Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 37
 
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
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University's Whitman College Fits Right In, Anticipates Increase in Student Population

Matthew Hersh

With its veritable forest of mature trees, Collegiate Gothic architectural style, and seamless blend into campus building infrastructure, Princeton University's newly opened Whitman College, the school's sixth residential college, could well have been part of the campus for decades.

Only three years ago the site where the $136 million complex stands was the home of the school's so-called "Pagoda" tennis courts: a useful resource, but one that was viewed as antithetical to the University's long-term developmental philosophy of building a denser, more pedestrian-friendly campus, rather than immediately developing some of its other vacant land holdings, including sites in Plainsboro and West Windsor.

Named after eBay CEO and University alumna Meg Whitman following a $30 million donation, Whitman College is now part of the campus fabric featuring dormitories, social and academic spaces, as well as a cafeteria. School administrators are banking that Whitman will help mitigate an anticipated 500-student increase in the University's undergraduate population. That increase, now being phased in, is expected to be completed by 2012, but in the meantime, the eight buildings and three greens seem to slide into the campus scheme: and University officials say that is, literally, by design.

"Coming in from University Place, there was no real sense of entry as to where residential life began on campus," said Cass Cliatt during a media tour of the eight building, 405-bedroom, 250,000-square-foot facility last week.

Other facility amenities include a main hall with an attached café, two semi-private halls, and a dining hall with retail offering food prepared on site.

The complex is enormous, but the architecture firm, Porphyrios Associates, which has designed dorms for Oxford and Cambridge colleges, "didn't want people to feel like they were living in a giant structure — they wanted it to be intimate," said Harvey Rosen, a PU economics professor who is also the newly appointed master of Whitman College. "There's this twisting and turning of the corridors so you don't feel like you're in this Holiday Inn." Mr. Rosen was also a member of Princeton University's Four Year College Program Planning Committee.

The opening of the college also heralds what school officials are calling a "new era" of on-campus residential life, enabling undergraduates from all four classes to share a similar residential experience. Whitman, which will open as a four-year college, will soon be joined by former two-year Mathey and Butler colleges as four-year facilities. Butler is currently undergoing a renovation and will achieve its four-year status once that work is complete in the fall of 2009.

The new residential college system follows the 2000 decision by the PU board of trustees to increase the undergraduate student body to 5,200. Once that increase has been completed, each four-year college will house an estimated 400 freshmen and sophomores, 100 juniors and seniors, and 10 graduate students. Each remaining two-year facility will house about 475 freshmen and sophomores and 10 graduate students. The residential colleges also have built-in living quarters for faculty members.

Juniors and seniors that opt out of the four-year system will continue the current program of living in upperclass dorms.

Whitman College represents a return to form for the University's residential housing style, but stone masonry in the 21st century presented somewhat of a challenge for the architects and builders involved in the mammoth project. More than 6,000 tons of bluestone and limestone were used for Whitman, amounting to over 200,000 individual pieces of stone imported from quarries in New York, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.

Of course, when Princeton University employed large portions of Princeton's immigrant population in the early 20th century, the task of seeking artisans familiar with masonry was, suffice it to say, more convenient. "The biggest single challenge we were concerned about was being able to find enough of the appropriate stone and then the artisans to successfully set that stone," said University architect Jon Hlafter.

Once stonemasons, largely selected from along the East Coast, were contracted, a list of guidelines was established for setting the stone, including how the stones could be stacked, how far each piece could protrude from the building façade (no more than one inch), and limitations on installing "wavy" and "rippled" stones. Nearly 80 stonemasons were brought in to work on the project, supported by 70 additional laborers. The University used its vacant West Windsor lands as a base for mixing the different stones.

While the $136 million price tag may sound steep, Demetri Porphyrios, principal of Porphyrios Associates, said in an interview posted on the PU Web site that a stone masonry wall could have a life up to 300 years, whereas a pre-fabricated building could start to deteriorate in 15 to 20 years.

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A dedication ceremony for Whitman College planned for September 26 and 27 will include a lecture by Mr. Porphyrios.

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