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Main Building celebrates 125th birthday this year

Spadafora, Paul | Thursday, September 16, 2004

Ever conspicuous, the Main Building celebrated its 125th birthday this week. But for each candle on the Golden Dome’s cake, there exists a little-known detail about the landmark.A product of perseverance and vision, the Main Building’s 125 years of history are as rich as they are significant.The current Main Building was built in 1879, after its predecessor burned to the ground in the “Great Fire” that occurred during Father Sorin’s tenure at Notre Dame. Ed Cohen, Notre Dame Magazine associate editor, said the Main Building was a product of the determination and devotion of Notre Dame’s founding students and leaders. “It was rebuilt over the summer by the students and the religious clergy,” he said. The Main Building was designed by Chicago architect Willoughby Edbrooke and was constructed in just three months from May to September 1879. Throughout its history, the building has served nearly every function at Notre Dame, said Cohen, who has worked on Notre Dame Magazine for about 10 years. “The Main Building followed the design of most colleges in America at the time. They would build one enormous building, and that would be the university,” Cohen said. “Even the dining hall used to be in the basement.”Currently, the Main Building primarily houses the administrative offices of the University. In the late 1990s, the University began a major renovation of the Main Building. The building’s upper floors were reopened after being closed for decades due to structural problems, and three classrooms were added. Father Paul Doyle, Dillon Hall rector, said the addition of these classrooms helped return the building to its roots. “[There was] lots of student interplay with the administrators, because students had their classes there.” Doyle said about the building’s past life. “I think it’s important to have students and administrators together … if you call it the ‘administrative building’, students will go there to see administrators, not to interact with the students.”But what makes the Main Building a special part of Notre Dame’s history are the stories and traditions associated with its history. “There was a time when you were not supposed to walk up the front steps of the main building until you’ve graduated,” Doyle said. “It’s not a tradition many follow anymore, but it used to be quite important.”Although the Main Building has counted numerous priests among its occupants, some of them stand out in the building’s lore. Father Bernard Lang was a Holy Cross priest who lived in the Main Building in the 1920s – and was also a champion weightlifter. “He was the strongest or second strongest man in the world,” said Jim Lyphout, vice president for business operations.A picture of Lang now hangs in the tunnel between the Morris Inn and McKenna Hall, Lyphout said. In addition to the unique background of the building itself, its famous dome is just as storied. “You can go all the way under the dome, between the [mural] … and the huge space between that and the Golden Dome,” Cohen said. “You can stick your head into the statue and look out onto the quad.”Throughout Notre Dame’s history, students have often scaled the dome as a mark of pride or draped it with a banner before a big football game.”All through [it] there are people who have carved their names,” Cohen said. “It used to be a student accomplishment to climb up into the dome.”