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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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“See! This our fathers did for us”

Construction underway at Princeton’s Whitman College. Princeton Packet photo by Mark Czajkowski.

— I sometimes hesitate to report news about residential colleges at wealthy institutions, because it can reinforce the perception that collegiate systems can only exist where money flows like water. That perception is widespread, but it is false. Nevertheless, if you do have plenty of money, there are material things you can accomplish that are otherwise difficult. And if you do have lots of money, it’s incumbent upon you to use it well.

Princeton University in New Jersey is a very wealthy institution, and it is in the midst of a conversion from a two-year residential college system to a four-year system, one that will also incorporate some graduate students. Today’s edition of the Princeton Packet carries a story by reporter Ross Kenneth Urken—abridged here—that describes the loving detail being put into the stonework of the new Whitman College buildings at Princeton:

“When they said you can’t build them like you used to, you can,” project superintendent Rick Ford said of the construction of Princeton University’s collegiate gothic Whitman College.

With Whitman scheduled to open in the fall of 2007 as the university’s sixth residential college, Mr. Ford knows the important role the stonemasons’ artistry plays in building a 21st-century structure to blend with buildings from over 100 years before.

“Our goal is to continue in the tradition of the collegiate gothic style of much of Princeton,” project director for Whitman College John Ziegler said. “But we’re looking for equivalency without desire to replicate … parity without being identical.”

The 52 stonemasons work with more than 6,000 tons of fieldstone in addition to the limestone and Vermont slate for the roofs.

As men hold up levels to make sure the mortar joints are balanced, Mr. Ford decides to call over the stonemasons themselves, who hail from Dan Lepore & Sons in Conshohocken, Pa.

“We basically have a three-headed ashlar pattern,” stonemason Daryl Rogers explained. “You have to think ahead mathematically about how you want to make your vertical jumps in the pattern…. It’s pretty important to plan ahead, so you don’t get in a jam. You have to come up with your own composition.”

In this technique, there are often two stones juxtaposed to a larger stone on the same plane and occasionally an angled stone to break the pattern.

Limestone will frame the windows and the building trimmings, but whereas the limestone is precut and numbered to fit like a puzzle, the fieldstone presents the true challenge in stonemasonry. Before a mason places each fieldstone, he must blend the stone to fit a certain palette.

“They don’t have a finished product for each of the stones…. The masons have to work their artistry,” Mr. Ziegler said.

“Everything has to run in stages,” stonemason Matt Curran said. “The windows are surrounded by limestone…. It’s a balancing act. The ashlar has to come up before the limestone can go on. The ashlar continues. We have to juggle guys around.”

“The project as a whole has a good sense of camaraderie,” Mr. Ford said of the men, who work 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. five days a week—laboring seriously, joking lightheartedly. The men are from a 100-mile radius and of all different backgrounds—from the experienced mason with 30 years in the trade to the first-year apprentice.

But even before relationships are formed and stone patterns decided upon, choosing the stone became one of the most crucial and difficult aspects of the project, according to Mr. Ziegler. There are generally two kinds of fieldstone used—argilite and Wissahickon schist. Though it was the initial goal to build with argillite, the stone proved expensive and too brittle, according to Mr. Ziegler. And the schist became too difficult to gather.

So the fieldstone has been quarried from two locations of blue stone with 60 percent of denser stone from Alcove, N.Y., and 40 percent of less-dense stone from Endless Mountain in Susquehanna, Pa.

“We wanted something reasonably readily attainable that has properties that give it long life, make it reasonably workable, and an aesthetic that was compatible with other buildings on campus,” Mr. Ziegler said.

And with shrewd stone choice, he expects the finished product to be commensurate in size and appearance with structures close to it.

“Whitman College is … a good neighbor with respect to massing, and the stone itself is exceptionally well suited to complement other stones on campus,” Mr. Ziegler said.

On site last Friday, Mr. Ziegler and others became concerned about the weekend snowstorm. The men began to set up scaffolding and tarps. They even arranged for propane heaters to preserve the nearly laid stones from the cold and to allow work to continue.

But the weather has not fazed the pride of the men in their work.

“It’s a great honor to work on a job of this magnitude and at a place like Princeton,” stonemason Dominic Tulio said. “And the learning curve is a lot higher here than what we’re used to doing,” he joked about working on site at the prestigious university.

The lasting quality of their works seems especially meaningful to the masons.

“I’m in awe working here. It takes you back when you think that this is going to be here for over 100 years,” Mr. Curran said.

There is an appeal in leaving a legacy for stonemason Ray Gawronski.

“My grandkids will be able to see my work, and I’ll be long gone,” he said.

The masons have every reason to be proud, and I hope the members of Whitman College will remember and appreciate their work. The importance of enduring craftsmanship—like the craftsmanship manifest in this project—is something that the great Victorian architectural critic John Ruskin understood better than almost anyone. Enduring craftsmanship is important because fine material work connects future generations with the generations that went before them. “Every human action gains in honour, in grace, in all true magnificence,” said Ruskin, “by its regard to things that are to come.”

Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, “See! this our fathers did for us.”

But what if you don’t have Princeton’s millions and can’t hire the most expensive workmen? Ruskin understood that, too. It isn’t great cost that makes a building great: it is the great meaning that people work into the building’s fabric, generation upon generation, that makes it great. I have seen very expensive buildings that are little more than lifeless shells because they are not meaningful in any significant way for the people who occupy them. Such buildings are indeed just occupied; they are not lived in.

The architecture of a residential college, whether magnificent or modest, is good architecture only to the extent that it allows the members of the college to construct meaningful lives within it. A modest building can do this just as well as a luxurious one. And if a residential college building does not support the creation of meaningful lives, it makes no difference whether it is made of marble or straw. “Better the rudest work that tells a story or records a fact”—a story or fact vital to the lives of the people in it, said Ruskin—“than the richest without meaning.”

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021