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Breen-Phillips Hall and the chamber of secrets

| Tuesday, November 28, 2017

In its 175 years, Notre Dame has taught many generations of students, felt great moments of triumph and loss (not unlike this year’s football season) and experienced eras of change and transformation. While some of this history can be found throughout buildings on campus, in past yearbooks, trophy cases, plaques and history books, or even down in The Observer’s archives, a glimpse of student life throughout the years can be found within our humble walls — the walls of Breen-Phillips Hall specifically.

I have no doubt these small-hole-dwelling time capsules can be found throughout the resident halls on campus, but a certain fourth floor double in Breen-Phillips Hall — founded in 1939 — holds a wealth of history. When I first selected this room (no, I won’t give away the number, that’s for future inhabitants only) at the end of my freshman year, my soon-to-be roommate and I were told by the current inhabitants at that time that there was a time capsule that we should open together and add to at the end of our time there. A time capsule? Close your eyes and imagine for a moment what you would expect that to look like. I’ll wait. Okay, well in my mind, I was expecting maybe a small- or medium-sized tin box, filled with small trinkets perhaps or maybe some photos. This is because we were given the location of this time capsule: behind the vanity mirror. Many dorms have similar mirrors, with a hinged door behind which you can put your toothbrushes and face wash. But what did they mean behind the mirror? Well as it turns out, if your vanity dates back like ours does, there are a couple of rusty screws holding it in place in the wall. Once you unscrew the vanity, you can pull it right out to reveal a rectangular hole in the wall, maybe 2 1/2 feet tall and 1 1/2 feet wide (no, I didn’t measure).

So what is behind the hole in the wall from our DIY room deconstruction? Are you picturing that medium box I described? Well, we were certainly in for a surprise. I can’t enumerate every item that was back there, and much should be left to some mystery for future residents, but when we peaked our heads in with a flashlight, it certainly was not a tin box of trinkets. Replace that vision instead with bags upon bags and boxes upon boxes of stuff. Lots of stuff. But of course, we didn’t know how to get it. There was a large candy cane prop that appeared to be a tool for removing some of the vessels, but that was going to be inefficient. So we went with the next best strategy: stuffing my roommate’s boyfriend into the wall. Yep, into the cavernous hidden enclave of Breen-Phillips through a tight vanity mirror cutout he went.

And out came the stuff. Some of it was fragile, some of it tattered, and there were a weird number of vintage 21+ glass bottles and pokey bits that he had to dodge around. By the time we’d unloaded it all, there were bags and boxes in massive piles, covering the entirety of our floor. There were journals and letters dating back to the young BP men of the 1940s talking about the ‘darling gals’ of Saint Mary’s College and the various libations and cigars they preferred. There were posters and special editions of major championship wins by the Irish. There were issues of the South Bend Chronicle outlining women’s fashion trends in the 1940s. There were headliners from The New York Times of Martin Luther King, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the death of Princess Diana. There were old train and plane tickets. There were memories written on little slips of paper by the many past inhabitants of BP. Let’s do some quick math: In 78 years, this double-occupancy room has seen likely close to 150 residents, and many have left a tidbit of themselves, and their time, in that hole in the wall.

So what did I leave? Well, working here, I had to leave a little piece of the eventful year 2016 through the eyes of The Observer. The good news is I’ve stayed for a double feature in this room for my junior year here, so please let me know if you have any recommendations for what items you think represent the year to you.

Note: Please don’t go taking apart your room to see if there’s a time capsule. Sometimes they do get ‘lost’ for some years, but if there is one, you’d probably know about it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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