In the Fall of 1946, enrollment far exceeded the housing capacity of the University. Administrators used every possible space to house students. Those in existing dorms were asked to ‘double up.’ Eating clubs and war surplus housing provided shelter for some, while others were asked to commute from home. Even Baker Rink was home to 200 students who slept on military-style cots. A Princeton Herald story from September of that year stated bluntly, “Although the University possesses extensive dormitory, dining hall and classroom facilities, resort[ing] to unprecedented measures will be necessary.”
While this particular strain was caused by the demobilization period after World War II, it is one of many examples of times when students have encountered a campus heavily in flux. Unlike today, the University has not always built facilities to accommodate for its campus changes. Current Princeton students should feel willing to minorly sacrifice for the future of the institution.
Students complain constantly about living in a construction zone on campus. Recently, columnist Tara Shukla ’25 quoted that over fifty percent of rooms are affected by construction. She claimed that Princeton ignores the needs of current students when planning projects. While Shukla, like other students, sees construction as a curse, it is surely a blessing.
This current set of construction projects is more intentionally planned and less intrusive than past projects. Before the mid-2000s, the University never had a comprehensive planning initiative, instead raising money for individual projects as needs arose.
Today, the University rigorously plans construction and campus population phasing, sparing us from needing to sleep on cots. Construction occurring on campus is part of a 2016 plan for the gradual expansion of the student body. In the past, the University’s plans have fallen far short of campus population needs. Now, they are carefully planning and executing their construction phasing.
All 825 students in the Great Class of 1964 moved in for their freshman years while Hurricane Donna punished Princeton, felling elms on campus. Incoming students encountered an unfinished Wilcox Hall and a muddy mess created by the lack of stone paths and incomplete landscaping. A 1960 film created by the University to send to alumni explains that the day after moving into unfinished dorms the Class of 1964 were “agreeing among themselves that this was indeed the greatest class that ever went to Princeton.” Rather than feeling utter disgust at the lack of planning on the University’s part, these students valued their forward-thinking University.
Why were these students more resilient to the inconveniences of a campus under construction? Through the 1950s about 500 students lived in overcrowded rooms. According to the dean at the time, the construction of dormitories and new academic buildings while the Class of 1964 was on campus was “designed to relieve overcrowding in the present dormitories,” not to “permit an increase in undergraduate enrollment. Space was tight for everyone, including professors. University President Francis Goheen ’40 shared “an office with three other assistant professors and an associate professor for about six years.” Over a decade after the drama of the War, the University was still trying to catch up to its needs.
While these scenarios may seem in the distant past, in 1995 an extremely high matriculation rate meant Princeton did not have enough space to house all its students. Thirty-four sophomores were housed in trailers rented by the University. These accommodations were an absolute last resort; facilities in Wilson, Butler, and Forbes were already remodeled to put up more students, but even that was insufficient. These students in the trailers volunteered for the task with only the incentive of a room reduction of $1,000.
The pandemic brought challenges to our classes and to the campus in the last few years. The construction industry was greatly hindered by the pandemic. Not only did construction companies have to grapple with deciding when it was safe to return to work, but they also had to navigate supply-chain problems with their building materials. These issues complicated projects on Princeton’s campus. Although we saw direct effects of these delays as the New Colleges’ completions were delayed, these problems have plagued all ongoing projects.
My class — the Great Class of 2024 — began our four years without any access to the campus at all; we started our first-year virtually and remote. How have we forgotten so quickly how terrible that felt? Improving and maintaining the campus is necessary and should be abundantly clear to students who experienced the loneliness of Princeton without physical spaces to share.
I believe our challenges through semesters of online classes and our perseverance through a campus riddled with construction are greater than the Class of 1964. However, none of these challenges resonate as much as the feeling among returning World War II veterans that they had “seen things worse” than the crowding in Baker Rink. Members of these classes, affected by war, not only sacrificed for fellow Princetonians but also for their fellow countrymen.
A plaque under 1879 Arch reads “You are a part of Princeton. Princeton is a part of you.” We are only here for a brief time, but Princeton endures. We see in the P-rade every year that we are only one small part of Princeton’s history. Be thankful to be a Princetonian and revel in the advancement of the campus.
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 email@example.com. Graham is a former features writer for the ‘Prince.’