YANNI: Old Queens is heart, symbol of Rutgers
Opinions Column: Past Imperfect, Remembering Rutgers' History
As you are no doubt tired of hearing, this year we are celebrating the 250th anniversary of Rutgers. We are counting forward from the founding date of the royal charter that was issued in 1766. In 2009, Rutgers observed another anniversary: The 200th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the building known as Old Queens. Old Queens now houses Rutgers’ administrative offices, including that of the president. Designed in 1808 by the noted architect John McComb, who also designed City Hall in New York, the building is one of the finest examples of federal architecture in the United States.
Starting a college at the end of the 18th century was not an easy task. Both the War of Independence and financial difficulties slowed the progress of the college that later became Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Queen’s College had several homes before Old Queens was built. Instruction took place in the Sign of the Red Lion, a former tavern on the corner of Albany and Nielson Streets, and stones from this building now form a bench near the middle of Voorhees Mall on the College Avenue Campus. Classes were held in a church in Somerset County and in Millstone. From 1795 to 1807, the college closed its doors. In 1807, a movement to revive the college sparked enthusiasm for erecting a college edifice on the present site, an apple orchard acquired from the estate of James Parker.
Just as the college itself overcame obstacles on its path to greatness, the Old Queens building, which would eventually cost an estimated $30,000, met stumbling blocks along the way. The original architect’s drawings described a building that would have cost much more than the small college had budgeted, and the Board of Trustees reviewed four sets of plans before they were satisfied that the new building would be elegant and economical. Another war, this time the War of 1812, hindered the building’s progress. Lotteries failed to raise enough money, and college supporters sought donations, mostly from Dutch Reformed Church members by going door to door. When first occupied in 1811, Old Queens housed the college, the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and the Rutgers Preparatory School, then known as the Grammar School. The two ends of the building and the ground floor of the middle section were finished first. Made of brownstone and adorned by pilasters, the building included a kitchen on the ground floor, and recitation rooms, a chapel and the library above. The wings on each side served as living quarters for the faculty of the college.
Unlike other colonial colleges, Queen’s College did not offer housing to its students, who instead rented rooms in boarding houses in New Brunswick. The college closed again in 1815–1816, reopening in 1825. The building was finally completed in that year: Stephen Van Rensselaer paid for the cupola (the tower) and a more famous donor, Colonel Henry Rutgers, donated the bell that once signaled the change of classes and now rings only on special occasions.
In 1976 Old Queens was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. National Historic Landmark is the highest designation given to historic buildings in the United States. There are only 2,500 National Historic Landmarks, and only 13 state universities can boast of a building that carries this honorable designation. Other buildings with the esteemed status of National Historic Landmark include Monticello and the Empire State Building.
The history of Rutgers recapitulates the history of American higher education. Here at Rutgers our story starts with a small men’s college with a religious foundation, to which was added the land-grant agricultural and engineering school. In the mid-20th century, Rutgers became the state university, and in 1989 we became a member of the Association of American Universities, marking our status as a top-rated research university. The Queens building saw it all. Its longevity and durability make it the sentimental and symbolic heart of Rutgers.
Carla Yanni is a professor in the Department of Art History. Her column, "Past Imperfect: Remembering Rutgers' History" runs on alternate Mondays and is in collaboration with Benjamin Justice and Paul Clemens.
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