Out and About in my (Almost) Back Yard

A walking tour of the architecture and sculptures on the Princeton University campus is an enticing event. I’ve taken this kind of tour many times, but this one promised something new. Typically, it began at easy-to-find Nassau Hall, the largest building in the American colonies at the time of the Revolution and briefly, even, the nation’s capital. Some walls on the inside still bear pockmarks from British cannonballs fired during the pivotal Battle of Princeton.

Our guide, Jeanne Johnson, a docent at the Princeton Art Museum (closed temporarily for a construction project that will double its gallery space), is a dedicated gardener. So she was eager to point out the Beatrix Farrand quadrangle, recently renamed in honor the university’s long-time landscape gardener (her preferred term).

While we were there, Jeanne pointed out that two of the dormitory buildings framing the quadrangle are named for alumni who died during The Great War, Howard Houston Henry and Walter L. Foulke. Those buildings and the triple archway that connects them (shown) are considered the apogee of collegiate gothic architecture, a style popularized in the late 1800s and early 1900s when American universities went to great lengths to look as permanent and substantial as their English counterparts. The architect of these dormitories personally oversaw the cutting and placement of every piece of stone, alternating red, grey, buff, and other colors. A completely pleasing effect.

These popular sites dispensed with, Jeanne trotted us to an area of south campus where two new colleges (as Princeton terms sets of dormitories) have sprung up, seemingly overnight—Yeh College and New College West. The 15 or so members of our group all said exactly the same thing, “We’ve never seen this before!” This new area includes several whimsical outdoor sculptures, including the enormous coral-pink concrete sofa.

Finally, we looked at the construction site for the new museum, which will two new floors, doubling the space for exhibitions and study but retaining the same footprint as the original. It’s due to be occupied in March 2024 and open to the public that fall. Fingers crossed. The architect is David Adjaye, whose firm designed the Smithsonian’s museum of African American history and culture and many notable buildings around the world.

All this new construction is being done in the midst of a huge project to make the university environmentally sustainable, with respect to energy consumption, landscape practices, stormwater management, waste reduction, and reduced water use. It’s hard to walk anywhere on campus without encountering the construction of these new environmental systems.

The University may date to 1746 (and one of my ancestors was in its first graduating class), but there’s always something new!

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Bill Scheide’s Extraordinary Gift

Gutenberg Bible

The 1455 Gutenberg Bible (photo: Natasha D’Schommer, courtesy of Princeton University)

When Princeton, N.J., philanthropist Bill Scheide (SHY-dee) died last year at age 100, he left his alma mater (Princeton ’36) a gift that would make any lover of books and music brim with joy. His collection of approximately 2,500 rare printed books and manuscripts, when it is appraised, is expected to be worth nearly $300 million, making it the largest gift in the University’s history.

Scheide majored in history at Princeton and earned his master’s degree in music at Columbia University in 1940. His father and grandfather had been oil company executives, but the younger Scheide’s career took a different turn. He founded the Bach Aria Group, which made its Carnegie Hall debut in 1948, and, although Scheide retired from its leadership in 1980, the group continues to perform as one of the nation’s longest active chamber ensembles and the only one devoted solely to the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. In the early 1950s, Scheide provided financial support to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the pivotal case of Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the desegregation of U.S. public schools. The University awarded Scheide an honorary doctorate of humanities in 1994, acknowledging his contributions as “advocate, scholar, student, benefactor, and friend.”

In 1959, the University’s Firestone Library established the Scheide Library to safeguard this collection of priceless works, making it available to scholars by appointment. Now it owns them.In its news release about the bequest, Princeton officials included these highlights of the collection:

  • Copies of the first six printed editions of the Bible, starting with the 1455 Gutenberg Bible
  • The original printing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence
  • Beethoven’s only handwritten music “sketchbook” outside Europe
  • Shakespeare’s first, second, third, and fourth Folios
  • A handwritten speech by Abraham Lincoln on the issue of slavery and
  • Music manuscripts of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner.

Quran, illuminated book

An ornate Quran, c. 1700 (photo: Natasha D’Schommer, courtesy of Princeton University)

The availability of these works, amassed by three generations of the Scheide family, will be a treasure trove for historians, bibliophiles, musicologists, and literary scholars. Librarian Karin Trainer said, “There are discoveries to be made in every document and volume in the (Scheide) library.” And, historian Anthony Grafton said, “At its core, the Scheide Library is the richest collection anywhere of the first documents printed in 15th-century Europe.”

The University has been digitizing various works in the Scheide collection, including the Gutenberg Bible, Trainer said, and they are available through the University’s digital library website.