From Bamberger’s to Einstein

“What ever you do, don’t refer to it as the Institute for Advanced Studies,” says Linda Arntzenius, author of Images of America’s “Institute for Advanced Study,” a pictorial history ($21.99). It’s remarkable how people who have lived in Princeton for 20 or more years and have PhDs from Ivy League institutions botch the name of the prestigious Institute with a capital I, where some of the world’s heaviest brains are in residence.

How much do we really know about what goes on under the clock tower in Fuld Hall, or what conversations take place in the dining hall designed by J. Robert Geddes?

In some respects the Institute can seem cloistered, and yet it is accessible to all. A lecture series and the Edward T. Cone Concert Series at Wolfensohn Hall draw visitors from the community, where artists-in-residence can be heard free of charge. And the Institute Woods, connecting Princeton Battlefield to the Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge, draws hikers, birders, mushroomers, cross- country skiers and those who just want to be surrounded by nature.

Most of us know that Einstein was on the permanent faculty at the Institute, and walked those 800 acres, most now preserved, filled with aspen, beech, oak, hickory and dogwood.

We know some of the other big-name brains associated with the center for theoretical research and intellectual inquiry: J. Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel and Freeman Dyson. But how did the Institute get its start? 

Ms. Arntzenius, a former IAS staff member, offers an insider’s perspective on the Institute, this year celebrating its 80-year anniversary, beginning in … Newark?

Newark was once home to the one-city-block-large Bamberger’s department store, in which IAS has its roots. Founder Louis Bamberger, his brother-in-law Louis M. Frank and salesman Felix Fuld were innovative thinkers, according to Ms. Arntzenius, who implemented price tags to replace haggling, offered a no-questions-asked return policy, the first escalator in New Jersey, late-night shopping hours and a philosophy that the customer is always right.

Employees were called “coworkers,” and were given paid vacations, health benefits, and an on-site library and extension of Rutgers where they could study merchandising.

Just a few months before the Great Depression of 1929, the company was sold to R. H. Macy and Co. for $25 million, and Louis Bamberger and his sister, Caroline Bamberger Frank Fuld (she married the second partner after her first husband died), became philanthropists. One of their first acts of kindness: Giving $1 million to 236 of the longest serving employees.

Much of their philanthropy was directed toward Jewish organizations in Newark, and initially they planned a medical school there. The brother and sister turned to Abraham Flexner, whose “Flexner Report of 1910” recommended closing 120 medical schools in the United States and Canada.

Flexner had his own dream for an advanced research institution inspired by those in Europe, but it had to be located near a great library and university for its community of scholars, so Princeton was selected. The Bambergers offered an initial endowment of $5 million toward an institute for advanced learning, with exploration in fields of pure science and high scholarship.

During a time when higher learning excluded African- Americans, women and Jews, the IAS founders stipulated that the new institution would be free of racial, religious or gender prejudice. “I have sketched an educational Utopia,” Flexner wrote, according to Ms. Arntzenius.

Soon after, Flexner met Einstein, who was at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Princeton’s notable genius accepted Flexner’s invitation to join IAS in 1932.

Since then, the IAS has included on its faculty 22 Nobel laureates and numerous MacArthur geniuses. It is a place for scholars to spend time away from teaching, within a community of scholars.

According to its mission statement, “the Institute exists to encourage and support fundamental research in the sciences and humanities — the original, often speculative, thinking that produces advances in knowledge that change the way we understand the world.” Today IAS includes schools of mathematics, historical studies, natural sciences and social sciences.

Ms. Arntzenius, a member of U.S. 1 Poets Cooperative and a selecting editor of the 2010 U.S. 1 Worksheets, grew up in Moss End, a mining village south of Glasgow, Scotland. She left home at 17 to work as a nanny north of London, and went on to earn a master’s degree in logic and the scientific method from the London School of Economics in 1981.

She came to the United States with her husband, who did a post doc in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. While there Ms. Arntzenius taught logic at Carnegie Mellon, then earned a master’s degree in professional writing from the University of Southern California.

In L.A. she learned to drive, and as she explored the city she became enchanted with its architecture. She wrote an article on the Gamble House, the Arts and Crafts-style National Historic Landmark bungalow designed by Greene and Greene in Pasadena in 1908, that turned into a book for the USC School of Architecture.

Serving afternoon tea from a blue-and-white china pot, Ms. Arntzenius offers to make a fire in the fireplace from the branches that fall from her trees. As we speak, a bird chirps — it is a bird alarm clock. Formerly a Princeton resident, Ms. Arntzenius moved to Lawrence Township two years ago and has refurbished her house. “I always hoped I could someday live in a white, spare house,” she says, surrounded by textiles in busy patterns and furniture in painted eye- catching colors.

In January Ms. Arntzenius celebrates the birthday of Scottish bard Robert Burns with a supper of haggis and meeps (mashed turnips) and recites “Tam o’Shanter.” This year, she took it to a larger crowd and organized a celebration at the Princeton Public Library. 

Ms. Arntzenius began writing poetry formally when taking Jean Hollander’s class at the YWCA Princeton, and has published in “Slant,” “The Kelsey Review,” “The Journal of New Jersey Poets,” “Exit 13” and an anthology of poems about the D&R Canal. She has freelanced for numerous publications, including The Princeton Packet, and worked as a reporter for the Town Topics newspaper.

She taught beginning composition at Mercer County Community College and rhetoric at The College of New Jersey before landing a job as publications associate at the IAS. For the IAS 75th anniversary, she penned a booklet about its history, geared to the Institute community. Attending an Images of America event at the former Borders Bookstore, Ms. Arntzenius met Richard Smith, who wrote two Images of America books on Princeton, and got the idea to write one about IAS.

The challenge she faced writing the Images of America book was fitting all the information into the tight format. Ms. Arntzenius has a mind that likes to explore a topic and can lead her on long journeys. “So much came my way, I couldn’t get it in,” she says. “Each chapter could be an entire book. Every person is a story.”

Images of America “Institute for Advanced Study” by Linda G. Arntzenius is available in bookstores and online.

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