Renewing American Gothic
The interior was a bigger challenge, however. Introducing modern systems and amenities without damaging the historic integrity would be difficult, time consuming, and costly. But university officials decided it was well worth the money and commitment, because preserving the historic interiors would make a powerful visual statement about the university's origins, bridging the gap between the generations that have lived in this residence hall.
Four years and $15 million were devoted to the restoration and renovation, making Blair & Buyers Hall both one of the most historically authentic residence halls in the United States and one of the most luxurious. The architects built two full-size mockups to visually test the materials and construction methods. They tested four-person suites with an assortment of options, such as restored or new flooring, restored or replaced windows, and restored plaster and lath walls or new veneered plaster walls.
When the owner viewed these mockups, the resulting decision in most cases was to restore and preserve as much as possible. Where it was decided instead to replicate historic features, the choice was driven by pragmatic need to sensitively incorporate modern amenities or systems.
Resurrecting Lost, Inaccessible Space
Inserting new habitable space where it did not yet exist was another challenge. The architects created new townhouse-style units from an unused section of the attic.
In the basement, there were several large bathrooms and underused mechanical areas. To make better use of this space, builders lowered the floor level by removing the existing concrete floor and excavating deeper.
They cut an opening in the facade so they could use a small tractor for removing material. But due to space restrictions, excavation was completed without assistance from heavy equipment. A new slab was then poured in place at the lower elevation.
Also, new ground-level window openings were cut in the south facade. The 28 new casement windows were set in tooled limestone surrounds to make them blend with the historic character of the building.
Making the building accessible to the handicapped was another major design challenge. Two new elevators were installed to provide access to the two wings of the building. The first elevator required modifying an existing entry door with a limestone surround. The floor area inside the entry was lowered to match the exterior grade and new tooled-limestone surrounds extended the doorway architrave.
The second elevator required new carved limestone window surrounds and coping stones and the installation of new schist to fill in former window openings. It also required raising the limestone crenellated parapet that runs along the roof battlement.
To add wiring without compromising the historic character of the building, most lines for data and electrical were routed through existing space and partitions. Throughout the building, for example, a cable tray network was run horizontally for the lower floors, and vertically to telecommunications closets on the upper floors.
The difference between the old and the new is probably imperceptible to few besides the architects and builders who worked on the project, yet the effect of these insertions made 60 percent of the building accessible. Before this construction, the building was almost entirely inaccessible.
The project was completed in August 2000, and the building once again plays an important role in the life of Princeton University. The restored exterior is a focal point for the Princeton Historic District, recognized by both the National Register of Historic Places and the New Jersey Register.
This project also serves as a prototype for the university's intended renovation and restoration of 30 other historic residence halls, following a 30-year master plan. Perhaps as the original work by Cope and Stewardson inspired later architects to create Princeton's architectural identity, this restoration project can guide future architects and engineers as they work to preserve it.
Mark Thaler, AIA and Jonathan Hastings are with Einhorn Yaffee Prescott an architecture/engineering firm with four offices in Albany and New York, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; and Washington DC.