Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Finding the key in Princeton

When you spend a good bit of time in historic buildings, you start to notice the anachronisms. You know, the current day things that shake you out of the pretense that you're actually seeing the place the same way it looked to the people who made history there.

Usually, they're things like fire supression systems or safety lights: items placed to protect and preserve visitors, the building and its contents. Most of the hardware is obscured from visitors' eyes, leaving only the necessary working parts in view. There's generally some level of respect and consideration.

Other times, they're just thoughtless additions. During my college days, I despaired at the sight of red "No Trespassing" (or words to that effect) stickers slapped on the doors of Rutgers' most historic structures. Really, guys? Granted, these buildings are in active use, but there's no other way of getting the message across without defacing history?

I made occasional visits to Princeton when I was going to Rutgers, and while I will always bleed scarlet red, I was tremendously impressed with the older Princeton University campus buildings. The oldest building, Nassau Hall, had, of course, been the meeting place of the Continental Congress in the early 1780s, and had suffered damage from British gunfire. Regardless of college loyalties, you have to admit that's pretty cool.

Rutgers, of course, has a similar building, Old Queens, and while it's about 70 years younger than Old Nassau, it too houses university administration. I'd never had occasion to venture inside, and to be honest, I was a little frightened to just open the door and walk inside. I never had university business there, and, well, there was the matter of that red sticker, right?

Most of my Princeton visits were made at night, but I once found myself there in the late afternoon during the week. Maybe a visit to Nassau Hall was in order?

It was a bit daunting to walk the long path from Nassau Street to the front steps and then up to the door. It seemed so official, so formal. I hadn't seen anyone else enter the building that way, so I wondered if the imposing black door was even functional or unlocked. And where would it land me? Would I open the door to end up directly in the university president's office? Would I have to withstand the glaring inquisition of an imperious security guard? I wouldn't know until I tried, so...

I tried. The doorknob turned and the door opened into a large lobby. Once inside, I saw the walls were adorned with the names of Princeton graduates who had died in the service of their countries in wars back to the Revolution. As I later found out, the building itself could be considered a veteran, as it served as both a barracks and a prison during the Battle of Princeton in 1777.

I was up to the World War casualties when I heard steps approaching. Oh, no, a guard. Was I trespassing? I figured the best thing to do was to apologize, but apparently there was no problem. "I'm just closing up for the day," he said.

We chatted about the building for a few minutes as we walked to the front door and stepped outside. He seemed to have a real interest and respect for Old Nassau, and he appreciated that I did, too, but he couldn't talk for very long. He had his rounds to make, so he had to lock up and be on his way.

"They'd kill me if I lost this," he said, pulling the door key out of his pocket. It was large, obviously quite old and still effective, as he inserted it into the ancient keyhole and gave it a twist to secure the entrance. Yup, they were still locking up their oldest building with what appeared to be original (or close to original) equipment.

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