Nassau Hall, Princeton University


Nassau Hall on the Princeton campus


  • The College of New Jersey is founded in 1746.
  • Ground is broken to build Nassau Hall on 29-Jul-1754.
  • Designed by architect Robert Smith, whose other works include Carpenter’s Hall, St. Peter’s Church and the steeple on Christ Church.
  • Its doors open to students in 1756.
  • It is named after King William III, Prince of Orange, of the House of Nassau.
  • During the Battle of Princeton (3-Jan-1777) Brigadier General Henry Knox orders Captain Alexander Hamilton and the New York artillery to attack the British in Nassau Hall.
  • Hamilton orders a four-pounder to be wheeled into position: the first cannonball passes through a window and ruptures a painting of King George III. When additional artillery fire is unable to puncture the 26-inch walls, the Americans storm the building and the British surrender.
  • To this day walls scarred by cannon fire can be seen on the south side of the west wing.
  • Ironically, the College of New Jersey had rejected Hamilton’s application for enrollment in 1773.

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For over 250 years, Nassau Hall has been the cornerstone of the Princeton University Campus. Principally designed by Robert Smith — who would later design and build Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia — it was created to house the entire College of New Jersey (as it was then known, changing its name to Princeton in 1896 when it became a university).

Constructed (1754 – 56) in the Georgian-Colonial style, Nassau Hall was built with locally quarried sandstone to create walls 26 inches thick. It has three floors and a basement; three entrances in the front and two in the rear; and a cupola sits center on top of the roof which gives some delicacy and grace to what was otherwise a modest building. For the next 50 years Nassau Hall was the College of New Jersey.

When John Witherspoon became the sixth president of the College (1768 – 94), he shifted the educational focus from the training of ministers to preparing students for leadership in the new American nation. After all, Nassau Hall had played a significant role in the Revolutionary War. During the Battle of Princeton (3-Jan-1777) artillery fire pelted the structure so severely that scars can be still be seen on the south side of the west wing. When the British surrendered to the Americans, it — along with the Battle of Trenton a week earlier (26-Dec-1776) — became the second consecutive victory for Washingtion and a turning point in the war.

By the end of the war, Nassau Hall was ravaged. It had been used as a barracks for both British and American troops, a hospital, a military prison, and a temporary home to the Confederation Congress (Jun - Nov-1783). And it was not until 1791 that it was fully restored.

In 1802 the first of two major fires gutted the building, leaving only the four external walls. To rebuild, the trustees hired Benjamin Latrobe. The first professional architect in the United States — who would oversee the construction of the Capitol building and influence the Federal style buildings in so much of Washington, DC — Latrobe worked to minimize damage from any future fire. He added a sheet-iron roof, replaced the wooden floors with brick, and added a stone stairs and iron railing — still in use today. He also made a few cosmetic changes, including adding a clock to the belfry.

When a second fire devastated the building again in 1855, it was rebuilt in the Italian Renaissance style. In the 20th century, however, many of these often criticized Florentine touches was removed. Today Nassau Hall incorporates elements from each stage of construction and reconstruction.

In 1960 the U.S. Department of the Interior designated Nassau Hall a National Historic Landmark,signifying its importance in the Revolutionary War and in the history of the United States.

Associated People

For all their talk of reason and enlightenment, Washington and the other leading Founders were more religious than they sometimes seem. Most of them had no quarrel with religion as long as it was reasonable and orderly. Washington was a member of his Anglican, later Episcopal, church vestry, and he remained a frequent churchgoer — though unlike his wife, Martha, he never became a member of his church, meaning that he did not partake of the Eucharist on communion Sundays. Washington, the perfect Freemason, considered himself enlightened in religious matters (being no bigot myself to any mode of worship), and he almost never knelt in prayer and seems never to have purchased a bible.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)