Empty Niches

Text and photography by José Pablo Fernández García | Web design by Brian Tieu

I have spent months wrestling with nothing — from which I learned so much.

Throughout my junior year, I spent more time than I care to measure in and around East Pyne Hall. All but two of my classes met there, and even days off often saw me walk around or through it. Enough time walking, waiting, talking, resting, reading, and learning at East Pyne had me slowly noticing more and more of its smallest details. Take, for example, the old bricked-up doorways or stonework interrupted for new doors; they are both scars of the building’s many uses and transformations over the years. But what I find most intriguing — bewildering, even — are the nine empty statuary niches lining the courtyard. At first I glossed over them as just mere ornamentation sinking into the deep brown stone of the old hall, but something about these designated cavities — almost hauntingly awaiting the return or arrival of a statue — stuck with me.

It’s now been about a year since I started thinking about these empty spaces, about nothing.

I only clocked the emptiness of these niches when I realized that East Pyne’s tower facing Cannon Green contained its four statues of university alumni and presidents in similar stonework. This contrast caught me fascinated — not by the stone, not by the actual niches. Rather, it’s the void they demarcate, the dashed expectation of a statue, that fascinates me. On a campus etched with innumerable names and figures, the lack of a memorializing engraving, plaque, portrait, or statue becomes the exception. Even the courtyard itself bears the name of Henry B. Thompson Class of 1887 — a former student, his history told to us on the face of a stone bordering the northern courtyard doors.

I started seeking out these smaller details on the campus because of an enchantment with the stories stored in the environment built for us, and how we are linked together as a result. Of course, the Wilsons and Morrisons of the campus immediately evoke opposing facets of the University’s history — their recent removal or addition reflecting which history we wish to honor. Still, those are stories I now know rather well; the campus is full of hundreds, if not thousands, of lesser-known, even untold stories. Those are the richer discoveries I’ve most enjoyed finding across campus.

During my sophomore year, I stumbled upon Samuel Franklin Pogue Class of 1904 — a Cincinnatian like me. Having died of the Spanish flu during his service in World War I, his name now lives on in Nassau Hall’s Memorial Atrium and above an entryway of Henry Hall — a dormitory built to honor members of the Class of 1904 who died in the war. That his name is preserved by the campus means that I now know his story. It led to discovering other commonalities more than a century apart, like our membership in the Princeton Triangle Club. It means I recognized the name of his cousin, Henry Pogue Class of 1904, in a stained glass window as I got acquainted with the eating club this cousin founded, the one I now dine at: the Princeton Tower Club. This is all to show how much I relish uncovering the stories dotting the campus. It’s to show how striking the absence of nine stories in those East Pyne niches felt to me; how abnormal it is at Princeton.

I stayed in this bewilderment regarding those niches well into the spring semester. I thought they were simply an East Pyne oddity until a walk to the Rocky-Mathey Theatre to rehearse an Italian play for some class credit. As I crossed the Holder Hall courtyard, I looked up above the central arch leading to the Rockefeller College Common Room and found more of these empty niches. Every walk on the campus afterwards became a search. I found more niches in that corner of campus: on Madison Hall facing Nassau Street, around Alexander Hall’s semicircular perimeter, and more above each end of the Campbell Hall archway.

With each discovery I asked myself why these niches did not hold a statue like the niches on the East Pyne tower or around the main entrance to Frist Campus Center. I churned over possible answers while I kept finding more empty niches: a couple on McCosh Hall, some on the Rothschild Arch, and nearby on the University Chapel’s front facade.

The emptiness started to feel meaningful, even if it went against the niches’ designed intention. It’s bizarre to find something in today’s world with a potential function that is left untouched. It feels strange, maybe wrong. On a campus laden with symbolic meaning, I tried to imagine the meaning of an intentional void — of the subverted expectation of a statue. Nothing in my imagination quite satisfied me.

On my more romantic days, I imagined these empty niches as reminders of history not yet made. The extant symbols already on campus can remind of a history, preserve a person’s story, or perpetuate certain values and ideals. Either way, these are all acts of tying us to the past. These symbols might inform our present or inspire our future, but they require a past to make sense.

However, an empty niche somehow escapes all this; it was never necessarily linked to any particular past. In expecting a statue, in awaiting a symbol’s arrival, one is left with no option but to imagine. It becomes possible to imagine who or what might one day be worthy of commemoration and of filling such a cavity. In fact, maybe these empty niches were included in the original design with the patience for future generations to fill them. There’s something powerful in the notion of the unfulfilled. These niches await the accomplishments, the examples, the sacrifices not yet made.

I would be satisfied with the more humble interpretation of this explanation for the empty niches: that they ask us to strive for better, for more, for great contributions to those around us. However, I can’t avoid a certain repulsion kindled by the potential arrogant simplification of this notion: a simplification into a base call to live with the desire to one day stand within one of those niches.

On my more cynical days, I thought little of the niches. They could simply be the finished decoration on an old building and nothing more — a quirky motif of Princeton’s old architectural tastes. They could simply be nothing more than the remains of unfinished decoration. The most boring possibility I imagined was that these niches just barely survived an accountant who killed the statues during construction budgeting — a previous decade’s victims of austerity finances.

As the weeks of my junior year sped by, I couldn’t settle my mind on whether these niches stood as a finished product. It’s a question that diminished in priority as the deadline for my spring junior paper approached. The matter relegated to my mind’s attic, I was surprised by a potential answer from the depths of Firestone Library. While tracking down information on Princeton’s exhibit at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris — the topic of my paper — I opened an old volume of the Alumni Princetonian and almost immediately, unintentionally flipped the fragile pages to an article describing the then-newly-built library — a quadrangular extension to Chancellor Green with a central courtyard.

Amidst paragraph after paragraph on the advanced library technologies and methods of the time, I found a sketch of the courtyard, republished from Harper’s Weekly and based on the architect’s drawing. It included statues in the niches. It’s the only sign indicating these niches were at one point imagined as intended to be filled that I have found so far. Nine voids now stand as reminders that the original plan is often deviated from, if not abandoned. Of course, a single old sketch wasn’t enough to reach any generalizing conclusions about these niches, but I was satisfied enough, at least regarding East Pyne. So I returned to my junior paper.

As the year’s end drew closer, I started trekking down to the Whitman Class of 1970 Theatre for a pair of plays in their final few rehearsals. Following the warm evening glow of the setting spring sun with my phone camera, I spotted more empty niches at the top of Patton Hall. It was the first discovery of more niches in a handful of weeks, but I didn’t think much of them: at that point, all the empty niches I’d found graced buildings that have stood since well before World War II.

However, I then turned away from Patton Hall to finish my walk to the theater, and I was surprised by one more empty niche peeking out from behind Community Hall’s massive roof. There, the cavity stood at the top of a Whitman College tower. A timelapse I later found online of its construction showed the niche barren at the time of its construction as well. Still, it stood apart, 77 to 113 years younger than all the other empty niches I’ve found.

That the Whitman halls were designed to imitate the older campus has always been clear, but I was nevertheless fascinated to see this specific detail recreated all these decades later. Discovering such a new cavity sort of did away with the rather mysterious aura surrounding the previous discoveries. It eventually reminded me that Princeton’s impressive old halls are themselves mostly imitations of or derivations from the truly old constructions of British universities.

Either way, this felt like enough of a conclusion to this whole journey — or at least like a natural dead end. I had already spent too much time unsuccessfully searching for the deeper symbolic meaning of these campus exceptions, if not trying to invent my own. A much delayed Google search on such empty niches beyond the Princeton campus wasn’t too fruitful either: many more examples exist across centuries and architectural styles, but there is little explanation beyond a decorative use or as survivors of now-lost statues.

I’ve given so much of myself over the past year to this fruitless personal investigation. It might seem like a waste to end without an answer, to start and end with nothing. But I only leave with nothing if I ignore the very interrogation that drove my searching curiosity forward and if I cast aside all the independently interesting discoveries along the way.

There is a wealth to be attained in learning and relearning how to see this world around us. It’s so easy to walk around with little attention paid to everything passing by.

I’ve spent a year looking for these niches, and in the same endeavor, I’ve spent the year teaching myself how to pick out the smallest details I once glossed over: the tucked-away carvings, the swirling and repeating lacework of stone, the texture of laborious chiseling and shaping. I’ve learned to see it all as embodying something greater. The stories so often retold in the construction of our environment — the material and social and spiritual. The people nearly forgotten, almost invisible, save for the weathered engraving before us, eroding ever more slowly than memory.

I think that’s what first struck me so much about the East Pyne niches — the promise of a secret history to uncover, to notice for once, and to learn from. That’s the part I cherish in this whole affair.

And it’s the part which was also fruitful. No, I haven’t learned more about those statues that live in seemingly only a single drawing; I haven’t learned more about why they don’t fill those cavities today.

Rather, I’ve come to see those nine empty niches as representative of the many absences scattered across the campus. Only recently have some of those absences been somewhat rectified by markers like the plaque naming East Pyne’s eastern arch after James Johnson. However, East Pyne’s absences stand apart in their juxtaposition to the Pyne name’s ubiquity through any modern Princetonian’s life. A few French classes at East Pyne. A Halloween party in a friend’s Pyne Hall dorm room. A coffee break at the Starbucks in the former Lower Pyne dorm on Nassau Street. Congratulating a friend or two on winning the Pyne Prize.

It was only in early May, after Dean’s Date, that I stumbled through the website of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and onto research included in The Princeton & Slavery Project. All the Pynes across campus are signs of Moses Taylor Pyne’s long philanthropic career as a University trustee. The campus remembers a man for his wealth and generosity, but absent from the campus are signs pointing to that wealth’s origins: research by Maeve Glass GS ’16 indicates slave labor in Cuba was a major source of the Pyne riches. When I learned of this, it felt rather transformative — though not very surprising. In my mind, I started viewing those empty niches as absent, silenced markers of who built this place. Monumental, commemorative emptiness or hollowness is similarly haunting — like people forgotten, left out, and denied the memory of their presence and being.

This process has transformed the image I had of my cherished East Pyne: On the outside, the Pyne name over statues of national and University “founders”; on the inside, below the surface, a denial by omission of what actually lies at the core of the University memory’s myths.

All this from noticing an architectural quirk: these nine empty statuary niches led me along a year-long journey of observation and intrigue. Yet, despite how much these empty spaces have taken up space in my head, I haven’t forgotten how long I had spent walking past them without ever noticing them.

It’s so easy to walk through this campus and past its gilded memory markers. But just one moment of pause, one moment to see deeper into this place we call home for so little time, can open up a material archive overflowing with histories rarely visited if not nearly forgotten.

So I’ll keep walking through East Pyne’s arches and across the campus, observant, until it’s up to someone else, maybe someone younger, to take on these journeys.

José Pablo Fernández García is a senior from Ohio and a head editor for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at

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