Demetri Porphyrios’s Whitman College was designed to match older dorms at Princeton U. (Chronicle photographs by Lawrence Biemiller)
Princeton, N.J. — Five hundred Princeton University undergraduates moved into a much-heralded Collegiate Gothic residential college this month, filling its quadrangles with music, its passageways with echoing conversations, and its limestone doorways with fliers. It still feels new now, and of course that’s not the point of designing in a 600-year-old architectural style. But after its woodwork accumulates a few dings and nicks, and after a few seasons’ worth of rains have weathered its walls, it will fit in nicely with the university’s older Gothic dormitory buildings, perhaps the best-known in all of American higher education.
Called Whitman College — after Meg Whitman, president of eBay, whose family gave $30-million of the $136-million project cost — the complex was designed by Demetri Porphyrios, of the London architecture firm Porphyrios Associates. Both Ms. Whitman and Mr. Porphyrios are Princeton alumni.
The buildings are faced in random blocks of bluestone with limestone trim, and the college is arranged like a giant E, forming two quadrangles that are open to the east. One quad is surrounded by three-story buildings, while the buildings of the other — because of the slope of the site — reach four stories. The southernmost wall of the college is five stories high.
Towers, bay windows, and dormers — some of the latter half-timbered — make the facades and rooflines lively and help disguise how big the buildings are. But they are quite large, and the two quadrangles are just this side of vast — if Whitman falls short in comparison with the university’s older buildings, it’s because the new college seems to lack some of the intimacy, the human scale, of the older dorms.
That said, Whitman has many pleasures. From the west side of the campus, one enters the lower quadrangle by crossing a bridge — over what seems almost like a moat — and then walking through an arched passage. To the left is a long limestone arcade; straight ahead is the limestone-clad commons, with its high-ceilinged dining hall and huge fireplace. On the far side of the commons is lovely octagonal structure that turns out to hold one of two small private dining rooms.
The college’s details are entertaining as well — growling tigers set in the stonework, W’s on metal downspouts, an empty niche high up in a tower wall, an elaborately carved doorway leading into the commons. John Hlafter, the university architect, explains that the “Yes!” carved in a paving stone echoes the acceptance letters once sent by Fred Hargadon, a retired dean of admissions, after whom the building behind the paving stone is named.
Mr. Hlafter says the college was built with load-bearing masonry walls — a rarity — and that most of its residents live in suites. Bathrooms are shared by several suites. The building was constructed so that students’ rooms can be air-conditioned at some point in the future. The college also has a library, a theater, offices for a college master, and other facilities. —Lawrence Biemiller
An arcade lines one side of the lower quadrangle.
Elaborate ornament surrounds the main entrance to the commons.
An octagonal dining room juts out from the east wall of the commons.
A student walks by the passage through one of the college’s towers.