Between the monolithic bustle of Frist Campus Center and the postcard-perfect sector of North campus, Prospect House and its adjoining garden stand apart. While the Italianate villa and its small botanical garden currently serve as a faculty dining hall and gathering point for various segments of the Princeton community, the building has a remarkable history and has evolved in many ways over the years. From serving as a summer retreat for Southern slave-owners, to the much-protested home of the then-University President Woodrow Wilson Class of 1879, to the house’s ultra-modern redesign in the 1960s, Prospect House has participated in Princeton history, as well asAmerican history,in surprising ways.
According to Princeton historian W. Barksdale Maynard ’88, Prospect House was a private home in the colonial period.John Notman, the architect who renovated Nassau Hall in the Italianate style around the same period, rebuilt Prospect House in that style circa 1850.At that time, it was the summer home of John Potter, a slave-owner from Charleston, S.C. “[The Potter family] came up here in the summers to escape the yellow fever,” Barksdale said. “They brought their Charleston lifestyle up here with them, slaves and all.”
In 1878, the house was donated to the University and became the house of the then-University President James McCosh.“[At the time], it was called the finest President’s house at any American college,” Barksdale said.
Under Woodrow Wilson’s University presidency, the house took on new significance as contested ground between Wilson and the student body.
“As a president’s house, [Prospect House] had a certain kind of aura about it, and a certain kind of isolation,” University Architect Ronald McCoy GS ’80 said. “This is something that Woodrow Wilson specifically thought he needed to promote.” As a result of what appeared to the Wilson household as too many students walking through the property, the Wilsons installed a tall fence around the property to maintain a residential space.
“Wilson had just finished building a house for himself on Library Place,” McCoy said. “When he [became] President, he was disappointed he had to leave the house he had just built for himself.”
According to a National Park Service application for historic preservation, Prospect House’s tall fences became a contentious issue for the student body. During a senior class parade, a contingent of students wore black gowns, peaked hats and black masks to “represent the fence.” The protesters even carried “a pig in a cart” to symbolize Wilson’s selfishness for isolating Prospect, the report stated.
“At about the same time, the story is [the protesters] convinced a group of freshmen to hammer a section of the fence into the ground,” McCoy added. “It was definitely a source of student pranks and protests.”
The Wilson family’s influence, while at times contentious, redefined the space for decades to come and placed the house at the crossroads of American history. According to Maynard, when Wilson announced he was going to run for the governorship of New Jersey, the press surrounded Prospect House, bringing national attention to the building and Princeton in general. Moreover, Ellen Wilson, Woodrow Wilson’s first wife,remodeledthe house in 1902 and designed Prospect Garden.
“When she moves to the White House in 1914, [Ellen Wilson carried] with her the memory of Prospect Garden and the roses and she [proposed to] have a ‘Rose Garden’ at the White House,” Maynard said, revealing how Prospect Garden has influenced the design of the executive mansion.
In the 1960s, social unrest on campus persuaded then-University President Goheen to move the University President’s house off campus, which repositioned Prospect House as a faculty dining hall. According to McCoy, the modernist architect Warren Platner transformed Prospect House by adding a glass addition that sits above the garden, in addition to incorporatingmodern furniture and shag carpeting. “[It was] totally cool,” McCoy said.
But the shag of Prospect was not to last. In the 1980s, the building was refurnished yet again in a more conservative style, according to Maynard.
Today, Prospect House serves as a faculty dining hall and a meeting place for the Board of Trustees and various departments and administrations. According to McCoy, in 2012,Woodrow Wilson’s tall fences were removed to open up the space.
“It’sdefinitely a place within the place of the campus. The campus is big enough that it can have these secluded moments that [are] somewhat disconnected from the normal fabric [of campus].” McCoy said. “As it has evolved programmatically, it is open to a wide range of university community… [and the] garden is also a resource for the public.”
In particular, the Warren Platner design for the glass-plated dining room has been tremendously successful. “[The room] hovers over the treetops,” McCoy said. “It’s a fantastic place to have a meal.”