Decline and Fall of the Main Building

John Bellairs
March 20, 1959, Scholastic #18

The first thing that people saw when they got to the University was the shining golden Dome, rising above the trees, and looking about the same as it did on matchbook covers, decals, and freshman orientation manuals. The trees covered the view of the thing that held up the Dome. The thing was called the Main Building.

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The Main Building was built in the 1870's and wandered across a large portion of the Main Quadrangle. At first glance, the impression would be that someone had taken an ink blot for a blueprint, or tired to spell the university monogram in bricks, and then had built upwards from there. The building, with a basement and four main floors (not counting turrets and chimney-pots) was an architectural joke. The numerous corners thrust themselves out everywhere, and in some cases retreated into dark recesses where they played ring-around-the-courtyard with some cannonballs mounted in stone. The windows, framed in heavy wooden arches, stared out in every direction, and in some cases, at each other, while on the roof was an idiot swarm of turrets, chimneys, and gadgets. The whole thing was built of a nauseous yellow brick, native to the region, and was honored with a wide main staircase and a useless front porch. Of course there is the Dome; but one does not associate it with the Main Building.

Of course, the interior presented a contrast with the outside. The interior was not faced with yellow bricks. Otherwise, however, the outer dinginess was outdone by the dusky interior. The first floor walls were enlivened by some fading murals depicting the life of Columbus, and the floor was finished in a crumbling mosaic pattern. The basement (or ground floor) was floored with terrazzo, and the second and third floors had been made in such a way that it would have caused widespread panic if anyone knew what materials had been used. The corridors met in the center of the building at a gaping hole, which reached from the top of the Dome to the first floor, and was protected by a series of railings. Each railing was flanked by four niches without statues, and if one leaned dangerously far out, the mural inside the Dome could be seen . The top floor had been abandoned for a long time, and the Geology Department on the third floor was in a dangerous position, since its rooms were full of rocks of various sizes and weights. The last time a drawer full of rocks had been dropped, the president's office below had found most of its ceiling on the floor. However, the building was unquestionably valuable, since there was no room anywhere else for the classrooms and offices that were there. The building was full of records and data, the care of which employed many pretty young girls and many pretty old ladies from the town.

The clean appearance of the building has always been maintained by the employment of a number of small Slavic men who worked in and around the building; they swept, mopped, and tried to catch people smoking in the wrong places. But its structural soundness was inapproachable, for it had been appraised in 1922 by one of the leading engineers in the state. After he had looked the building over, reported his findings, and collected his fee, he left in a great hurry, even leaving his briefcase behind. A few teachers and students, however, have periodically expressed doubts about the building's strength. For example, years ago, an architect who said his name was Wright said that the Main Building would be lucky to last another ten years. But he was scoffed at by the leading engineers of the University, who had the last word in the matter, of course. Therefore he was dismissed, and never heard from again. However, every now and then, when a board broke under pressure or a railing came loose, people began to wonder.

II.

Lester Rundle stood in the Office of Student Accounts admiring the unsightly murals. Lester, a short young man in a blue double-breasted suit, had come to the Main Building to have his schedule changed. He was a freshman in the College of Engineering, and wanted his only Arts and Letters course exchanged for something more constructive, such as Advanced Cantilever Bridges or Blueprinting II. This would fit more exactly into his plan for a college education, and entrench him more firmly in a specialized pattern, which would prove very lucrative in the future. Already very set in his ways, he would tolerate no departures from his establish pattern.

A middle-aged woman suddenly appeared in one of the windows of the partition surrounding the main office.

"May I help you, sir?"

"Yes, I wish to have my schedule changed."

"The Office of Academic Affairs is upstairs."

"Thank you."

Lester walked out of the office and went up the rear stairway, which would take him to the main floor. But while he was doing this, two apparently unrelated events were happening elsewhere in the building. One occurred in the basement, the other on the third floor.

In one of the dark, seldom-visited sub-cellars of the building, a janitor named Ladislaus Kareckywicz was making his rounds. He inspected the moldering stone arches and moss-covered brick walls, and while he was doing this, something caught his eye. In one of the crumbling recesses of the wall, a brick was sticking out several inches from the rest. Muttering something in Polish about how much he was expected to do around this place, he inspected this brick and picked inquisitively at the loose mortar around it. Finally, muttering again in Polish, he gave the brick a jerk which brought it cleanly out of its place in the wall and stirred up a fine cloud of dust which eddied out of the opening. Noticing what a fine doorstep it would make, the janitor turned the brick over in his hands, humming to himself.

Meanwhile, on the third floor, the second event was taking place. In the Geology Department, a preofessor was carrying a fine, large sepecimen of iron ore to his desk, when he tripped on an upturned board. The rock, of course, fell resoundingly onto the flor as the preofessor was sent sprawling. He picked himself up, and carefully place the rock on a nearby table, while he surveyed the damag. There has been no sounds of falling plaster from the floor below, and the board on which he had tripped was not completely ripped loose. Deciding not to mention the incident, the professor went about his business. But far below things were beginning to happen.

Just as Ladislaus was about to take the brick upstairs, he heard a sharp crack, followed by a series of clicking sounds. He turned toward the place where the brick had been, and saw a very unusual sight. As he watched, the bricks began to settle, one on top of the other, so that a series of V's was formed by the bricks, with the base of the lowest V resting in the place where Ladislaus had found the protruding brick. When the bricks had stopped falling, there was another crack, and then the wall began to lean forward until it seemed that the whole thing would come crashing down; then it caught abruptly on something which caused a rain of dust and bits of plaster. Watching all this, Ladislaus was horrified. As soon as he could bring himself to do something, he grabbed a board lying nearby, and used it to support the shuddering mass of masonry. His next impulse, of course, was to do the Polish equivalent of getting the hell out of there. Which he did.

Ladislaus ran up the stairs, through the ground floor, and up the stairs, to the main floor. The first person he met was Lester Rundle, who was still looking for the Office of Academic Affairs. The fleeing janitor paused long enough to blurt some rapid Polish imperatives at the surprised freshman, and then made a dash for the door. However, Lester would not allow this strange happening to go unexplained, so he overhauled the janitor as he was almost out the door, and demanded an explanation. Seeing himself cornered, Ladislaus began to explain in very thick English that the building was going to collapse and that they had better get out. Still not satisfied with this information, and considering himself able to handle foreigners and other inferior races, Lester pressed for details. By way of explanation, the janitor grabbed Lester by the arm and hurried him back down the stairs toward the scene of the disaster, all the while talking as incoherently as possible. When they reached the scene of the disaster, Ladislaus indicated the situation with a wave of his hand.

"Look," he said.

Lester took in the situation at a glance. Not only was this one section of the wall collapsing, but the ones around it, also. Without delving very deeply into his store of engineering knowledge, Lester knew that it was only a matter of time now. Something essential would give in a little while, and then… catastrophe! Meanwhile, however, an attempt must be made to evacuate the building, thought Lester, and the first one to go had better be this panic-stricken janitor, who was getting more nervous with every minute.

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"You may leave now," said Lester.

"Good-byes," said Ladislaus.

Now that he was alone, Lester began to plan the evacuation. Calmness was paramount, since nothing but chaos would result from running up and down the corridors and shouting. Keeping this in mind, Lester decided to look for someone to help him spread the news.

On the main floor, the first person he met was an elderly man, obviously a professor, who was walking briskly along, puffing on an empty pipe. He approached this gentleman as if he were going to ask him the time.

"Pardon me, sir, but you'd better leave. The building is about to fall down."

The professor turned a sardonic eye on Lester.

"Oh?" he said. "Then before I leave I'd better tell Henny-penny that the sky is falling." With that he turned and walked away.

Obviously, thought Lester, this is not the way to go about things. The best thing to do would be to inform someone with authority, possibly the president of the University. So, by way of inquiring at one of the offices nearby, he found his way to the president's office.

In the waiting room of the president's office, a pretty young secretary in dark-rimmed glasses was pecking vigorously at a typewriter. Lester entered quietly and began to speak.

"Pardon me, miss, but I have an important matter to see the president about."

Without looking up from the typewriter, the secretary responded. "Do you have an appointment?"

"No, but..."

"You can't see the president without an appointment. Besides he's out. If it can't wait, fill out this card, and I'll leave it on his desk."

Deciding that this was better than nothing, Lester filled out a little white card in his precise style of lettering, and deposited it on the secretary's desk. Then he made another attempt.

"Perhaps I'd better tell you what the matter is. It seems that the..."

Sweeping her typewriter carriage back with a quick hand motion, the secretary looked up and spoke in an irritated voice. "Please, can't you see I'm busy? I have to have this letter done in triplicate and I don't have much time. You'll have to come back later."

A little while after Lester left the office, a small yellow slip reached the desk of the president (who was still out). It read:

MEMO
From: Outer office
To: Inner office
Re: Building about to fall down. Suggest immediate vacuation.

Meanwhile, Lester had found his way back to the Office of Student Accounts, where he had been in the first place. The same woman who had talked to him before appeared at the window.

"Can't they help you up at Academic Affairs?" she queried.

"Well, No...uh, that is…. I have something important to tell you."

"Can it be worked out on the IBM machine?"

"You don't understand. The building is going to fall down."

"It's been that way for years, young man, but there's no call for you to make nasty cracks about it. Now if you haven't anything constructive to say, you'd better go, because I have work to do." With that she shut the window, leaving Lester standing open-mouthed outside. After a minute or so, he went out.

Lester walked sullenly back to the main floor, and as he descended the stairway, he felt the whole thing shake a little, and somewhere down below there was an ominous noise. He decided to give it on more try, this time using a last-resort method. Walking quickly to the place where the great "well" extended upwards through four floors to the dome, Lester stood directly in the center of the floor, raised his head and shouted.

"GET OUT EVERYBODY, THE BUILDING'S GOING TO FALL DOWN!"

After his voice had ceased echoing, there was a dead silence. Then a head shot out from the top of the second floor railing, and a male voice said sweetly, "Your voice sounds lovely under the dome, doesn't it, dear?" Then the head disappeared, and the silence continued. Lester stood there for about a minute, then started for the stairway. Suddenly he stopped short.

"Oh fiddlesticks," said Lester Rundle, and with that he turned and left. As he descended the wide main stairway which fronted the building (which undergraduates were not supposed to do, by custom), he heard the clock striking four. I've go work to do, he thought.

About four o'clock the main building fell down.


Commentary

Main Building

Myers provides us with some historical background info on the iconic Main Building.

"It is actually the third building (all on the same site) to have that distinction. The second was a slab-sided monstrosity, also with a dome although not as impressive as the current one, which housed most if not all of the student body, some classrooms, the entire library (only 10,000 volumes then), and probably just about everything else vital to the running of the school. In April 1879 it and several other buildings, most of the then rather small campus in fact, were destroyed in a disastrous fire. Insurance was woefully inadequate, and this would have been enough to put the school out of business, as indeed had happened to many other colleges in the fire-prone 19th Century.

"It is a great tribute to Notre Dame's founder, Father Edward Sorin, that he refused for an instant to be daunted by this disaster. He raced back from Montreal, where he was about to embark on a trip to his order's mother house in France, and immediately took charge of reconstruction. As did many such institutions in the 19th Century, Notre Dame strove for self-sufficiency and had its own farm, brick kilns and the like. By some miracle, with the student body pitching in, and using some bricks that barely had time to cool off from the old building, they got the new one constructed and ready for use by September. The dome and probably some various detailing and add-ons such as the front porch came later. I don't know who was the architect or even if there was one, but the new building was basically what I suppose you would call Victorian courthouse, topped by a renaissance dome. Actually, I don't think that that juxtaposition of styles was so unusual in 19th century America. You could probably encounter it in many statehouses and county courthouses throughout America.

"Father Sorin made another fateful decision about reconstruction. Despite the obvious strain on financial resources at that time, he decided against considerable opposition that, as the University was under the protection of the Blessed Virgin (Notre Dame of course means "Our Lady" in French), the new dome would be coated in genuine gold. That it was, and the statue atop it was contributed by the girls of St. Mary's College across the road. One could argue at the extent to which this decision provided divine protection, but it was in incomparable public relations ploy. The Dome has become the symbol of the university, and its fame has spread throughout the land. In any event, the new building assumed the functions of the old, housing dormitories, classrooms, offices, the whole mezuzah. So as the university has spread out over its 1,250 acre campus and beyond, just about every one of its functions has its origin in the main building.

"Now it is true that the building was getting rather creaky by the 1950s when Bellairs and I were students. By that time, for structural reasons, the fourth floor, which housed classrooms and dormitories, was off-limits. Bellairs was possibly being historically accurate (I'm not sure) when he wrote about the Geology Department having been on the third floor. Anyway, on to John's specific comments:

"architectural joke" - Not really! In its setting the building is really rather magnificent, and it has more personality than hundreds of more modern buildings. However, its creakiness progressed throughout the decades, and finally starting about 1994 an off-budget reconstruction costing about $40 million funded by alumni contributions commenced. The building was gutted and closed for two years until it finally reopened, fully restored, in 1998. I haven't been back to campus since its reopening, but I do hope to make the trip some day. For old times' sake there actually is a functioning class room in the fourth floor, but no dorms, kitchens, etc. of course.

"fading murals depicting the life of Columbus" - These actually exist and have been fully restored. I forget the name of the artist, but he was sent over by the Vatican in the 1880s or thereabouts. This is remarkable in itself, because it is surprising that N.D. would have been significant enough to attract the Vatican's notice during that era. The artist like the campus so well that he spend the rest of his life there and never returned to Italy. Maybe he was happy to escape the clutches of our old friend Pio Nono. The trouble with the murals is that they reflected the values of the 19th century and are thus horribly politically incorrect today--savage Indians being led along the path of enlightenment by noble Spaniards, that sort of thing.

"The top floor had been abandoned for some time" - True enough, as noted above.

"small Slavic men..." - Also true enough. In fact their wives or equivalents provided maid service in the various residence halls; they cleaned our rooms and made our beds daily. They tended to be elderly (at least to our eyes) and wore babushkas, not the type that you'd want to prop a chair against the door and have a mad passionate fling with between classes! Bellairs and I always referred to them as "old Bohemian women," though I suppose they were largely Polish. I don't know what attracted this large Slavic population to South Bend in the first place; maybe it was the Studebaker plant, which was starting to falter in the 1950s and went kaput soon thereafter.

"an architect who said his name was Wright" - Bellairs is of course referring to Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright actually did first visit the campus in 1923, but I don't know whether he really had any comments about the Main Building or not. One interesting fact that John could not have known then because it did not become public knowledge until a few years ago was that Wright ostensibly actually sketched a master plan for further growth of the University. Whether working on his own or responding to some long-forgotten commission, no one knows. Unfortunately, Wright's plans, if they ever existed, have been lost. Knowing and loving Wright's work as I do this is a great pity. He probably would have had the university's building winding over and under and in the middle of the two lakes on campus.

The rest of the article is pure Bellairsian invention, with the exception of the penultimate paragraph, "As he descended the main stairway which fronted the building (which undergraduates were not supposed to do by custom." During our era we were indeed told that it was the custom for undergrads not to be permitted to use the main stairway. What we had not been told was that this was an artificial restriction which had only been imposed by the powers that be since about 1940. Apparently about that time the hierarchy was concerned that the student body had no traditions such as the lovely hazings afflicted in the service academies, so some genius came up with that idea. So eliminating the war years when the campus was essentially a military officers' training ground with very few actual students, the "tradition" had only been in effect for about a decade. Sometime in the '60s the student body apparently said the hell with it, and that was that."