Food for Thought at a Public Plaza

Princeton University has commissioned a 39-foot-tall sculpture by Walter Hood to address some of the tarnished legacy of former president Woodrow Wilson.

(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.

Hood has created several historical installations that set the record straight with respect to previous injustices. His work includes a “cultural landscape” at the homestead of a free black woman who lived near the University of Virginia in Charlottes­ville from 1833 to 1863. When a parking lot was expanded near the site, several dozen grave­sites were discovered. Hood’s work is both a memorial and a reminder.

At the Nashville Civil Rights Museum, Hood created walls of concrete, etched with photos of protesters, counter-protesters, and police. “I wanted people to be able to touch it. Through the light, texture, and space you are enmeshed in the civil rights movement,” he says.

In the Nauck section of Arlington, Virginia, a neighborhood largely founded by freed slaves, the historic identity was being overwhelmed by new development. Hood designed a town square in the middle of which is a 40-foot high sculpture that forms the word “freed.” Says Hood: “It starts a conversation.”

Conversations, he hopes, will be triggered by his work in Princeton. He calls it “Double Consciousness,” derived from the term in W.E.B. DuBois’s 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk.” From Hood’s point of view the title suggests that a black man such as himself has to “learn white and black. That constant back and forth also exists sometimes for people in poverty. You have to address it,” he says.

“Art can have multiple voices,” he says. “I don’t want to live in a world where everything is homogenous.” Hood’s sculpture at Scudder Plaza will provide some conversation starters, including quotations from Wilson and criticisms and condemnations from some of his detractors, as well as images of some of his critics, all etched into the interior surfaces of the sculpture through a lenticular printing process that creates the illusion of a three-dimensional image.

Let Wilson’s modern-day critics decide if Hood’s sculpture is enough to set the former president in proper historic context. Their thoughts are sure to be heard after the sculpture is completed in September.

But we can consider the sculpture’s impact on the public space. Will the 39-foot sculpture towering over the western end of the plaza draw people in and increase the number of voices in that conversation that Hood imagines? Or will it appear as a gate, telling visitors in effect that the university has some of its own business to address here?

Here are my grades for Scudder Plaza now (and I will use the same criteria to grade it after the sculpture has been installed).

Accessibility and a sense of place. Scudder Plaza gets high marks for its size and scale. It is an inviting place when viewed from either end. It is framed gracefully by Corwin Hall at the back of the plaza, the row of magnolia trees on one side and the geometric pillars of the Yamasaki-designed Robertson Hall housing the Wilson School on the other side — the “bicycle rack,” as it was known when it was built in 1965.

The Freedom Fountain is an inviting focal point located well beyond the mid-point of the plaza as viewed from Washington Road. There are various pathways leading into the plaza, as well as the main entrance along Washington Road. The question now is whether “Double Consciousness” will create a subconscious divide. My grade: A.

Amenities, especially seating. Scudder Plaza has lots of it, on the bench beneath the row of magnolias, and on benches interspersed among the trees at either end of the reflecting pool. The steps leading up to Robertson Hall can serve as seating, as can the steps leading into the reflecting pool. Scudder scores lower than Hinds because the latter has moveable chairs, as well as tables. My grade: B.

Activities. Thanks to the Freedom Fountain and the reflecting pool, Scudder Plaza gets a top grade in this category. At times the plaza has been home to too much activity. Skateboarders have been a problem recently, but little spacers have been installed in benches to discourage skateboards. On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon I counted more than 50 people in the plaza, from toddlers on baby scooters to older kids wading in the pool to students with computers and young couples with each other. There were only three skateboarders, and they were clearly inconvenienced by the other people.

At various times in the past the university attempted to prohibit people from wading in the pool — a futile effort. Now it appears to be open access, but it also appears that the water is much lower than it used to be — a good trade off. On a hot day, nevertheless, it is the only water game in town. My grade: A.

Food, entertainment, and social interaction. Scudder Plaza is flanked by three academic buildings: Robertson Hall, Corwin Hall and the Department of Politics, and the Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building, home of the Bendheim Center for Finance. It’s good for people watching (not to be underestimated) but it is not party central. Compare it to Hinds Plaza, which is bordered by the bustling public library, the Witherspoon Grill with an outdoor dining area, and a line of retail shops — plenty of places to get food or drink and plenty of chances for conversations with strangers.

My grade: B, but with a comment. Chatting informally at the end of Hood’s public presentation, the sculptor (who has degrees in both architecture and landscape architecture) and I discuss the merits of successful public places. Hood agrees with my positive view of Scudder Plaza. “It has water, places to sit, and sun,” he says. “But no food,” I respond. Then I add, “possibly it will soon have some food for thought.”