The Archivist’s Nook: National Treasure – Catholic University Students Explore Campus History

Flier for the November 17th National Treasure event sponsored by Campus Ministry. No, Benjamin Franklin Gates did not steal our beloved Gus Garvey. As this recent photo shows, Gus is alive, well, and ready for the holidays!

There are many ways to connect the present with the past. One of the easiest is through physical objects, such as, say, informing students on the history of the physical space of their university campus. The Archives worked with Campus Ministry this past November on an event which had students playing trivia, doing a campus scavenger hunt, and watching National Treasure, a heist film involving a search for a treasure hidden by the American Founding Fathers. The event, inspired by the film and thus dubbed “National Treasure” itself, had students exploring the Catholic University campus for prizes while learning about the layers of history embedded on the campus itself.

A list of the items placed in the cornerstone of Caldwell Hall when the building was erected in 1888.

Indeed, the National Treasure reference is not really that far off the mark. Take the first structure built in 1803 on what is now the University campus, Sidney. Sidney, after the political theorist Algernon Sidney, was built and occupied by Margaret Bayard Smith and her husband, Samuel Harrison Smith, who was invited to move to the District of Columbia by then President Thomas Jefferson in order to publish the city’s first newspaper, The National Intelligencer, which he did. Jefferson, James and Dolley Madison, and other political luminaries visited Sidney back in the early days of Washington, D.C. Later, the house was sold to the Middleton family, and in 1887, to the founders of the Catholic University.

In 1890 the administration saw fit to allow the physicist and astronomer George Searle to construct an observatory at the highest point on campus, which lies just North of Centennial Village. The observatory contained a telescope and was used to observe and study, among other things, comets. Though the observatory burned down in 1924, the base for the telescope remains. On the left is the intact observatory in its heyday. On the right are Alexis Anelli (left) and Ella Wermuth (right) braving the chilly air to learn its history more than a century later.

The scavenger hunt/trivia night involved exploration of some of the earliest physical aspects of the campus, including two of CUA’s founders: Mary Gwendoline Caldwell’s eponymous Caldwell Hall and its cornerstone, laid in 1888, as well as the ginormous marble statue of Leo XIII that found itself in the foyer of McMahon Hall when it was constructed in 1895 and hasn’t moved since.

More recently built structures are quickly acquiring some local historical significance, too. The Great Rooms of the Pryzbyla Center hosted Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the United States in 2008. And the lower level of the Pryz features a painting of a CUA Cardinal done by the actor Jon Voight while he was a student here in the late 1950s—the painting was originally done on the floor of the gymnasium, which was housed in what is today the Crough Center for Architectural Studies.

The Archivist’s Nook: Scaring the Craps Out of Campus

Kopmeier, Class of 1906

Imagine Catholic University in 1905, surrounded by unpaved roads, with no streetlights. Most of the structures commonly associated with campus are not present. Even the iconic power plant won’t be built for another 5 years. Electricity is sourced from a dynamo located in the basement of McMahon Hall, with power cut off at 10pm every night. The campus – and dorms – are left in darkness throughout the evening, with late-studying students permitted to keep reading by gas light (for a charge billed to their specific room). The perfect setting for a spooky scene…

Keane Hall, later renamed Albert Hall, was one of the earliest dorms on campus. As the third major structure on campus, built in 1896, it served as the residence hall for lay students. With the admission of undergraduates beginning in 1904, the Hall became the center of student life on campus. Demolished in 1970, it was located along Michigan Avenue. As is the case for dormitory life regardless of the period, tensions could mount over noise or light disturbances in its early years. Among such disturbances was a game of craps played by staff members outside the dorm’s windows. The students, not wishing to report it and risk the employees losing their jobs, came up with an unorthodox solution. As reported by Frank Luntz (class of 1907), in his book Undergraduate Days, 1904-1908:   

Keane Hall, ca. 1913 – Haunted Manor?

“In the biological laboratory in McMahon Hall there was a human skeleton which we rubbed all over with wet phosphorous so it could be seen in the dark. After dinner one dark night we wrapped it in a blanket, and, stretcher fashion, we sneaked it to a fourth-floor window directly over the spot where we were sure the game would be played. Except for the profs, everyone in Keane Hall, plus visiting day hops, crammed the windows on the rear side of the building. We waited until the crap game was at its height of excitement and then gently lowered the skeleton right in to the middle of it. Every spectator had been cautioned not to laugh or make any sound. Everyone had to gag himself with his hands at this moment in order to comply with this silence mandate. The crap shooters darted in all directions. Two went screaming against the building. It was quite a scene!”¹

Griffin served CUA as a Chemistry professor, administrator, and guardian against ghouls until 1922

Kuntz continues with the aftermath of the skeletal surprise:

“The two waiters involved refused to work for the University any more. However, when the joke was explained to them two days later, they returned to their jobs. But that was the end of the crap games. Meanwhile, the skeleton was sneaked back to the glass case in the laboratory. We Expected Dr. Griffin to scold us for taking the skeleton, but during class next day he went to the case, opened the door, and said to the skeleton, “If you don’t stop prowling around the campus during the dead of night, I shall have to put a padlock on this case and lock you in!” He closed the case and resumed his work with his students. The consensus of the boys that evening was, ‘Good old Doc Griffin! He’s a regular guy!’”²

While most campus legends center on Caldwell Hall, the University’s true tale of terror was located in the now-vanished Keane (Albert) Hall. Letting this skeleton out of the closet highlights the early character of the campus, including the landscape and the personalities that shaped it.

For more information on Keane (Albert) Hall, see the “Vanished Buildings” online exhibit: http://cuexhibits.wrlc.org/exhibits/show/vanished-buildings/buildings/albert–hall


¹ Frank Kuntz, Undergraduate Days, 1904-1908 (Catholic University of America Press), 68-69.

² Kuntz, Undergraduate Days, 69.

The Archivist’s Nook: Trashing the Trailers – A Short Genealogy of a Space

trailer being removed
Trailing into the sunset. Perhaps not as (un)dramatic as it looks, however: The trailers were gutted and many of the furnishings were donated to Community Forklift for discount resale and to other charitable organizations serving homeless veterans.

University archivists save university stuff.  Our mission entails preserving university-related historical materials that enable us to make observations about our school across time.  This includes the physical space of CUA.  The Archives holds files and blueprints detailing the history of most every building of the University, and even some that no longer exist.

Which brings me to the recent trashing of the trailers.  Back in the 1990s, twenty-six trailers were placed on Curley Court to house an overflow of students—this was before the grand Opus Hall was built to accommodate the incoming numbers.  This past March, however, it was time to remove those trailers, and especially for those of us here on the upper campus who pass by the units daily, it was something of an event. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: Trashing the Trailers – A Short Genealogy of a Space”