Posts with the tag: CUA

The Archivist’s Nook: The CatholicU Campus Coffin Cavalcade

The 1930s Tower mastered early clickbait headlines.

Imagine you are heading out to Homecoming, visiting with returning alumni and catching the football game. There are numerous events you wish to catch during the weekend, but one in particular that all your friends are talking about…the “annual coffin parade.” Checking the student newspaper for more details on this strange event, you learn that during the match against the Western Maryland (now McDaniels) Green Terror, “on Saturday morning, C.U. cheerleaders will drag the casket out on the field…for the edification of the Terror team and rooters.” Do you decide to attend?

Sometimes when one is digging through the archives, one unearths all manner of buried tales. The tradition of the so-called “Western Maryland Coffin” is one such a tale. Similar to the Old Oaken Bucket of Indiana-Purdue or the Michigan-Michigan State Little Brown Jug, the Western Maryland-Catholic coffin was a rivalry trophy handed off between the schools. Whoever won the grudge match each season would carry off the macabre reward to their home campus. While the tradition of such trophies is not unusual, the choice of object is certainly eyebrow-raising.

The November 14, 1935 Tower reports the origins for this curious tradition as follows:

The annual homecoming event between the Green Terrors of Western Maryland and the Flying Cardinals, of Catholic U. brings to light one of the those hoary tales of tradition that the “old boys” love to retell. It has to do with the famous Western Maryland Coffin. Now way back yonder in 1913, when the Terrors first met with the Cards, one of the C.U. carpenters who was evidently imbued with the C.U. victory spirit thought the best thing to do with the Terrors who were to be beaten, was to bury them, so he went to work and built the coffin.

With a score of 17-6 in favor of Catholic, the coffin seems to have done the trick and remained on campus. The two teams would not meet on the gridiron again until 1924, with the coffin reemerging. However, this time, the Terror defeated the Cardinals. Rather than surrender the coffin to their victorious rivals, it is reported that:

[Coach Eddie] La Fond and some of his cohorts stole the object of the argument – the coffin…after beating around the bush, La Fond admitted the theft, but said that it was impossible for him to return the article because he has mislaid it.

St. Thomas Hall, looking perfectly like the scene of a spooky story.

Lest you think that a coffin’s shadow had passed from the campus, the lost trophy was located a decade later! In 1934, the Tower exclaimed, “The Terrors’ Ghost Coffin, Aged Sarcophagus Unearthed,” declaring that the superintendent of maintenance had located the long-lost coffin in the basement of St. Thomas Hall.

St. Thomas Hall, also known as the Middleton House, was the oldest structure on the campus. Originally built as a summer cottage (named Sidney) in 1803 by newspaperman Samuel Harrison Smith, who had relocated to Washington at the invitation of President Thomas Jefferson. (During this period, Smith would host many dignitaries at the House, including Jefferson and James and Dolly Madison.) Sold in the 1830s to James and Erasmus J. Middleton, father and son respectively. With the surrounding land purchased for the new Catholic University in 1886, the House became a residence, first for the Paulist Fathers from 1889 until 1914, and later a dormitory for lay students until 1933. From that date, until its demolition in 1970, it housed the School of Social Service…and apparently a misplaced coffin.

After its rediscovery in 1934 – and some quick repairs – the coffin was triumphantly paraded around campus during the following week’s pep rally events. And despite a Terror victory (2-0) over the Cardinals that fall, the Western Maryland team seemed uninterested in carrying off the coffin, with the Tower declaring that, “Catholic University is particularly proud of the fact that this coffin has never left the C.U. campus.”

The following season, the Cardinals would win against the Terrors (19-6) and go on to win the 1936 Orange Bowl. Eddie LaFond, the once tomb raider, was by this point the longstanding and nationally recognized head of the University’s boxing, football, and basketball programs.

Eddie LaFond (center) at the Orange Bowl, 1936.

With the Orange Bowl win and the tradition of the casket well-established, the student press trumpeted the presence of the coffin during the fall semester of 1936. The homecoming events even advertised a halftime show, which included “the annual coffin parade.” But the parade was not to be that year or any years after. In the dead of night, the coffin vanished days before the big game. The Tower was quick to blame Western Maryland, stating, “This conclusion was drawn quite logically because of the fact that it would be of value to only the Green and Gold [Terror] followers.”

However, while this archivist plans to check further into the whereabouts of these legendary trophy, there is a part of me that believes the coffin is still stashed away somewhere on campus…

The Archivist’s Nook: The Brutal Archives

1920s CUA Brochure to Prospective Students from the CUA Archives Photographic Collection Ca. 1887-1999: Box 71, Folder 7.

The construction of a Brutalist building at The Catholic University of America marked a departure from the existing architectural style previously seen at CUA and it was a departure from original conceptions of the growth of the university taking shape in a form that resembled a medieval village.

How did this shift in architecture challenge the ideas of public space? Was it a social experiment that was well suited to the academic environment?

I recently chatted with Eric Jenkins, a Professor of Architecture at Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning to get the answer to this question:

It was very expressionist; a lot of architects in the 70s were not concerned with making a typical campus, such as Yale, with its unified and orderly sense of space; they were concerned with making a modern statement” This modernist statement was invoked in the form of Aquinas Hall, the current home of The Catholic University of America Archives and 1 of 4 Brutalist expressions currently on campus.

The grand entrance stairway consists of a set of angulated right vertices and rectilinear striations of concrete whose descent to a planular surface of alternating rectangles adds an ethereal level of depth to the viewer’s field of vision.

Washingtonians are organically familiar with the Brutalist Aesthetic, due to the ubiquity of Government Brutalism in Washington D.C. In fact, The District is home to extremely beautiful examples of the Brutalist architectural style. From the trip to work, to the work place itself, a Washingtonian’s daily routine is saturated by the atmospheric essence of Béton Brut, which can be seen in the ceilings of the Metro’s cavernous stations and seen deep within the bowels of Downtown.

Washington’s Brutalist buildings are a communique of power, impenetrability, and the performative use of materials to create a remarkable psycho-social demarcation through jarring exaggerations in building scale that coerce the viewer to process the architectural form from a macroscopic perspective, in what Professor Jenkins noted as “object-oriented landscaping, in which the building becomes a landscape object.”

The atrium central staircase is an act of paradox: an acute involution of inflexible materials around a softer hexagonal social area presenting an unusual mix of refined textiles and raw materials.

Brutalism was the Federal Government’s de rigueur style during the 1970s; but tucked away at The Catholic University of America, a new player entered the field, in the form of a quieter, more pensive expression that emerged in divergent transition to the Federal Government’s translation of the Brutalist aesthetic.

In 1965, candidates for the Master of Arts in English, at The Catholic University of America, were asked during their comprehensive examinations to ruminate on a complexly layered observation made by Mark Shorer in the foreword of Society and Self in the Novel, a 1955 treatise edited by Shorer in which he made the following annunciation:

“…the problem of the novel has always been to distinguish between these two, the self and society, and at the same time to find suitable structures that will present them together.”

The central staircase appears dramatic in the morning sunlight due to the striking contrasts created by the deep shadows of the opposing faces.

From an interdisciplinary standpoint, the ontological consideration of the parallels, partitions and implications of what is real, what is imagined, and what can become, is one of the core considerations of designing a building—in other words: how to reconcile between anthropocentricity and design aesthetics to create a unified conversation between these aspects that are at times in harmonious communication and at other times in discordant miscommunication. The design of CUA’s Aquinas Hall squares this circle because the building was not designed through a psycho-social lens but rather as a form of psycho-geographical praxis in which scale is downplayed and the viewer’s gaze is shifted to the granular level. In this context, the juxtaposition of raw, coarse, unpolished, imperfect, cacophonous materiality results in theatric, unexpected geometries.


A melodic, psychogeographic exploration of the geometry and materiality of the Brutalist home of The Catholic University of America’s Archives.

Images and video of Aquinas Hall are by the author, Juan-Pablo Gonzalez.