This is Nassau Hall. When it was built, it was the largest building in colonial America. Anyone walking through it today when visiting Princeton University might have some strange resonance with their own college experience. There are some differences, but…parts of it look amazingly like a late 20th century dormitory.
Historians are supposed to be chroniclers of change, and sternly against the claim that things are “always that way.” But American dormitory makes one question historicism. Students are now very, very different than their predecessors of even fifty years ago, let alone three hundred years ago. And yet the residence hall remains, and thrives, often in ways that the young men of the College of New Jersey in 1772 might recognize.
My guest Carla Yanni—picking up on the ideas of Marta Gutman—argues that this is because physical space is not simply a backdrop for college students. The two build each other. Or, as the architectural critic Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”
Carla Yanni is Professor of Art History at Rutgers University, specializing in social history of architecture in 19th- and 20th-century Britain and the United States. Her most recent book is Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory.
For Further Investigation
Alan Taylor, Thomas Jefferson’s Education
Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History
J. David Hoeveler, Creating the American Mind: Intellect and Politics in the Colonial Colleges