Listening to Architecture: What Georgetown University Says Today
Published: Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Updated: Friday, February 10, 2012 00:02
Buildings and places tell stories. Their narratives reflect the forces that produced them and the values of the people within. They articulate ideas, providing a visual manifestation of history and shifting cultures.
However, there is not just one history of Georgetown, but three: a history of the construction, a history of the aesthetics and an unfinished history into which today's students enter, add meaning and further the tale that began in 1789.
After the opening of the Rafik B. Hariri Building, on the eve of the completion of the new science center and as renovations to New South Hall and construction of a new athletic center approach, it is worth revisiting the narratives that have defined the halls and spires of Georgetown University so far.
If Healy Hall is the face of the university, then Old North is the heart.
From its founding to World War II, Georgetown saw the construction of buildings such as Old North and Healy and more contemporary buildings like Copley and White-Gravenor, which were built in the Collegiate Gothic style. During these formative years, the university worked to establish a reputation of excellence and symbolic prestige, an effort that was reflected in its architecture.
"When Old North was built, it was surely one of the grandest works in Washington, after the Capitol Building," Elizabeth Prelinger, a professor in the Georgetown University art department, wrote in an essay titled "From Her Spires and Steeples Beaming: Mission and Image in Bricks and Stone."
Construction on Old North began in 1795 with a $400 donation and was completed in 1809 thanks to the help of students, administrators and faculty who all aided in the effort. The building, designed in the Georgian style, originally housed multiple facilities in order to address the university's land and monetary constraints.
General George Washington visited Old North after the revolutionary war, becoming the first of 13 U.S. presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, to speak from its steps. Decades later during the Civil War, enrollment dropped to an all-time low of 17 students, and many of Old North's rooms were used as temporary hospitals for soldiers.
According to John Glavin, a professor of English and an expert on Georgetown architecture, Old North was replaced as the university's flagship building when Healy Hall was constructed. Though he says that the university has tried to undo the overpowering effect of Healy through building a grand staircase and redecorating the interior of Old North and refurbishing Dahlgren Quadrangle, the building no longer retains its former prominence.
Glavin lived in Old North as an undergraduate during the building's time as a dorm and laments that because of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, Old North no longer plays an important role in student life.
"[Old North] is no longer easily accessible to the public. … [It is] not part of a student's ordinary experience."
Few buildings are as synonymous with American higher education as Healy Hall.
The story of Healy can be traced back to University President Patrick Healy, S.J., who served as the first African-American president of a predominately white college from 1873 to 1882. Healy designed the building to face the Capitol and to reflect the Jesuit foundation and presence at the university. The construction of Healy Hall, more than any other building, epitomizes the university's quest to establish itself.
"Healy is announcing that Georgetown is, or aspires at least to be, a university in the capitol city in the United States. It squarely belongs here, and it is very much a part of the culture of the capitol of the United States," Georgetown historian Fr. Emmet Curran, S.J., says.
Using bluestone from a Virginia quarry, construction on Healy Hall began in December of 1877. The grand building was designed to house classrooms, offices, a library, a student dormitory and an assembly hall. According to Curran, the architects who designed Healy, J.L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz, went on to work on the Library of Congress and the Canadian Parliament. The exterior of Healy was completed by 1879, but the interior wasn't finished for another 20 years.
A constant lack of financial support threatened construction throughout its duration, and as the landmark went up, monetary battles sapped President Healy's health.
"Patrick Healy broke his health trying to raise the more than $400,000 that it cost. He never came close to raising that," Curran says.
The debt that the university incurred from the construction also contributed to Georgetown's consistent financial misfortunes.
"[Healy's] successor, [Fr. James A. Doonan, S.J.], was left with enormous debt, which he paid off by selling off some property. … There was a debt for decades," Curran said.