a striking similarity to an immense air conditioner.
Poe Field, once an open expanse and the home of charming, old-school tennis courts, now houses two new residential colleges, Yeh College and New College West. If you didn’t know better, you might suppose Princeton was expanding the much discussed “carceral state” and building prisons rather than colleges. Hulking and gray, utterly devoid of interest or charm, they are perfect examples of Soviet brutalism.
Adding insult to injury, someone thought it would be good to break up the grim monotony with “art”—or, as a plaque explains, “social structures”—such as bubblegum pink furniture meant to encourage “childhood dreams.” No, this is not the stuff dreams are made of. These are nightmare inducing, somewhere between Disney and de Chirico. In any case, my understanding was that Princeton was a university, not a nursery school. How times have changed. It is quite impossible to overstate the visual and emotional gulf between old Princeton and new.
Meanwhile, the drawings and plans for Hobson College, which will replace Wilson (imaginatively renamed, since 2020, “First”), show a massive, unwelcoming monstrosity resembling the housing projects visited upon cities across America. South Bronx, anyone? Such urban eyesores inevitably encourage crime and dysfunction. As Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.”
The stated aim of all this building is to admit ever greater numbers of ever more diverse students. But surely we do a disservice to these young people by housing them in expensive slums.
Who designs these buildings? There must surely be a special circle in Dante’s hell for these architects. These repellent, soulless boxes do not fit the world’s image of Princeton. They do not please or inspire the students or faculty. They are hated by the townspeople and alumni. So what possesses those in charge?
Money is surely not the problem. As Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote, Princeton is the world’s first perpetual motion machine—utterly self-sufficient and never in need. The university has more money than it knows what to do with and could afford to build anything—if not Gothic towers, then at least something eccentric and interesting.
We can only conclude that the ugliness must, in itself, be the point. And this makes sense when we recall Princeton’s new god, the Holy Trinity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
Diversity—the antithesis of university—denies the existence of one truth and posits instead a multiplicity of truths. Which is to say, no truth at all. Moreover, in its promotion of the LGBTQIA++ agenda, it also denies the supreme, essential “diversity” underpinning humanity—that of male and female. Equity demands equal outcomes for all, so one might say it actually forbids “diversity.” And inclusion is, in practice, precisely the exclusion of any and all who do not bow down to this new god. DEI is fundamentally anti-diversity, demanding a numbing sameness. Its visual equivalent might well be—a box. In this religion, beauty has no place.
One of my favorite spots on campus is an archway in McCosh Hall. Over the wooden doors is an inscription, written by H. E. Mierow of the Class of 1914:
Here we were taught by men and gothic towers
Democracy and faith and righteousness
And love of things that do not die.
As Mierow’s words remind us, Princeton’s Gothic towers point to something other than, and greater than, ourselves; they point to a higher truth. They belong in a world of light and shadow, joy and sorrow, success and failure. But the creed of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion cannot permit spires. There can be no pointing upward, no transcendence of self because there is nothing higher or greater than the autonomous self.
Return again to Washington Road as you make the turn off Route 1. Some of the trees still stand, but the empty fields are long gone. The expansive vista that drew the eye onward and upward to the towers on the hill is obstructed now. Yet another box—Princeton’s Lake Campus graduate housing—rises from the ground. Where once the forsythia bloomed and geese congregated, there is now a parking lot. The ugliness is the point.
Kari Jenson Gold’s most recent piece for First Things was “The Sad Fate of Girls' Schools.”
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