(Note: The story below is an edited version of an article that appeared originally in the April 24, 2019, edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.)
Chances are that the last thing you think about if you visit Scudder Plaza outside the home of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School is the man for whom the school is named.
You might consider the plaza as a convenient and scenic shortcut across the east side of the campus, with its large but shallow — five or six inches deep — reflecting pool and its 23-foot high Freedom Fountain, an assemblage of jagged metal through which water bubbles mellifluously. Or you might view it as a comfortable place to sit and catch up on e-mail or just grab a moment of solitude. Benches line the edge of the plaza, and the steps leading to the pool can also serve as seating — if you kick off your shoes and let your feet get wet.
By my grading system, explained below, the plaza at the Woodrow Wilson School is the second most successful public gathering place in town, after Hinds Plaza, the space adjacent to the Princeton Public Library and Witherspoon Grill. On a sunny weekend afternoon you can find students working on their computers, couples lolling around, parents watching toddlers in the pool, seniors catching some sun and — on occasions when no one is chasing them away — a few teenaged skateboarders showing off their skills. I’ll bet not one of them is giving any thought to Woodrow Wilson and his legacy.
That may change in September, when a 39-foot tall sculpture — consisting of two slender vertical columns, one black, one white, one leaning into the other — is installed. The sculpture will be located among the two rows of trees on the Washington Road side of the plaza (and probably require the elimination of two of those eight trees). Visitors to the plaza from the Washington Road side will either walk around the sculpture or walk through the space between the two vertical columns. Either way, some visitors will inevitably be made to think about Wilson and his legacy.
The sculpture was commissioned after a 2015 protest (including a student occupation of Nassau Hall) that brought to light Wilson’s history of racist and sexist beliefs and actions — a part of the former Princeton and United States president’s legacy that had been largely overlooked in favor of his call for “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” and his advocacy of the League of Nations. Calls were issued for the removal of Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs. But the university, also mindful that the Wilson School has a legacy of its own, proudly maintained by thousands of graduates over the years, wisely decided to retain the name but commission a work to address Wilson’s past, warts and all.
The sculptor, Walter Hood, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, appeared on campus to describe his work and its message. I attended the event for two reasons: First to figure out how this artwork would address some century-old scars; and second to consider how the sculpture’s physical presence would affect the public’s appreciation of this popular public space.