• The overlapping steel panels of Princeton's new Peter B. Lewis Science Library, designed by Frank Gehry and currently under construction, will set the building apart from its Collegiate Gothic and high Modernist neighbors on campus.

    Credit: Gehry Partners

    The overlapping steel panels of Princeton's new Peter B. Lewis Science Library, designed by Frank Gehry and currently under construction, will set the building apart from its Collegiate Gothic and high Modernist neighbors on campus.

As the chief steward of Princeton University's buildings and grounds for nearly four decades, architect Jon Hlafter has overseen changes both great and small on one of America's most hallowed campuses. Just how far back does his perspective reach? Shortly after joining the staff in 1968, Hlafter was immersed in a revolutionary change at tradition-bound Princeton: the shift to coeducation.

When Hlafter, a Princeton graduate, returned to his alma mater as director of physical planning following a brief stint working in Boston, the 400-acre campus in a historic New Jersey town already was undergoing massive transformation. “The place had changed dramatically from when I arrived as a student,” says Hlafter, noting that the physical plant nearly doubled in size during the '60s. Most dramatic was the change in architectural style: The old Collegiate Gothic campus had been peppered with stark, cheaply built Modernist buildings erected hastily during a boom in enrollment and the Cold War–driven rush to upgrade facilities.

The decision to admit women beginning in 1969 generated early projects for Hlafter. But much of the work was utilitarian—“appropriate toilet facilities for the young women”—and rather low-budget. Not until the gravy days of the 1980s did capital budgets rebound. “For the first time, money was available to do more interesting things,” he says. At the same time, Princeton adopted a new residential college system, which opened the door to repairing some of the qualitative damage done in the 1960s and gave him the chance to hire top talent. Facilities such as Gordon Wu Hall, a 1983 dining hall designed by Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, “made all the buildings around them better,” Hlafter says.

  • The overlapping steel panels of Princeton's new Peter B. Lewis Science Library, designed by Frank Gehry and currently under construction, will set the building apart from its Collegiate Gothic and high Modernist neighbors on campus.

    Credit: Gehry Partners

    The overlapping steel panels of Princeton's new Peter B. Lewis Science Library, designed by Frank Gehry and currently under construction, will set the building apart from its Collegiate Gothic and high Modernist neighbors on campus.

By the early 1990s, university trustees had embarked on a new master plan, resulting in three buildings—the Carl Icahn Laboratory by Rafael Viñoly, dormitories by Machado and Silvetti and by Michael Dennis—that create an elliptical edge on the campus' southern end. Two new, high-profile projects, a 250,000-square-foot residence hall by Demetri Porphyrios and a science library by Frank Gehry, are now moving ahead.

The volume of recent work has transformed Hlafter's office, which mushroomed to nearly 50 people after hovering for years at about 15 staff. The department also was restructured a few years ago, when Hlafter was given the title of university architect and his operation separated from Princeton's Office of Design and Construction, now directed by Anne St. Mauro.

An updated comprehensive plan led by Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners is now nearing completion. Among other goals—such as a greater commitment to the arts and to technology research—the new plan emphasizes the value of a pedestrian-oriented campus and Princeton's parklike character.

Staying that course requires a delicate balance, Hlafter says, and an appreciation for what makes Princeton, which has about 6,500 students, special. “We are one-tenth the size of major universities like Ohio State,” he observes. “So we are trying to preserve that sense of being a small, intimate liberal arts college.”