Surviving nearly 250 years of fires, wars and rowdy Princeton students, Nassau Hall still stands as a symbol of the history and traditions of the University.
Not only does it house administrative offices, its sturdy walls contain numerous stories and legends — some truths, some myths — that will never die.
In the beginning
Nassau Hall, which took two years to build, was the largest stone structure in the colonies when it was completed in 1756.
Princeton's trustees wanted to name the University's first building in honor of Jonathan Belcher, the governor of New Jersey who obtained community support for the college. Thankfully, Belcher asked that the building instead be named in honor of King William III, who was from a branch of the house of Nassau.
Nassau Hall remained the college's only building, except for the president's home in Maclean House, for almost 50 years.
Though Nassau Hall's interior has been reconstructed several times, the original 26-inch thick exterior sandstone walls are still standing. Except for these walls, the entire building was reduced to ashes after a fire in 1802. The building was soon restored to its original Georgian facade — only to endure another fire in 1855. The second reconstruction produced a Florentine style and a 40-foot extension, which is now the Faculty Room.
Nassau Hall has played an important role in state and national history. The first state legislature of New Jersey met in Nassau Hall in 1776, when it approved the first state constitution and adopted the state seal.
The hall served as a barracks and hospital for colonial troops until the British captured it during the Revolutionary War late in 1776. Students were forced to evacuate the building until the Americans recaptured it upon their victory at the Battle of Princeton in January 1777.
A popular legend — which explains why the floors of the first floor hallways are uneven — claims that Revolutionary War troops stored cannonballs in the hall's basement, and students later used the balls to bowl in the corridors.
However, this legend cannot be true, since the interior of the building was completely rebuilt after it was damaged by the fire in 1855.
A portrait of King George II was presented to the University in 1936 and now hangs on the south wall of the Faculty Room. The painting replaced a portrait of the king that was destroyed by cannon fire during the Revolutionary War. The frame for that portrait survived the shelling, however, and it now holds a Charles Wilson Peale painting of George Washington — the most significant work of art in the Faculty Room.
Legends and traditions
Originally, two lion statues flanked Nassau Hall's entrance, representing Princeton's first mascot. After sportswriters began referring to Princeton athletes as "tigers" because of their orange-and-black uniforms, the mascot was changed to the tiger in the 1880s.
Former U.S. and University president Woodrow Wilson 1879 later donated the two bronze tigers that now guard the doors to replace the lions.
From 1870 to 1941, each graduating class planted a sprig of ivy along the front of Nassau Hall. The tradition ended when the front wall filled, but began again a few years ago along the back wall. If the ivy of a certain class reached the top of the building, its future would be prosperous, but if it did not, the class would be doomed to failure.
Traditions and all, Nassau Hall certainly has played an important role in the nation's history, a fact that was formally acknowledged in 1961 when it was declared a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
But it was five years earlier that Old Nassau really made the big time: In 1956, an orange-and-black three-cent commemorative stamp with a picture of Nassau Hall was issued by the U.S. Postal Service to mark the bicentennial of the hall's construction.
Today the University's Board of Trustees and other committees meet in the Faculty Room, which also houses a museum of University traditions and of Princeton's role in U.S. history.