What are those Princeton eating clubs all about?

Over the years the question has come up far more often than you might expect. At a university that is known for its academic excellence at the undergraduate level, and as a major international research center at the graduate level, an undergraduate social institution would seemingly be the last thing anyone would be curious about at Princeton.

But the eating clubs — undergraduate social facilities where juniors and seniors take their meals and have their parties — loom large on the Princeton landscape. Up until about 50 years ago virtually 100 percent of the student body participated in the eating clubs. The clubs endure even though the student body has changed radically and the university now provides three on-campus residential colleges where juniors and seniors can both live and eat.

While the number of clubs has decreased from 15 a half century ago to 11 today, some 70 percent of the juniors and seniors still elect to participate, and more than half the clubs use the idiosyncratic selective admission process known as “bicker” to select their incoming class. What’s the secret to the Princeton undergraduate eating clubs? Is it the selective nature of the clubs, and the appearance at least of a special camaraderie created by the dynamic of eating and socializing with your own special group? Or is it that the club members, who still sleep in the university’s campus dormitories, have a surprising amount of autonomy in the day to day management of the clubs? (Only a handful of officers live at the club, and each club has a graduate board that maintains oversight.)

Could the not-so-secret sauce be the architecture of the clubs themselves?

A new book by Clifford W. Zink, “The Princeton Eating Clubs,” makes a good case for the architecture, which has survived even when the original club for which it was designed has become defunct. Five of the clubhouses have been acquired by the university for various academic and social purposes, and they have been maintained, with very few changes evident from the exterior. Writes Zink: “Today the 15 clubhouses along Prospect Avenue and one on Washington Road represent the formidable, decades-long accomplishments of student-alumni collaboration in the shadow of the university in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. . . The preservation of the clubhouses by the private clubs and by the university is exemplary.”

Zink is well qualified to make that judgment. Growing up on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, he recalls being awestruck when his father, a fireman, took him to visit the George Washington Bridge. Zink earned a degree in communications and documentary filmmaking at Temple, Class of 1972, and moved to Princeton (where he still lives just a few blocks from Prospect Avenue), and earned a master’s degree in historic preservation from Columbia. In 1992 he co-wrote “Spanning the Industrial Age, a History of the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company Trenton, New Jersey, 1848-1974,” and later wrote “The Roebling Legacy,” timed to the 200th anniversary of John A. Roebling’s birth in 2006. Since then he has served as a consultant to several commissions and has written several more historic reference books, including “Mercer Magic: The Mercer Automobile Company, Founded 1909.”

He was commissioned by the Princeton Prospect Foundation, a nonprofit consortium the eating clubs, to produce the new book, which he will discuss Tuesday, December 12, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library.

The Princeton eating clubs, Zink writes, “began with a simple premise in the fall of 1877 — some sophomore friends in the College of New Jersey Class of 1880 wanted share good meals and companionship. In the absence of attractive opportunities on and off campus, these undergraduates pooled their resources and rented a couple of rooms in Ivy Hall, a small, elegant brownstone structure designed by the noted Philadelphia architect John Notman. The owner of the 1847 building was the widow of an alumnus, and she enthusiastically supported their initiative. The students set up a kitchen, hired a couple to cook and serve meals, and secured a billiard table for some recreation.

“The quality of the food and the camaraderie in Ivy Hall soon attracted other students to join. With the strength of the bonds they formed eating and socializing together in ‘a most appropriate place,’ the undergraduates formed the ‘Ivy Hall Eating Club’ in 1879 to enable succeeding students to share similar experiences. The first permanent eating club was a conspicuous success.

“From this simple beginning 140 years ago, Princeton undergraduates over the next five decades incorporated eighteen additional eating clubs. . . As the value of the eating club experience became more apparent, parents and alumni increasingly supported their development and maintenance. Following the University’s focus on architectural excellence, the eating clubs’ student officers and alumni trustees engaged rising and prominent architects to design substantial, majestic, and rivaling clubhouses along Prospect Avenue and around the corner on Washington road, two of Princeton’s most notable streets.

“In the competition for ‘good men’ in each class, the scale and quality of the clubhouses became increasingly important. As a Trustee contemplating a building campaign noted in 1912, ‘regret it as we may, the underclassman of today is influenced by the Club House in his choice of Club.’ Building in stone or brick became imperative, as a masonry clubhouse signaled prestige and permanence.”

Zink continues: “The distinctive cluster of eating clubs represents the social, educational, financial, and architectural aspirations of Princeton eating club members — notably both students and alumni — in the expansive 1890s-1920s decades. The clubhouse designers include two nationally distinguished architects — Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead, and White in New York [who designed Cottage Club], and Walter Cope of Cope and Stewardson in Philadelphia [architect for Ivy].

The grand exteriors are complemented by interior designs that must make a strong impression on a 19 or 20-year-old Princeton undergraduate. Zink’s book presents photographs of the interior of Tiger Inn, for one example, showing details of “superbly crafted Elizabethan furniture from Chelsea, England,” imported for the club’s opening in 1895 by the mother of three members. Much of the furniture is still there today.

In another example, Zink shows a 1905 black and white photo of the main dining room at Ivy. Next to it is a color photo of the same room today. It looks unchanged. Zink says that some of the chairs remain from a century ago; others are faithful reproductions.

Bicker, meanwhile, played its own role in furthering the mystique of the clubs.

Around 1915, before Scott Fitzgerald flunked out of college and turned to creating his first novel in the second floor library at Cottage, Bicker must have been pretty close in reality to the way Fitzgerald described it in “This Side of Paradise:”

“The upper-class clubs, concerning which he had pumped a reluctant graduate during the previous summer, excited his curiosity: Ivy, detached and breathlessly aristocratic; Cottage, an impressive melange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers; Tiger Inn, broad-shouldered and athletic, vitalized by an honest elaboration of prep-school standards; Cap and Gown, anti-alcoholic, faintly religious and politically powerful; flamboyant Colonial; literary Quadrangle; and the dozen others, varying in age and position.

“Anything which brought an under classman into too glaring a light was labelled with the damning brand of ‘running it out.’ . . . In short, being personally conspicuous was not tolerated, and the influential man was the non-committal man, until at club elections in sophomore year every one should be sewed up in some bag for the rest of his college career.

“. . . When the fatal morning arrived, early in March, and the campus became a document in hysteria, he slid smoothly into Cottage . . . and watched his suddenly neurotic class with much wonder.

“There were fickle groups that jumped from club to club; there were friends of two or three days who announced tearfully and wildly that they must join the same club, nothing should separate them . . . Unknown men were elevated into importance when they received certain coveted bids; others who were considered ‘all set’ found that they had made unexpected enemies, felt themselves stranded and deserted, talked wildly of leaving college.”

In 1955 the scene wasn’t much different. John T. Osander ’57, who would later become dean of admission at Princeton, wrote about the club system in the May 26, 2010, issue of U.S. 1:

“One never forgets Bicker. As sophomores in January, 1955, my roommate . . . and I would scrub up and find our best jacket and tie and wait in our dorm room from 7 to 11 p.m. for visits from delegations of three or four club members.

“Early in the process, most clubs visited most sophomore rooms. As the process evolved: fewer visits, at first nights skipped, then no visit at all from a club. . . Near the end of the visiting period, a sophomore could feel good if more than one club still visited, perhaps with hints about desirability. . .

“Finally, on Open House night, sophomores moved out from the protective arches of 1879 Hall, to cross Washington Road and start down ‘The Street.’ Each sophomore, or small group of those who had bickered together (‘a preferential’), or even a group pledged to join together (an ‘Ironbound’) would ring the bell at a club they thought might give them a positive answer to the question: ‘Have I been selected for membership?’

“Rumor told us: you would be greeted with smiles, called by name, and ushered immediately upstairs to the Bicker room, if the club wanted to offer a bid. Or you might be told outright. ‘Sorry. We don’t have you listed.’ And with that, one had to go knock on another door. . .”

By this time the university, mindful that it was offering juniors and seniors no attractive dining alternative, was pressuring the eating clubs to make sure that all sophomores received at least one bid — a “100 percent” Bicker. To achieve this the club presidents and sophomore class leaders gathered at the end of the process to divvy up the bidless sophomores — known as 100 percenters — to various clubs. But in 1958 two of the less popular clubs had announced they would be open “sign-in” clubs. The rest of the clubs felt they were relieved of the 100 percent burden since bidless sophomores could just join those two clubs. That winter 23 bidless sophomores protested. The national media caught wind of it and discovered that 15 or so of the 23 were Jewish.

The result, wrote Gregg Lange, a 1970 graduate and contributor of “Princetoniana” to the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “was a national flurry of anti-Semitic presumptions about Princeton compounded by the opaqueness of bicker.”

In the following years the university attempted to hold the clubs to the 100 percent goal. But in the fall of 1967, upperclassmen began to defect from the club life. This reporter and two of his roommates, juniors, became independents, eating at various restaurants in town.

Later that fall, as Lange has reported, “in a startling four-week period, the club hegemony fell apart for good.” Twelve members of Ivy resigned, including the center on the basketball team. The Daily Princetonian challenged the administration to offer a viable alternative to clubs. The university responded by turning one of the defunct clubs into a non-selective dining hall for upperclassmen.

The beginning of an undergraduate residential college system began to take shape. By the time of Bicker in February, 1968, more than 220 members of the Class of 1970 did not participate.

Today six of the eleven clubs still rely on Bicker to screen the applicants. But it’s a vastly different process from the one described by Fitzgerald and Osander. Ivy, for example, invites applicants to its clubhouse for “10 conversations with members whom you do not already know. Conversations range from 20 to 45 minutes.”

At Cap and Gown, according to an online description, Bicker is “typically a fun, exciting, low-pressure environment where bickerees are encouraged to meet the members through a variety of games, events, and activities.”

Despite all the changes over the years, club membership continues to prevail at Princeton, with about 70 percent of the upperclass students participating. The clubs’ enduring legacy at Princeton may be the combination of the architecture and the aura.

In 1987 a fire spread from the basement to the third floor of Terrace Club. Members today call it a pivotal moment in the club’s history and quote a letter written by then president Molly Blieden, Class of 1988: “In the end, Terrace is not a building. The true Terrace is our family, and we are together in this, and Terrace is not to disappear. . . Our food and our people and the love we share will be the same wherever we have to stay for the next few months, and we ask for your understanding and support in this desire to be together. . . We are not gone; if you only look you will soon find us, still together, still celebrating. All of us.”

The fire notwithstanding, in Zink’s new book on “The Princeton Eating Clubs” Terrace appears today almost identical to the way it looked when it was originally designed in 1920 by Rolf Bauhan, Princeton Class of 1914.