One December day in 1887, the Princeton University Banjo Club hopped on a private railroad car to begin a “Christmas tour” around New York and Pennsylvania. Accompanied by the Princeton University Glee Club, the banjoists spent eleven days strumming strings in opera houses and open homes, only taking breaks to visit Niagara Falls (near Buffalo, N.Y.), enjoy some “excellent” sleighing (in Geneva, N.Y.), and, on one particular occasion, dance “far into the morning” (location unknown).
A washed-out photograph from 1888 depicts the six men of the club—sitting, standing, or awkwardly squatting somewhere in between—all with heavily gelled hair and instruments placed on their laps or between their legs. Deemed “equal to the best amateur clubs” by The Daily Princetonian, the group only went uphill from there. Fast forward ten years, and another sepia photograph of the group shows eighteen men—a threefold increase in membership—sitting or standing with their banjos balanced in similar positions, each head of hair strongly parted down the middle in a style unseen on campus today.
What a shame that is. By the 1930s, the Banjo Club was defunct.
A blurb written on the Princeton University website claims that the Banjo Club was among the earliest instrumental groups to form at the university. Thankfully, its history is not too difficult to trace: various concert announcements and rehearsal reminders in the archives of The Daily Princetonian offer an intimate glimpse into the club’s heyday. One can glean from an 1889 audition notice that the club was endearingly genteel in its outreach (all who play were “earnestly requested” to at least “endeavor” to be present), and, in the case of one 1909 notice, that some rehearsals merited the additional, italicized description of “very important.”
Their legacy remains in more ways than one. I lived in Witherspoon Hall my sophomore year, and every day, on my way to class, I would be confronted by the foreboding, brown-bricked body of their primary rehearsal space and concert venue: Alexander Hall.
Completed in 1894, Alexander Hall can only be described as conspicuous. Constructed in the archaic Richardsonian Romanesque style popularized in the mid-19th century, it consists of a main triangular façade flanked on both sides by towers with conical tips. True to its architectural form, it features large arches, coarsely cut—or ‘rusticated,’ to use the architectural term—stone, and stretches of wall contrasted with colorful windows. While some of the stone is brown-black (save for the bits of green moss that gather at the crevices), most of the building is constructed using a creamy brick with dark flecks. The windows in the building feature light turquoise lines woven in a geometric shape, and, inside the ambulatory surrounding the first floor, the ground is constructed of tiles in burnt orange, light green, yellow, and white, all positioned to mimic the four circular mosaic windows positioned in a clover-like fashion on the main façade.
The building’s most striking feature, however, is the relief sculpture that sits directly below the mosaic. Designed by J.A. Bolger, the sculpture pays tribute to the liberal arts by representing certain disciplines in the form of robed men. The seated man in the center represents Learning, those to his left represent Oratory, Theology, Law, History, Philosophy, and Ethics, and those to his right represent Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Poetry, Music, and ‘Belles-Lettres.’ (A trivial tidbit that would amuse Princeton’s humanities concentrators would be the fact that Princeton’s most popular majors in the 21st century—Computer Science and Economics—do not feature in the relief.)
Funnily enough, despite it being a must-stop on all campus tours, it takes a while for current Princetonians to realize what Alexander Hall is. Alexander Hall? they ask, incredulous. Then it clicks. Oh, you mean Richardson Auditorium, they say, referring to the auditorium nestled inside the belly of the building.
In response to such ignorance, Alexander Hall makes it clear that a distinction exists. “Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall,” read the stickers on the back doors, the italicized ‘in’ speaking to the tune of: Gosh, not this again. Yet, notwithstanding the fact that the auditorium’s name bears an eerie resemblance to the architectural style of the building where it belongs, it is fitting that the auditorium is synonymous to the hall itself. Even today, the story of Alexander Hall is inextricably linked to music at Princeton: it remains the primary concert venue for the Princeton University Orchestra and the Princeton University Glee Club, which, unlike the Banjo Club, still exists. Thanks to a donation made by alumnus David Richardson in 1984, the auditorium was both renovated and renamed; today, a cappella shows and classical concerts grace the hallowed cavern of Richardson Auditorium, continuing a legacy that is hundreds of years old.
Despite the generosity of its multi-purpose nature, however, not all Princetonians have had a favorable opinion of Alexander Hall. According to a website that traces elements of Princeton’s history, there is a popular myth that Alexander Hall was designed by a student as his architectural thesis—which he ultimately failed. Such a story would surely disappoint the building’s real architect, William A. Potter, who also designed three of Princeton’s most popular structures: the octagonal-ceilinged, mosaic-studded Chancellor Green Library (in 1873); the cozy, stone-walled Witherspoon Hall (in 1877), and the red-bricked, ivy-coated East Pyne Hall (in 1897).
More so than Potter, such animus would only add salt to the wound of Alexander Hall’s primary donor, given that the homage she desired was never really brought to fruition in the first place. Back in the late 1800s, Harriet Crocker Alexander donated $350,000—the equivalent of over $10 million in 2019—to build the hall in honor of her husband and his male relatives. Ironically, however, the building itself pays exclusive tribute to Harriet and Harriet alone; a large Latin inscription on the main façade headily reads: “Harriet Crocker Alexander gave and dedicated this building to Princeton University in the glory of God and in the growth of knowledge the thirteenth of June 1894.”
There is no mention of the men for whom the building is also named. Yet on a campus where most, if not all, old buildings are named after men, it is refreshing to be reminded that one of campus’s oldest and most striking structures exists because of a woman.
One November evening in 2018, Princeton University Concerts’ Crossroads Series invited two women, Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei, to perform at Alexander Hall. Curated to highlight music’s “uncanny capacity” to tell stories, the series started off with these musicians as they performed—in what harkened back to Alexander Hall’s glory days in the early 20th century—“Beijing Meets Banjo.”
Over the span of two hours, I sat, entranced, as Washburn’s banjo and Wu Fei’s guzheng—a traditional Chinese stringed instrument—filled the auditorium. When Washburn belted out lullabies from the American South, Wu Fei responded with nursery rhymes from China; when Wu Fei imitated an angry Chinese mother, Washburn responded as her angry American counterpart.
After the show, while walking the approximate 500 feet from Alexander Hall back to my dorm room, I felt overwhelmed in the way history often makes people feel. Two distinct histories from opposite sides of the globe had come together and met that evening to create a complex, and frankly stunning, narrative of the now—and I’d had the chance to live in it.
131 years after their first big tour, the Banjo Club would have been proud.