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A requiem for Brownson Hall

| Friday, April 26, 2019

Dear members of the Notre Dame community,

As some of you may know, Brownson Hall, the second-oldest standing building on campus after Old College and the University’s oldest academic building, is set to be demolished at the end of this calendar year. Those of us most immediately affected by the demolition first heard the news at a town hall meeting for staff this past fall. I quite recently stepped down as the very proud director of two programs housed in Brownson, the AnBryce Scholars Initiative and Office of Pre-College Programs at Notre Dame, to take a position at another University, but this missive has been brewing in me for a while. It has taken me time to simply wade through the many things I have to say about the demolition, so I hope you will be patient as I get to the heart of what it is that I have to say.

When I heard the news, which came to me second-hand from staff who attended the town hall, I was devastated. I am not ashamed to admit that. I railed to my staff and anyone else within earshot for the better part of an hour, and probably longer because I was angry, though I also experienced other emotions as I considered what the demolition meant. I was unhappy not to have been given even a little advance notice. While many of us who have worked in Brownson have heard for years that the building would eventually be demolished to make way for something new, it is quite another thing to have the “eventually” be the “now.” Also, and probably least-surprisingly, I was concerned about where Pre-College and AnBryce would land. I was even concerned, and not without cause, that the University had made absolutely no provisions for us, that the demolition crews would knock on our doors the day the wrecking ball arrived to tell us to get out. And where we would be sent exactly? Just considering the offices I was responsible for, there are six staff in Pre-College, two staff in the AnBryce program, and dozens of AnBryce students and friends of the program who use our offices spaces to study, meet and socialize. Having space, and really good space, is vital to these programs. It may seem odd to use the phrase “good space” when referring to Brownson. Anyone who has worked in Brownson knows that it has problems: stink bugs and bees that randomly appear throughout the year, bathrooms with backed-up plumbing and odd olfactory emissions and whole sections that are, to be gracious about it, not terribly functional. Even given these issues, Brownson has charm and an original quality to it. To save it, I considered laying down in front of the wrecking balls, ’60s-style, when it was time. Ask anyone I talked to when I found out about the demolition, I really talked about doing that.

More than anger, fear or indignation, however, I just felt sad about what was going to happen to old Brownson Hall. Demolishing it will mean the end of a unique community made up of a hodge-podge of offices and departments that do not quite fit (literally or perhaps otherwise) in other spaces around campus. I like to think of Brownson as the University equivalent of a land of misfit toys, except that most of us are pretty happy being un-adopted and left to our own devices. After all, between all the units there, we get a lot done for the University. Demolishing Brownson will also mean that the University’s connection to many, many aspects of its past will be erased. I make no claims on understanding the full history of Brownson Hall, but a few basic facts are clear from the accounts that do exist. The building was erected in 1855, and served as a dormitory for students. It later became the home for the Sisters of the Holy Cross, who well into the 1950s supported the University in a number of capacities. At the time, Brownson was known as the French Quarter, presumably because of the large number of French clergy, including Father Sorin and his brethren, who staffed the University in its early years. After the Sisters’ era, Brownson became a number of things, ranging from a print shop to a gym, to its most recent incarnation as a space for a number of offices and programs, including the Office of Sustainability, the Haiti Program, Pre-College, AnBryce and others. However corny it may seem to say, Brownson has almost always served as an annex made of people working behind the scenes to make the University a better place. That fact alone is worth acknowledging.

It is also worth acknowledging that Father Sorin likely had a very direct connection to Brownson Hall. According to the University’s building inventory, Father Sorin and Brother Francis Patois, CSC, designed Brownson, but I believe Father Sorin’s connection may be a deeper one. Years ago, a carpenter working in Brownson told me that Father Sorin probably laid the foundation of sections of the building himself. What an amazing thing. And what a shame, if true, that his handiwork — literally the work he designed with his own hands — will soon be a thing of the past. I wonder if future Notre Dame Administrations will look at this period like the City of South Bend does when talking about the ’60s and the demolition of historic downtown structures in the pursuit of modernism and progress.

In any case, weighing the bad and the mostly good, why is the University demolishing the building? There are two answers, I think. The short answer is that it is being demolished to make room for another building for the ACE program, which saw growth some years ago with the addition of Carole Sandner Hall and which is set to expand yet again. The other answer is a bit broader and more difficult to say succinctly, and it is that Brownson is being demolished to make room for a bigger, newer and presumably better Notre Dame. The University clearly sees new and large buildings as a sign of growth and progress and greatness; there is a lot of construction on campus, a mad rush to build really big things (though without the parking to support all those people who will fit in those buildings, a topic for another rant). While new, large buildings can be nice, and certainly the physical spaces we occupy are important, they do not alone make a place great. People make places great. What people do in those spaces are what count, and what they achieve creates the meaning we ultimately impart to them.

Father Sorin built Notre Dame and then had to rebuild one of its most important spaces in 1879, when the Great Fire burned the Main Building down to the ground. That fire spared nearby Brownson Hall. Evidently, the lure of expansion cannot.

So, in light of Brownson’s fate, I thought I would stir the echoes for it once more, and say a proper goodbye to it while it still stands. Goodbye dear, old, odd Brownson Hall. Goodbye and good night.

Paulette G. Curtis

Former director of the AnBryce Scholars Initiative and Office of Pre-College Programs

April 17

 

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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