Spelman, on Princeton University campus. Image via centralnjmodern.wordpress.com

Jeff Nunokawa is a celebrity. He is a professor of English literature and the head of Rockefeller College at Princeton. He has been featured in the New Yorker, the Huffington Post, and several campus publications. Most recently, Jeff starred in a video profile called “Working Out with Jeff Nunokawa.” A permanent fixture of the Rocky dining hall, Jeff prides himself on knowing the names of all the students he’s ever met. He says hi to everyone. He drinks two RedBulls for breakfast.

Jeff is famous on Facebook as well as in real life. He posts “notes”—over four thousand short essays—on the personal and the literary. The project has garnered a massive following, in part because his writing is witty and moving, but also, I suspect, because it reads like a private diary. Jeff composes his reflections early in the morning before most of us have even finished our third REM cycle.

I recently learned that Jeff is an Instagram star as well. He takes a lot of photos, but he has a few recurring subjects: Holder arch, Robertson Hall (the Woodrow Wilson School building), and Spelman Hall. Of these, Spelman holds a special attraction. He shows me several pictures of the dorm’s unmistakable glass-and-concrete façade.

Spelman Hall, designed by I. M. Pei and completed in 1973, was commissioned to accommodate a growing student body after the university announced its coeducation initiative. According to a speech given at the building’s dedication, Spelman was designed with preservation in mind. President William Bowen wanted to maintain the topography and natural wooded landscape of the area. He also wanted Spelman to fit in with the university’s aesthetic. Concrete was chosen because of its intrinsic compatibility with stone masonry. 

Spelman is actually an amalgam of eight dorms. Six of these are staggered along both sides of a walkway that connects the Stephens Fitness Center to McCarter Theatre. Concrete overpasses link the triangular buildings at the third floor. Seen from the footpath, Spelman’s angular walls rise up to these passes and form narrow, modernist arches. There are large windows that look into the plain rooms. Students decorate the windows with lights, signs, and empty liquor bottles. Although each dorm unit is a triangle, the geometry of the whole design is hidden. From a distance, Spelman is mostly surface.

Jeff says that people think he is being deliberately perverse when he tells them he likes Spelman. “But I really do love it; I almost missed the train for this shot,” he says. We’re in his house on University Place, standing in his study. Two walls are covered thickly with books. The other two are just as well hidden by framed posters and drawings. Jeff scrolls through his Instagram.

Jeff Nunokawa.
Photo courtesy of Anjuli Raza Kolb.

He stops at a photo of one of Spelman’s glass stairwells. The glass, coming into the frame at an angle, is dark blue and reflects a nearby tree. The caption below reads, “Stippled Spelman.” Jeff turns to me and explains that the caption refers to a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins called “Pied Beauty.” He swivels abruptly around, scanning the bookshelf behind him. We spend a solid five minutes looking up and down before he decides to pull up the poem on his computer.

“‘Glory be to God for dappled things,’” he reads. “‘For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow / For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim’… Stippled Spelman.” He points to the light and shadow in the photo, and the leafy branches reflected in glass that break up a monotony of blue and gray. “There’s not a lot of it, but just enough to remember the variety of nature.”

Jeff scrolls forward to another picture. This one is a shot of the narrow pathway between the buildings. Under the concentric, angular arches is a small rectangle through which the stony windows of the fitness center are clearly seen. “With Spelman, you are always looking through in an angle-y way to see the Gothic architecture behind it.” We compare these arches to the neo-Gothic ones in Rocky’s courtyard. The Holder arch draws you to its center, while Spelman is harder to decipher. Where should your eyes go? But this doesn’t bother Jeff.

“Princeton is all about arches and secrets,” he confides. From the way he talks about light being recruited by buildings, you would think that he is an architecture scholar. But no, he is just an enthusiast. The first major relationship of his life was with an architect (his ex-boyfriend’s sketches hang on the walls in his study), and much of that relationship was learning about architecture. Years later, it is one of the things that has prevented him from leaving Princeton.

“It centers me, and especially as a person not in a marriage, it’s important to me.” Jeff believes that architecture keeps people, even if they don’t realize it. “The architecture that means the most to us is architecture that is kind of like a temple to our lost emotions.” Here on campus, Rocky College acts as Jeff’s temple to his past. “It’s an archive of feelings for me. It’s like built allusion.” Holder’s collegiate neo-Gothic style was his architect boyfriend’s great passion.

Why, then, is Spelman meaningful to Jeff? To explain, he shows me a picture of Louis Kahn’s great modernist work, the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California. Jeff was 23 when he first saw it. “I was out in California, looking at all these freaking architecture things. And we wandered up here, and I didn’t know what to expect. I just gasped, because I saw what was going on. It was a temple. This—” he points, “would be the altar, except instead of an altar it’s the ocean.” Spelman, as a modernist allusion, recalls that splendor. “But that you could have a domestic, cottage-y version of that, where people live—that’s what got me.”

Spelman is very much a personal monument as well. Jeff tells me about his father, a “big Samurai type” who, toward the end of his life, needed help walking. “He used to insist that we throw baseballs with lethal force. It’s like seeing a warrior, a gigantic and vulnerable man, brought down to human size.” Spelman, in its modesty, captures Jeff’s relationship to his elders. “This guy who’s been bigger than life—suddenly he’s this little house.”

And yet the building is not all domesticity. Jeff shows me a photo of Spelman angled against a wash of blue. Only a sliver of concrete comes into the frame. Right up against it is the pure and deep sky. “Everyone hates Spelman! There is nothing more touchable than Spelman, nothing more right in front of you than Spelman.” He looks up indignantly from the photo, then turns back, intense again. “But the idea that something so familiar and small as this could be so in dialogue with the whole infinite sky—that’s sublime.”