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The history of a campus center and the importance of renovations at Princeton

dillon-construction Candace Do DP (2).jpg
Construction begins on a multi-year project to expand and renovate the southern portion of Dillon Gym. 
Candace Do / The Daily Princetonian

In the spring of 2000, students in POL 316 and ENG 335 walked into old Palmer Hall — which had recently been outfitted with new finishes and equipment — talking over the din of construction from the unfinished Frist Food Gallery below. Not everyone felt enthusiastic about these changes. A September 2000 Daily Princetonian article highlighted the frustration of students with the “constant construction” that had been going on for four years. Another article from the ‘Prince’ quoted the project manager, who said, “I think people understand that we have to pursue the construction with vigor so we can get done when we’re supposed to.” This sentiment also applies to Princeton’s current renovation projects. Indeed, it is by looking at Princeton’s past projects that we can better understand — and redeem — the University’s current efforts.

The area between Pyne Drive and Washington Road is largely blocked by Princeton’s current major renovation projects. The ongoing renovation of Dillon Gym aims to provide more accessible and clearer entry patterns and new workout space. On the other side of campus, the University is renovating Eno Hall into a new home for University Health Services (UHS). The new home will more than double the amount of space available in McCosh Health Center. Both projects address urgent student needs as the campus population grows: fitness and health. 


While these projects cause major inconveniences for students, they are the best of Princeton’s many recent construction endeavors. Renovation projects are more practical than new construction, as they are less expensive and less carbon intensive. But they are not just practical: they serve an important symbolic function on a 266-year-old campus — renovation projects link present students to their campus’s past. 

Although Frist is a more recently-constructed campus staple, the idea of a campus center floated around for almost 80 years before its construction. President Hibben proposed a campus center beginning in the 1930s: “There is no meeting place which will establish a center of our Princeton life.” Hibben’s proposal was a new building on Prospect Avenue. Another proposal included a new building on the site of Reunion Hall.

Both ambitious proposals failed. However, during WWII Murray-Dodge was repurposed, housing the United Service Organization while the military took over campus. After the war, East Pyne was renovated into a social facility, and in the seventies, when the drinking age was 18 in New Jersey, Chancellor Green became a pub. Eventually, during the tenure of President Harold Shapiro GS ’64, the focus on a new campus center reemerged, giving rise to Frist. All of these iterations were renovations requiring major reconfigurations of buildings which, yes, caused inconveniences, but ultimately yielded results that greatly benefited the campus. 

Drawing on the history of the campus center, students must remember the importance of current renovation projects. Practically, renovating buildings are very efficient uses of resources. New construction buildings take 80 years to recover the energy used in their construction. Production of new materials, demolition of old buildings, and the process of construction are all carbon intensive processes. Princeton’s School of Architecture has been at the forefront of teaching the concept of embodied carbon, or the carbon that is required during the construction of the building. This embodied carbon is required before the building is occupied for a single day. Even after the buildings are completed, they will be more sustainable long-term with features like more efficient fixtures and appliances.

More importantly, renovation projects are physical manifestations of the relationship between contemporary students and past generations of Princetonians. A visitor to Frist can pick up a package where experiments were conducted with a cyclotron, walk through what used to be the old Palmer labs, and drink a coffee in a common space that has served the last 20 years of Princetonians.

These projects are the most inconvenient on campus, occurring in heavily trafficked areas, but renovations by definition require working with existing structures. This approach is preferable to building new buildings in the far reaches of campus. Building farther away would result in the campus becoming less connected, with students having to walk long distances for services like healthcare. It is also preferable to tearing down existing buildings, which breaks continuity with the past and wastes material.


Hopefully, the two ongoing renovation projects will yield interesting results, just as past projects gave us the Frist we know today. Dillon Gym is the place where Bill Bradley ’65 led Princeton to its best season ever, but it will soon have a large attachment where an enlarged student body can take spin classes. Eno Hall was the “first laboratory in this country, if not in the world, dedicated solely to the teaching and investigation of scientific psychology.” Soon, it will be incorporated into a new health center for the next generation of students. The glass atrium and the accessible entry portal to Dillon in the new “Health Services Building” will remind future students of their continuity with Princeton’s past.

Although these projects constrain important campus circulation pathways, they will soon perform the role that every campus renovation does — reminding us of our place in Princeton’s history and paving a new path forward.

John Raulston Graham is a junior majoring in architecture from Portland, Tenn. He is the Orange Key Guide Service historian and a member of the Princetoniana committee. He can be reached at Graham is a former features writer for the ‘Prince.’ 

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