Princeton Weekly Bulletin May 10, 1999

Princeton myths -- debunked

By Wes Tooke

Princeton has many myths. Some seem the natural by-product of storytelling at a place where the institutional memory is limited by the four years it takes most students to graduate. Some are just bald-faced lies that are cheerfully repeated because the myths seem more interesting than the truth. The following is a sampling of Princeton myths -- debunked.

Myth: Several years ago, deep in the bowels of one of Princeton's biology buildings, an inhumane and unnatural science experiment produced a breed of black squirrels. Some of the squirrels either escaped or were liberated by a zealous animal-rights group, and now these new über-squirrels are slowly taking over the campus.

Fact: Black squirrels may be ubiquitous at Princeton, but they are also perfectly natural. Black and gray squirrels are merely different color morphs of the same species, the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Populations of black squirrels appear naturally in other places in the Northeast, particularly in isolated populations such as those in city parks, and they have been around for a long time; in 1655 David De Vries included squirrels "black as pitch and gray" in his list of the wild mammals of New Amsterdam.


Alexander Hall (photo by David Moldenhauser)


Myth: For his thesis in the architecture department, a senior designed a concert hall. His adviser hated the design so much that the project received an F. Years later, after the senior had made piles of money in the architecture business, he agreed to give Princeton money for a new auditorium -- on the condition that it build his failed thesis. Construction soon started on Alexander Hall.

Fact: Alexander Hall was given by Harriet Crocker Alexander in 1892 to honor her husband's family, who had been alumni and trustees of Princeton for three generations. The building was designed by William Potter, who also designed East Pyne and the Chancellor Green Library -- now part of the Student Center -- and was not a Princeton graduate. Alexander Hall was the last Romanesque building constructed on campus before the trustees adopted the Tudor Gothic style. In 1959 undergraduates voted the hall the building they would "most like to see burn down." On a visit to campus, Frank Lloyd Wright is reported to have said that Alexander was the only building at Princeton with "personality."

Myth: In the mid-1920s James Buchanan Duke offered Princeton a fortune if it would change its name to Duke. When Princeton refused, he instead gave the money to Trinity College in North Carolina, which soon changed its name to Duke University.

Fact: There is no evidence to support the claim that Duke ever offered any money to Princeton. The origin of the myth may be that Duke had an estate in nearby Somerville and admired Princeton's architecture enough to insist that the new buildings at Trinity be built in the collegiate Gothic style.

Another possibility is that the myth-makers confused the story of Duke with another story. Paul Tulane was a Princeton native who moved to New Orleans, where he made a fortune selling dry goods. He returned to Princeton in 1860 and bought Lowrie House (now the official residence of the University president). A popular -- and published -- story claims that in 1882 Tulane offered his alma mater, then known as the College of New Jersey but already considering a name change, a large sum of money on condition that it become Tulane University. When the trustees refused, he instead gave the money to the former Medical College of Louisiana in New Orleans.

There are two holes in this story. First, Tulane never went to college (he dropped out of school at 15), and second, Princeton didn't officially change its name until 1896. Still, there's no definitive evidence that Tulane didn't offer his money to Princeton. The tour guides at Tulane claim that he did make the offer, never forgave Princeton, and requested that he be buried with his back facing the University. And it is true that, while most of the gravestones in Princeton Cemetery face east, the statue of Tulane marking his grave faces north, with its back to Nassau Hall.


Albert Einstein


Myth: Albert Einstein was a member of the faculty.

Fact: Although Einstein was a resident of Princeton from 1933 until his death in 1955 (he lived at 112 Mercer St.), his institutional affiliation was solely with the Institute for Advanced Study, which has no formal connection with the University. Until the completion of the Institute's main building in 1939, he and the other four original members of its faculty -- all former members of Princeton's mathematics department -- had offices in Fine (now Jones) Hall, with Einstein occupying Room 109. The dean of the faculty now uses his old desk.

Myth: A certain "Mrs. Butler" gave money to Princeton to build a quad with the condition that it be built as a memorial to the Holocaust. The "bike racks" on the roofs of the lower dormitories in Butler College -- 1922, 1940, 1941, 1942 and Lourie-Love halls -- are supposed to represent barbed wire.

Fact: The money to create Butler College was given by Lee D. Butler '22, a former trustee, in 1980. The dormitories in question had been on campus since 1964, and until Butler College's completion they were known as the "New New Quad." Why the architect put "bike racks" on the roofs remains an open question.

Myth: The architect of the University Chapel was a graduate of Yale, and as his "signature" he left a carving of the Yale bulldog on the building.

Fact: Midway down a copper drainpipe on the east façade of the Chapel is the unmistakable face of a bulldog. But who put it there -- or whether it's even representative of Yale -- is unclear. The chapel architect was Ralph Adams Cram, the University's supervising architect between 1907 and 1929, and Cram didn't go to college. Furthermore, his primary assistant, Alexander Hoyle, was a Harvard graduate.

Myth: The orange in the school's colors comes from Nassau Hall, dedicated to Prince William of Orange, of the House of Nassau. The black came from a crew race before the turn of the century. The team was about to be disqualified because they weren't wearing numbers, so they dipped their fingers in mud and painted black numerals on the backs of their orange jerseys.

Fact: The orange did come from Prince William, via Nassau Hall. As for the black, the Princeton crews at the Saratoga Regatta in 1874 did wear orange and black -- and that regatta is generally considered the beginning of orange and black as Princeton's "official" colors. But black had been used since 1868, when the Class of 1869 wanted to print its class number on orange badges to wear in a baseball game with Yale -- and black was the only available ink.

A longer version of this article appeared in the April 21 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.