Last year marked the first time that The Catholic University of America celebrated commencement virtually; this year’s commencement, to take place in-person with social distancing at FedEx Field, will mark the first time the ceremony has ever been held away from campus. This blog post will run through some other notable firsts in the University’s commencement history.
The earliest commencement exercises on record took place in the Assembly Room of McMahon Hall, which was constructed between 1892 and 1895 (shortly after the University first opened in 1889 with the completion of Caldwell Hall). By the early 1920s the commencement ceremony was being held in the gymnasium (today’s Crough Center), a practice that would endure for decades.
In his excellent pictorial history of Catholic University (2010, Arcadia), Robert P. Malesky notes: “Many large-scale special events took place in the gym, from the 50th anniversary celebration in 1939 to rock concerts in the 1960s and an address from Pope John Paul II in 1979” (p. 67). Conspicuously absent from his list of “large-scale special events,” however, are the annual commencement exercises—an omission that would probably dishearten the 1923 Commencement Week Committee, which, on the front page of The Tower, pleaded with students and alumni to COMMENCE COMING TO COMMENCEMENT. The Committee felt that “a Commencement Week combining the dignity of academic exercises with the delight of social and of athletic events serves as a sort of epitome of University life,” and lamented that CatholicU, though “still pretty young,” had yet to sow the seeds of a “mighty tradition” like that of “the ‘Proms’ of American Universities, the ‘Commemoration’ of Oxford, [or] the ‘May Week’ of Cambridge” (see “Commencement Week,” The Tower, April 13, 1923). Hoping to rectify that and to entice more people to attend the end-of-year festivities, the Committee added a Senior Ball to the program.
1933 witnessed a “Historic Commencement” at which the sitting President of the United States, FDR, was a guest of honor. (Granted, CatholicU has an extensive history with our country’s chief executives.) According to the Catholic University Bulletin, “a new attendance record was set by the five thousand who attempted to secure admission to the University Gymnasium, [but] the audience that witnessed the affair was not to be compared with the vast radio audience of ten million people to whom the commencement exercises were brought” (July 1933, Vol. 1, No. 5, p. 1). Upon receiving his honorary Doctor of Laws, FDR offered the following unscripted remarks.
1962 marked the first time that commencement was held outdoors, against the backdrop of the recently-completed Pangborn Hall. In a Tower article hyperbolically titled From Hell to Heaven, one student celebrated the improvement in venue—ridiculing the idea of “columns of robed students receiving their diplomas here beneath the basketball nets.” Sadly for him, though, it would be a few more years before others came to feel as strongly as he did that the gym was appropriate (only) for “basketball, volleyball, crab soccer, effervescent cheerleaders, and 1-2-3-4 calisthenics.” The 1965 commencement exercises (at which then-President LBJ delivered the address!) were the last to be held in the gym. (Incidentally, two days earlier, he had also given the commencement address at Howard University.)
1966 marked the triumphant return to outdoor commencement exercises. This time, the ceremony took place in front of Mullen Library.
Although the University Mall has remained the traditional venue for the annual commencement exercises, in 1973 the ceremony did an about-face.
Since then, except in extreme circumstances—such as those of 1977 (not to mention those of the past two years)—commencement has been held on the East Portico of the National Shrine. (In 1977, rain drove the commencement celebrants into the Great Upper Church of the National Shrine. A few days later, then-President of the University Clarence C. Walton, the first lay person to lead the University, wrote to the Assistant Director of the Shrine to thank him for “the thoughtfulness and the help [he] provided when, as escapees from rain clouds, the Shrine became our graduation home.” Walton was also sensitive to all the effort that went into setting up and breaking down the unused chairs.)
Because I commute all the way from Sykesville, Maryland down to the Catholic University campus, it took me a while to realize that the “E. F. Baldwin” responsible for the University’s first new construction was in fact the same E. F. Baldwin after whom my favorite local restaurant was named. Small world! Sadly for me, Baldwin’s Station & Pub was sold to new owners this past summer, but they’re still running a restaurant out of the historic train station.
It turns out E. Francis Baldwin (1837–1916)—as his name often appears; the E. stood for Ephraim—was a prolific architect.
Among Baldwin’s most iconic extant works are the “four-block-long” B&O Camden Station Warehouse, which baseball fans might recognize as the backdrop to the Baltimore Orioles’ ballpark at Camden Yards; the Point of Rocks B&O Station (“to many, the quintessential Victorian railroad station”); and the 22-sided B&O Passenger Car Shop in Baltimore—“oftentimes erroneously referred to as a ‘roundhouse’”—which the B&O Railroad Museum now calls home (Avery 60; Harwood xiv; Avery 54).
Meanwhile, in the CatholicU universe, Baldwin is remembered as the architect of Caldwell Hall and McMahon Hall—the first two buildings constructed after the University was established in 1887. Today, Caldwell and McMahon are the two oldest extant buildings on campus. Baldwin attended the cornerstone laying ceremony for Caldwell on May 24, 1888 and saw it through to completion in 1889. A year later he was asked to oversee the construction of McMahon, which was completed in 1895.
Long story short, Baltimore was the common factor in Baldwin’s career with both the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Catholic Church. During Baldwin’s lifetime, Baltimore was the “mother of American railroading,” but before and since that time the city has been recognized as “the locus of the first Catholic diocese in America” (Harwood xi; Lewis xv). Baldwin’s decision to base his architectural firm in Baltimore had important repercussions; on the one hand he “became the principal architect for the Catholic Church in Maryland,” but on the other hand he found that “his radius of action” was largely restricted to “the reach of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad”—sealing his fate as “a parochial rather than a national figure” (Lewis xv).
An important “bread-and-butter account” in his early architectural career, the B&O remained Baldwin’s biggest client from the early 1870s through the late 1890s; he became for all intents and purposes its “house architect,” much like his mentor John Rudolph Niernsee (1814–1885) before him (Avery viii; Lewis xvi). Diagnosing Baldwin as a “chronic Baltimorean,” Michael J. Lewis explains Baldwin’s relative obscurity compared to his first partner, Bruce Price, who left the firm in 1873, enjoyed a distinguished career as a domestic architect, and is supposed to have influenced the far-more-famous Frank Lloyd Wright: “But for this [Price] had to move to New York—a choice that Baldwin, constrained by the bonds of patronage and clientele, could not make” (Lewis xvii).
Unfortunately, the building that best represents the marriage of Baldwin’s work for the B&O and the Catholic Church is no longer with us. Built in 1890, University Station at CatholicU was razed and replaced by the Brookland–CUA Metro Station sometime in the 1970s. University Station was one of only a handful of B&O stations executed in the Richardsonian style—named after Baldwin’s contemporary Henry Hobson Richardson (1838–1886). In November 1889—the same month that Caldwell Hall was dedicated—the B&O offered to build the young University a “neat and convenient” station out “of blue Georgetown stone so as to harmonize with the handsome university building.” As Carlos P. Avery points out in his definitive history of Baldwin, “That harmony was ensured, of course, because E. Francis Baldwin was the architect for both buildings” (Avery 41).
According to Avery—who spent about as many years researching Baldwin as Baldwin spent working on B&O projects—the University’s first rector, John J. Keane, personally prepared the plans for Caldwell Hall (then-known as the Divinity Building) after rejecting all of the proposals that had previously been submitted as part of a design competition (Avery 81). As an aside, one of the competitors was fellow Baltimore architect George A. Frederick (1842–1924), who Avery variously describes as Baldwin’s “arch-rival” and “nemesis” (Avery vii).
In his history of Keane’s rectorship (1887–1896), Patrick H. Ahern credits Baldwin with putting Keane’s plans in “working shape” (Ahern 34). Letters from Baldwin to Keane reveal Baldwin’s role in introducing a number of pragmatic measures—perhaps the most notable of which was the decision to use “Georgetown gneiss rock, with Ohio sandstone trimmings” instead of brick (Ahern 34). In a letter dated September 5, 1887, Baldwin at first politely acquiesces to Keane’s request to execute the building in brick but then goes on to
“strongly recommend the substitution of stone in place of brick, for the reason that brick, in a few years, will become rusty and shabby, rendering painting almost a necessity which then becomes a mortgage in the shape of renewal every 5 to 10 years—whilst stone is rather improved by age, as time and weather combine to add color and picturesqueness to its already most substantial and enduring character. The extra cost of stone would be about 3% on the cost of the building, amounting to not much more than one painting of the brick walls” (Baldwin 5–6).
In short, Facilities can thank Baldwin for sparing them the trouble of having to paint the exterior of Caldwell for the last 130 years!
This brings me to one of Baldwin’s greatest strengths as an architect, which unfortunately also seems to be the other main reason for his relative obscurity today. Although I’ve focused on his work for the B&O and CatholicU, the truth is that “he worked on a large number of projects for a wide-ranging clientele—secular and ecclesiastical, public and private, commercial and social” (Avery vii). In other words, Baldwin was extremely versatile—even chameleon-like. No doubt, his versatility came at the expense of developing a signature style; it’s not really feasible to point to a Baldwin the way you could a Van Gogh; but does that constitute an artistic failure on Baldwin’s part? As I’ve learned more about Baldwin in the last few weeks, I’ve been impressed by the way he somehow shaped the regional landscape without leaving his fingerprints all over it. He seems to be everywhere and nowhere. In Lewis’s estimation, Baldwin belonged to the class of humble Victorian architects who simply “felt their task was to serve their clients ably and responsibly, to translate their programmatic requirements into durable, efficient, and fashionable designs, and to guard their clients’ money zealously” (Lewis xv). Perhaps nothing better supports this characterization than the aforementioned September 5, 1887 letter to Keane, which Baldwin signed “Your Obedient Servant.”
Special thanks to Anna Kresmer, MSLIS—Archivist at the Hays T. Watkins Research Library of the B&O Railroad Museum—for helping me obtain many of the photographs included in this piece.
References and Further Reading
Ahern, Patrick H. The Catholic University of America — 1887–1896 (The Rectorship of John J. Keane). Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1949.
Avery, Carlos P. E. Francis Baldwin, Architect: The B&O, Baltimore, and Beyond. Baltimore Architecture Foundation, 2003.
Baldwin, E. Francis. Letter to Catholic University Rector John J. Keane. 5 September 1887. Box 1, Folder 7. Office of the President/Rector. The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Washington D.C.
Harwood, Herbert H., Jr. Foreword. E. Francis Baldwin, Architect: The B&O, Baltimore, and Beyond, by Carlos P. Avery, Baltimore Architecture Foundation, 2003, pp. xi–xiv.
Lewis, Michael J. Introduction. E. Francis Baldwin, Architect: The B&O, Baltimore, and Beyond, by Carlos P. Avery, Baltimore Architecture Foundation, 2003, pp. xv–xvii.
Lord, Charles K. Letters to Catholic University Rector John J. Keane. 29 November 1889 and 13 January 1890. Box 1, Folder 2. Office of the President/Rector. The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, Washington D.C.
Malesky, Robert P. The Catholic University of America. Arcadia, 2010.
Nuesse, C. Joseph. The Catholic University of America: A Centennial History. CUA Press, 1990.
Question of the week – where’s the Ghost Car? As you ought to know. a mysterious foreign ghost limousine haunted the campus for a few days early this week, and then, just as mysteriously, slipped away to Valhalla. – Tower, October 30, 1953
Once upon a time, the Catholic University of America campus was haunted by a specter so otherworldly and so unpredictable that it moved from building to building with the aid of a society of followers known as the Utopes. What message did this ghostly automobile wish to convey? What was its unfinished business? Why, it was there to advertise the 1953 Hayshaker Brawl dance!
The Hayshaker Brawl was a dance hosted by the Utopian Club – later renamed to the SIgma Phi Delta fraternity – held every other year at Halloween. It was an informal dance – in the 1960 posting for the Brawl, guests were warned, “But whatever you do, don’t you dare wear a coat and tie!” Costumes were encouraged, and the night’s events were marked by the occasional square dance set.
Founded on March 14, 1923, the Utopian Club was among the many social organizations that populated the Catholic University campus during the early twentieth century. Among the various clubs were the Senators Club, the Abbey Club, the Dod Noon Club, and (by 1935) the Cave Dwellers. In 1945, the Columbians would join these ranks as the first all-female social club on campus. All these organizations acted as communal societies, organizing everything from formal galas to, well, Hayshake Brawls. A previous blog discussed the origins of their Homecoming and Thanksgiving galas, but there was so many shaking traditions! Often these organizations would even partner up for a dance, with the Utopians and Columbians working to establish memorable outings such as the 1956 “Cloak and Dagger Drag”, an espionage-themed dance!
Party favors were offered to guests, and there was a best costume prize awarded at the end of the evening. The 1949 prize went to, “Ginny Bradley, dressed as a ‘Flapper’ of 1929,” who “received a homemade television set as a prize for the best costume.” We cannot say for sure whether a homemade television was a real treat or some Utopian trick!
But perhaps the trick of the 1953 dance was its phenomenal promotion. The ghost car was a hit with students. After the Utopians had placed it outside Gibbons Hall, the Tower reports, “various outlanders, enchanted by the old girl, entered the act, and unbeknownst to the Utopes, old Ghost Car made the campus rounds, ending up in McMahon lobby.” Understandably, there were a few people on campus unhappy with this new, indoor parking space and an exorcism of the ghost commenced, with the Ghost Car vanishing to be never heard from again.
Despite the disappearance of the Ghost Car, the 1953 dance managed to remain in the minds of the campus community. As the Tower acclaimed, “we hereby give [the Utopians] the prize for the most original, if not most aesthetic, contribution to the field of advertising, which has been raised to the status of a fine art at the university.” But the car was not the only form of promotion that was deployed. Utopians spread it via word of mouth and through local ads. One of which proclaimed:
Hear ye, hear ye! Be it decreed to all campus kats and kittens that the coolest conclave of the sorcerers’ season, the 15th annual Utopian Hayshaker Brawl is this year set for the misty hills of Northeast Washington.
The 1953 dance became such a legend that its organizer, Michael Clendenin, was heralded in the Tower 3 years later when he was about to graduate. (Of course, being the Tower editor maybe had something to do with the praise…) Clendenin described “his work with…the Utopians as the most rewarding and socially satisfying” during his time at Catholic University.
As for the Utopians? Like the Ghost Car, they have faded from campus and entered memory. In 1956, in honor of its long-time mentor, Fr. Ignatius Smith, O.P, the Utopians changed their name to the Sigma Pi Delta Fraternity, which ceased to be active at the University by the late 1980s. The Archives holds a small collection of Sigma Pi Delta material from the 1960s and 1970s.
But if you find yourself in McMahon Hall on a chilly October night, listen closely. Perhaps you may hear the engine roar of the Ghost Car as it idles the ages away.
“Library Too Heavy! Will Sink in 10,000 Years!” exclaimed a tongue-in-cheek Tower article from 1927, calling on all students to help relocate the library building to a more stable location. The Library the article was referring to was the John K. Mullen of Denver Memorial Library, then under construction. With its marble and limestone edifice and ability to hold one million volumes, the students were perhaps only half-joking when they stated that it may sink! For Catholic University students of the time were used to a far more humble library.
For nearly a century, Mullen Library has been a hub of campus life, so it may be hard to imagine a time when it was not a fixture on the campus. While the Library as an institution – and not just its current building – has existed since the day the University welcomed its first students, it has not always possessed such a beautiful home all to itself.
First located in the basement of Caldwell Hall (then called Divinity Hall), the Library started life humbly. But as the University expanded, so did the need of its students and faculty for books. It quickly outgrew its Caldwell offices and relocated to the ground floor of McMahon Hall in 1908. But even with this move, the Library was finding itself continuing to encounter issues with space. By the early 1920s, the University Librarian Joseph Schneider was storing excess books in the basement of the gym. Fortunately, a new chapter in the Library’s history was about to begin.
In 1921, the founder of the Colorado Milling and Elevator Company, John K. Mullen, provided a donation of $500,000 to construct a new home for the Library. A committee was organized in 1924 to select the designs for the building, with construction beginning in 1925. The building itself would open during the fall of 1928.
The construction of this new central library fit in with the fourth rector Thomas J. Shahan’s vision for Catholic University. Known as the “Builder Rector,” under Shahan’s tenure (1909-1928), the University experienced an explosion of construction, including Graduate Hall (now O’Connell), Maloney Hall, Salve Regina, the gymnasium (today’s Crough Hall), and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Murphy & Olmsted Architects was selected to design the new library Frederick Vernon Murphy – the “Murphy” in the firm’s title – was the first professor of Catholic University’s Department of Architecture. Starting at Catholic in 1911, Murphy would become the unofficial “University Architect” in helping make Shahan’s vision a reality. He had lent his expertise to the design of all the buildings mentioned above, save the Shrine!
The new Library building would be constructed of Kentucky limestone and Massachusetts granite, with concrete work performed the prolific John J. Earley. The Library’s cornerstone was laid on April 22, 1925. The ceremony included introductory remarks by Shahan, Patrick Cardinal Hayes, and Rev. Dr. Peter Guilday. Emphasizing Shahan’s monumental vision for the campus – and the new library’s role in it – Guilday drew attention to the symbolic alignment of the library with the National Shrine, then also under construction:
“The sun going down to rest in the evening casts across the greensward of our campus a last ray of splendor that falls athwart two buildings…At one end of this golden axis is the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception now being raised to the glory of the Blessed Mother of God by her loving children of the United States, and at the other, this enduring monument.”
While originally planned with wings for the stacks, funding issues necessitated the building be opened in 1928 with only the front and central portions and the basement levels complete. The additional wings were not completed until 1958, three decades after the library first opened its doors. Interestingly, this project was part of a second wave of construction blossoming on campus, including McGivney, Pangborn, McCort-Ward, and additions to Caldwell and Curley Halls.
It is best we bookend this post with the original 1927 Tower article. While Mullen Library would not open for another year, the students were already playfully reflecting on its promise of alleviating the space and storage issues of the long-standing library facilities. While an elaborate parody piece, it showed that the students wished to see this palace to knowledge survive for 10,000 years, even if it meant they had to carry it across campus to more secure spot!
Here at the Archives, keeping track of the many museum worthy art objects on The Catholic University of America campus is perhaps one of our lesser known duties. While we have written extensively about the history of the museum collection as well as several specific objects in the collection, we have long wanted to take you on a grand tour of the “Best of the Museum Collection on Campus.” It was difficult to narrow down which stops to include on this tour as there are so many treasures to find, but we selected a few of our favorites!
We’ll start at the second oldest campus building, McMahon Hall, which was dedicated in 1895 by Cardinal James Gibbons. Walking inside the foyer, one of the most iconic museum pieces at CUA is hard to miss: the heroic statue of Pope Leo XIII seated on a throne. Crowned with a tiara, the Holy Father is raising his hand in a gesture of blessing. The gift of Joseph F. Loubat, the statue was made from Carrarra marble by Guiseppi Luchetti. This statue was famous in its day; Theodore Roosevelt himself rode over to pay it a visit! In front of this imposing, 12 foot tall statue is a massive marble table, a more recently acquired museum piece whose fascinating history is told in a previous blog post.
Now it’s time to make your way down the hall to room 109, the School of Arts and Sciences. In the main seating area, you’ll find a large ivory relief triptych depicting multiple Gospel scenes. Given to CUA in 1917 by Arthur Connolly, this work of art was completed in 17th century France. Ivory triptychs are rarely found at this scale, this one is unusual for its large size. Among the stories of the life of Christ told through the carved panels, you’ll find many Gothic motifs, such as elaborately carved pointed arches.
Our next stop is Caldwell Hall, the oldest building on campus. Walking through the front doors, you’ll ascend the sweeping staircase and enter Caldwell Chapel. An entire museum piece in its own right, this chapel is also home to seventeen, “Munich style” stained glass windows completed by the Royal Bavarian Art Institute between 1888 and 1890. Exiting the chapel, walk down the hall to room 111. This inconspicuous classroom is home to one of a pair of paintings given to the university in 1961 by Antony Pisani. This 126 inch long oil painting depicts the “Hunting of the Meleager,” a heroic legend of Meleager, Atalanta, Jason, and others hunting the Calydonian boar. This painting and its pair, “Dance of Nymphs” located in the third floor hallway of Caldwell, correspond to two famous paintings by Nicolas Poussin: “The Hunt of Meleager” of the Prado and “Dance in Honor of Priapus” of the Sao Paulo Museu de Arte.
Our last stop in Caldwell is on the first floor, in room 100. Known as the Monsignor Stephen P. Happel Room, this space is home to a large oil painting attributed to the Spanish Baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Donated in 1926, this painting was originally thought to depict St. Francis of Assisi carrying a cross. However, in recent years we have come to believe it may be San Diego de Alcala, as Saint Francis is usually shown as an older, bearded man.
Let’s end our museum tour in the John K. Mullen of Denver Memorial Library. While this library is home to many statues and works of art, we’ll highlight just two in the May Gallery of the first floor. This gallery displays two French Gothic wood statues on either side of the fireplace. On the left, you’ll find a late 14th century statue of St. Paul, donated by a Miss Jesse Jebiley. On the right is a 13th century Madonna and Child, donated by Frederick Jambes. They make a wonderful pair to finish off our tour with!
This week’s post is guest authored by Angela Geosits, archives assistant and doctoral student in English.
Any visitor to McMahon Hall is likely familiar with the massive marble table which dominates the central foyer. Set between the two great staircases out of the flow of foot traffic, this stately table blends in with the neutral colors of the space and feels as if it has always been there. But contrary to all expectations, this 2 ½ ton marble table is surprisingly well traveled, and even enjoyed a misspent youth loitering in the lobby of Loew’s Capitol Theatre, the last surviving Broadway vaudeville house. Some traces of this thespian origin can be seen in the detailed carvings of Comedy and Tragedy on the table’s supports.
But how on earth did our table get from a vaudeville theatre in New York City to an academic building at Catholic University in Washington, DC? The story begins in the winter of 1967, when the roof of the Army surplus theater the Drama Department had been using as their performance space collapsed under a heavy load of snow. Enthusiastic fundraising efforts began in order to fill the desperate need for a new stage. CUA Drama alumnus Ed McMahon (no relation to Monsignor James McMahon for whom the building is named) knew the Loews and organized a special benefit for the CUA Drama Department on the last night of performances at the Capitol Theatre. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: If This Table Had Ears!”→
Good Old McMahon Hall. Built in 1892 to house the school of philosophy, arts and sciences, and the school of social sciences, this Romanesque structure has had many occupants across the last 123 years. Sociology, biology, languages, math, a plethora of administrative offices—all have been in, out, and back again across the decades. The second building erected as part of CUA’s young campus, McMahon was made possible by a $400,000 (yes, buildings were a lot cheaper way back then) donation by Monsignor James McMahon, an Irish-born priest who had served as a New York pastor. The Monsignor lived in the building in his retirement, passing his final days there until his death in 1901 at the age of eighty-four.
McMahon would surely have had good company there, not only with the professors and students who roamed the halls and occupied the classrooms, but with Giuseppe Luchetti’s imposing Leo XIII, a 12-foot high marble statue with which Theodore Roosevelt explicitly requested an audience. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: On McMahon’s Oldest Resident”→
As mentioned in a previous blog entry, the Museum Collection at CUA is the oldest part of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives. The first donations date to before CUA opened in 1889. Items were displayed in Caldwell Hall until 1905, and thereafter, until 1976, parts of the collection were either displayed in McMahon Hall,Mullen Library, or in storage. Since then the collection has been stored in Curley Hall, and more recently parts in Aquinas Hall or with items being used in campus exhibitions, often the May Gallery in Mullen, or loaned to secure campus offices to be displayed and enjoyed as office decoration.
CUA continues to accept a small number of artifacts as part of its manuscript collections along with paintings, sculptures, and other objects from individual donors. In 1976, responsibility for the museum was taken up by the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives (then known as the Department of Archives and Manuscripts), though it was not until 1994 that a project to establish a comprehensive and descriptive catalog of the entire museum collection was undertaken. The museum collection today includes art works and artifacts representing different periods and genres, totaling about 5,000 pieces. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: Collecting the Sacred and Secular – The Museum at Catholic University”→