This article was originally published in the December 2017 Princeton Echo.
As dramatically as Princeton University has changed over the years, much of its campus has remained virtually unchanged — it remains, as the venerable university song proclaims, “the best old place of all.” One of the most enduring parts of the college landscape is not even owned by the university. It is the row of privately maintained and operated undergraduate eating clubs that dot Prospect Avenue from Washington Road east to just beyond Olden Street.
“The Street,” as the university community refers to it, was already taking on its present-day configuration back in 1911, when the photograph below was taken. The Princeton athletic field was relocated shortly thereafter to the massive concrete venue, Palmer Stadium, in 1914. By 1928 the last of the modern day club houses was built. Since then various clubs have disbanded due to lack of membership and have been purchased and put to new uses by the university, which maintained the critical elements of the original architecture. One, Cannon, was revived as an eating club.
Now the historic and architectural legacy of the clubs has been documented in a new coffee-table book published by the Princeton Prospect Foundation, the non-profit group that oversees and advocates for the 11 clubs that still exist (down from 16 in their heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s). The group commissioned architectural historian, author, and Princeton resident Clifford W. Zink to write and produce the “The Eating Clubs of Princeton,” a 182-page book with more than 500 historic and contemporary photographs, including several drone’s eye views of the clubs from angles that even longtime residents will view as startling.
The publication of the book, now available for purchase at Labyrinth Books and on Amazon ($75), is providing the public with some rare opportunities to view the clubs from the inside. Zink is leading a tour of several clubs on Saturday, December 2, and will also appear at the Princeton Public Library on Tuesday, December 12, at 7 p.m. More eating club tours will be scheduled in the spring.
Though the eating clubs at Princeton date back to 1877, undergraduates to this day say that describing the clubs and their role in undergraduate life is one of the biggest challenges when they go back to their hometowns and reunite with friends. Here’s what we would say:
Eating clubs are social clubs for juniors and seniors, where they take their meals and often spend their leisure time — particularly on party nights. Unlike fraternity members, eating club members (with the usual exception being the club officers) do not live in the clubs. They live on campus in dormitories, often rooming with classmates who may not be in same club or may not be in any club at all.
Whereas juniors and seniors once had no practical choice but to join an eating club, today they can choose to eat in one of the six residential colleges, several on-campus dining co-ops, or eat independently in campus dining halls or in town.
Of the 11 eating clubs, five are “sign-in” clubs. Depending on a given club’s popularity the only selection criterion is first-come, first served. The other six clubs are selective, with new members chosen through an arcane process known as Bicker. That process has changed several times over the years. For many years the clubs sent small delegations to interview sophomores in their dorm rooms. They would return the next night if they were still interested in at least one of the sophomores in the room. At the end of Bicker Week the clubs would issue their bids.
More recently the bickering sophomores visit one or two clubs of their choice and demonstrate their interest in the club. After three days of Bicker, the club members go to pick up the sophomores they have selected. One common denominator through the years is the belief that there is some special essence possessed by members of each selective club, and that they can discern that essence in a candidate based on a few hours of interviews. Another common denominator is that most alumni are wedded more to their class than to their club.
Even though the clubs are no longer the sole source of social life for juniors and seniors, their mystique remains. Part of that mystique is the grand architecture of the buildings they occupy. Zink traces the origin of those buildings:
“The Princeton eating clubs began with a simple premise in the fall of 1877 — some sophomore friends in the College of New Jersey Class of 1880 wanted share good meals and companionship. In the absence of attractive opportunities on and off campus, these undergraduates pooled their resources and rented a couple of rooms in Ivy Hall, a small, elegant brownstone structure designed by the noted Philadelphia architect John Notman. The owner of the 1847 building was the widow of an alumnus, and she enthusiastically supported their initiative. The students set up a kitchen, hired a couple to cook and serve meals, and secured a billiard table for some recreation.
“The quality of the food and the camaraderie in Ivy Hall soon attracted other students to join. With the strength of the bonds they formed eating and socializing together in ‘a most appropriate place,’ the undergraduates formed the ‘Ivy Hall Eating Club’ in 1879 to enable succeeding students to share similar experiences. The first permanent eating club was a conspicuous success, and as one of the Ivy Club founders recalled years later, ‘The fact became apparent that undergraduate Princeton could govern itself.’
“From this simple beginning 140 years ago, Princeton undergraduates over the next five decades incorporated eighteen additional eating clubs. Their serial development paralleled the College of New Jersey’s transition to Princeton University with significantly expanded academics, enrollment, land, and facilities, all fueled by America’s unprecedented industrial and financial growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“As the value of the eating club experience became more apparent, parents and alumni increasingly supported their development and maintenance. Following the University’s focus on architectural excellence, the eating clubs’ student officers and alumni trustees engaged rising and prominent architects to design substantial, majestic, and rivaling clubhouses along Prospect Avenue and around the corner on Washington Road, two of Princeton’s most notable streets.
“In the competition for ‘good men’ in each class, the scale and quality of the clubhouses became increasingly important. As a Trustee contemplating a building campaign noted in 1912, ‘regret it as we may, the underclassman of today is influenced by the Club House in his choice of Club.’ Building in stone or brick became imperative, as a masonry clubhouse signaled prestige and permanence.”
Zink continues: “The distinctive cluster of eating clubs represents the social, educational, financial, and architectural aspirations of Princeton eating club members — notably both students and alumni — in the expansive 1890s-1920s decades. The clubhouse designers include two nationally distinguished architects — Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead, and White in New York, and Walter Cope of Cope and Stewardson in Philadelphia — plus regionally prominent architects and seven Princeton alumni. Several other alumni architects have designed renovations and additions.
“The clubhouses also represent the culmination of the evolution of the Princeton eating clubs from their initial reuse of frame Shingle style, Queen Anne, and Colonial Revival houses, to a first generation of larger frame Colonial Revival clubhouses, and finally to grand masonry clubhouses — five in the George or Colonial Revival style, one in Italianate, and ten in Tudor, Jacobean, or Norman. The dominance of the latter group highlights the visceral connection of the independent eating clubs to the English historicism that reigned on the Princeton campus from the 1890s into the 1950s.”
The eating clubs’ mystique seeped not only into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise but also into The Great Gatsby. As Fitzgerald scholar Anne Margaret Daniel wrote in the Huffington Post the models for the grand Long Island mansions inhabited by Jay Gatsby and Daisy and Tom Buchanan can be found in real life on Prospect Avenue in Princeton.
In 1915, when Fitzgerald became a member of Cottage Club, he socialized in a magnificent new building designed by Charles McKim, the lead partner in his firm. Cottage was proud of it its second-floor library, a scaled-down replica of the library of Merton College, Oxford.
Cottage’s rival was its next door neighbor. Ivy Club, designed by Walter Cope and built in 1898, is also “impressive, with its dark brick and tower to one side,” as Daniel describes it in the Huffington Post.
Daniel quotes Fitzgerald’s description of Gatsby’s house from the novel: “It was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy.” She continues: “Though older than Cottage, Ivy’s club building was still relatively new when Fitzgerald was an undergraduate, and the ivy climbing up its walls still thin. As to a tower, there are plenty of those on the Princeton campus, but in Fitzgerald’s day Ivy’s main hall was to the left-hand side of the building, closest to Cottage, and with its chimneys stood well above the rest of the building.”
Daniel then quotes Fitzgerald’s description of the Buchanans’ home:
“Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens . . . The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon.”
Concludes Daniel: “Cottage Club has been set down on the Long Island shore. Its cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial design, and its famous back gardens (complete with brickwork, sundial, and fountain) remain today. Cottage boasts a long row of French windows facing the gardens, but they’re on the back of the building.”
In the early 20th century the clubs survived an effort by Woodrow Wilson, the university president before he went into politics, to replace them with an undergraduate college system. After the Fitzgerald days the clubs only got stronger.
Given that the clubs were the only dining choice for Princeton upperclassmen, the Bicker process could be viewed as cruel for anyone who failed to receive a bid. In the 1950s the university pressured the clubs to create a system whereby every sophomore received at least one bid — a “100 percent” Bicker. The process that evolved had sophomores without any bids appearing at the back porch of a club, and club officers arguing among themselves over which club would take which bidless sophomore. The phrase “100 percenter” became a piece of Princeton newspeak — basically a person with zero social ranking. In 1958 the national news media discovered that out of 23 “100 percenters,” 18 were Jewish. It became known as the “dirty Bicker.”
As the make-up of the undergraduate body began to change in the late 1960s, and as social issues became charged in the real world, the Bicker process became more of an anachronism than anything else. In 1967 the university took over a defunct club and turned it into an open admission club. More than 220 sophomores in the Class of 1970 declined to Bicker. From 15 clubs in the mid-1960s, “the Street” eventually declined to 11 clubs. Today only about 70 percent of a typical Princeton class chooses to join a club.
Yet the powerful imagery of the eating clubs along Prospect Avenue remains, unblinking and still enigmatic in the face of these cosmic changes.
As Zink writes: “Today the 15 clubhouses along Prospect Avenue and one on Washington Road represent the formidable, decades-long accomplishments of student-alumni collaboration in the shadow of the University in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This notable development of special purpose buildings in historical revival styles is unique, and the preservation of the clubhouses by the private clubs and by the University is exemplary.”