What is known today as Aaron Burr Hall, on the edge of Princeton University's New Jersey campus, has always been an anomaly. When it was designed in the late 1800s by Richard Morris Hunt, it was too simple in its design to fit seamlessly into the architect's Vanderbilt-rich portfolio, too far away to fit within the then-boundaries of Princeton's fledgling campus, and too thoughtful in its plan to be dismissed, as so many wanted to, as an afterthought.
The university had been itching for decades to fill in the gap of the building's L-shaped plan and, in so doing, maximize classroom space on a rapidly populating campus. A small two-story addition was added in the 1940s, but it sat tentatively in the void left by the Hunt building, not touching either of the flanking original façades and not, unfortunately for circulation's sake, lining up with any of the existing floors.
One day in 2004, the head of Princeton's facilities department showed Alan Greenberg around Aaron Burr Hall and explained what the university needed: a comprehensive addition that would work as an integral part of the building. Greenberg's team got the job, in partnership with local KSS Architects as architects of record. The process they undertook resulted in a thoughtful addition that respects and even enriches Hunt's understated original while giving the university the space it required.
Exterior Façade Treatment
The goal of the addition's exterior was to complement the historic Hunt façade while acknowledging the fact that the two were built more than a century apart. The strategy for achieving this goal came down to the details.
“When you look at Hunt's building initially, you think it is just a big palazzo block,” says Thomas Noble, design associate for Allan Greenberg Architect. “But there are all of these subtle articulations that we tried to carry forward.”
Noble and his colleagues went to great lengths to match the color of the brick and the rusticated stone base, but the design team also introduced new elements—cast stone, for instance, to add a layer of pattern to the masonry, as well as a tower on the corner that references the Collegiate Gothic building next door.
Such matches were not always easy to achieve. David Zaiser, project manager at KSS Architects, recalls that, for the rusticated stone base, “they used a latex product that they paint onto the Hunt façade.” The latex was peeled off the stone, resulting in a semiflexible mold liner that was placed into standard forms. Cast stone was poured into the molds to capture the exact shape of Hunt's rusticated base. The cast pieces were then rotated and shifted for installation so that the repetition would not be obvious.
The addition is connected to the Hunt building by a series of expansion joints, made difficult because the joints connect a solid, load-bearing masonry wall to a modern construction with veneers, airspace, and a concrete masonry wall. But this approach allowed the building to be connected at each floor, making the addition an intrinsic part of the new Aaron Burr Hall.
Saving the Outside, Inside
What is not obvious from the exterior is that the addition is in fact a freestanding structure, connected to the Hunt building with expansion joints but wholly capable of supporting itself. This fact allowed the architects to expose on the interior the original Hunt façades that were hidden from view by the 1940s addition.
These façades serve as a focal point in public areas. The original windows were reclaimed and retrofitted on the first floor to serve as vitrines that display books and artifacts from the anthropology department. (The architects did cut holes through the masonry walls in some places to facilitate movement from the original to the addition.)
To some extent, leaving the façades exposed was a way to bring Hunt back into the interior after over a century of slapdash renovation. Part of that homage was completed by studying Hunt's original plans, provided by the university, but “large spaces had been cut up,” Noble says. “There really wasn't too much left of Hunt's interior that was going to be taken forward.”
In part, the interior renovation is intended to bring more students to the building. Lounge spaces, increased daylight, and richly detailed stairs (with bluestone treads and cast-iron railings, instead of standard-issue rubber and wood) invite students to linger, making the building a more integral part of the campus.