Campus Scenes

Notre Dame at a Crossroads

Football takes on a new centrality in campus life.

By 8.11.14

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From the title, you may think I am referring to Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address to the graduating class of 2009. At the time, Obama had only his election to his credit while, to his discredit, were his pronounced pro-abortion views. The invitation led to intense and widespread criticism, including criticism from some 80 American Catholic bishops. It also led to the arrest on graduation day of the “Notre Dame 88” for trespass. Unthinkable was the arrest — at the behest of Notre Dame Security supervised by a Catholic priest who serves as president of the university — of an elderly priest for kneeling on a sidewalk on campus while praying a rosary.

Or you might think the title refers to the fact that, just three years after a trustee resigned after it was disclosed that the trustee was a financial supporter of pro-abortion groups, Notre Dame elected to its board of trustees an individual who adamantly and publicly condemns Catholic teaching on contraception, and is opposed to Notre Dame’s current lawsuit concerning the “Contraception Mandate.” Obama breached his promise made in his 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame to respect the consciences of all, including Catholics and their institutions. We might paraphrase a famous saying by Winston Churchill as an admonition to the trustees: “First we shape our board of trustees. Then our board of trustees shape the University.”    

No, the title refers to the University’s “Campus Crossroads.” With $400 million, the University will embark in 2016 on a 33-month program to surround its football stadium on three sides with buildings housing classrooms, office space, recreational space, and more — described and pictured here. The University states that the buildings will “enhance gameday experience,” in particular with 3,000 to 4,000 “premium” (that is, luxury) seats added to the stadium. Indeed, since the luxury seating will be physically supported by the buildings beneath them, a critic could easily assert that the real purpose of the University is to provide luxury seating and that, to do that, there must necessarily be structures under the seats.

Let’s put this program in the context of some building proposals that were rejected over the years — and why:

• The esteemed architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) made a proposal, gratis, to surround Notre Dame’s two lakes with buildings, including residence halls. (The formal name of Notre Dame is “Université de Notre Dame du lac,” French for “University of Notre Dame of the Lake” — at its founding in 1842, there was one lake, not two.) Notwithstanding Wright’s trademark designs of low-lying buildings having colors and shapes that would blend into the landscape, it was rejected in order to keep the population density around the lakes low, to preserve the wildness of the lakes, and, most of all, to keep the focal point of the University on the Sacred Heart Church (now the “Basilica of the Sacred Heart”)  and the adjacent Main Building (known to the public as the building with the Golden Dome and the statue of the Virgin Mary on top) rather than on the lakes.

• There was a proposal in the 1960s to build five high-rise residence halls around an Air Force Academy-style building in the center. The central building would have a cafeteria on the bottom floor and a chapel on top that would resemble a meringue cookie. (For an image, see “Mid-Century Modern,” Notre Dame Archives News and Notes, posted Sept. 17, 2010.)

Two of these five high-rises, each 10 stories tall with elevators when the other residence halls were three or four stories, were built in 1969 (named Flanner and Grace Halls). Of the two dozen residence halls on campus, only these two did not have a chapel — because they were built with federal funds. (Notre Dame’s webpage is silent on whether there will be any chapel in the buildings it plans to build next to the stadium, although some non-residential buildings on campus do.)

In 1997, these two buildings were converted to offices. The other buildings were never built. There was criticism that the ensemble would move the heart of the campus away from the Church and the Main Building. The same criticism was undoubtedly leveled during the building, culminating in the 1963 opening, of the 14-story library, now named after the president who built it, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh. (For a current image of the library, see here.) It was built away from the Church and Main Building, close to where the “meringue” ensemble would have been. The height, the architectural style, and the siting of that building seem not to have attracted criticism since the mid-1960s.

• There was a proposal to build a law school for a greatly enlarged student population of 600. It would have been a 1960s modernist building and would have been sited on the west side of the Hesburgh Library. (For an image, see the 1970 yearbook, The Dome, at 127.) It would replace the gothic law school building situated at the then entrance of the campus. Eventually, the law school went through three additions to its gothic style building, the most recent completed in 2010.

There was the avant-garde geodesic domed building called Stepan Center, sited on the edge of campus and dedicated in 1962. (For an image, see “Mid-Century Modern,” Notre Dame Archives News and Notes, posted Sept 17, 2010.) This idiosyncratic building on a campus of collegiate gothic never fit in. 

• We should not fail to mention here the grand scheme of keeping Notre Dame an all-male school while it was physically surrounded by a bevy of smaller all-female schools: its neighbor St. Mary’s College, and schools such as Mundelein, Barat, Rosary, or St. Mary’s of the Woods which would relocate to South Bend. The discussions never progressed far enough to consider siting and architectural styles. When this proposal did not pan out, there was a proposal to merge Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College. When that failed in the Fall of 1971, Notre Dame became co-ed in September, 1972.

All this said, the University did make one major departure from the desire to keep the University’s focal point as Sacred Heart Church and the Main Building, namely, the building in 1930 of a 54,000-seat football stadium, the Notre Dame Stadium. (Rockne coached in it for one season before his death.) At the time, the student population was 3,000. The stadium was, however, sited far from the then-existing buildings. (For an aerial view demonstrating the isolation and distance of the stadium from the rest of the campus, see here.) Notre Dame Stadium arose out of the cornfields as a colossus.

Through the decades, the trustees of the University were so fearful of the perception that football was more important than academics to the University that the stadium was not expanded, to 81,000 seats, until 1997. And it was expanded; a new stadium was not built.

To the criticism that “Campus Crossroads” will move the focal points of campus from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the Main Building to the football stadium, it is possible to respond that these three buildings totaling 750,000 square feet will mask the stadium, camouflage the stadium, render the stadium just one among a hundred campus buildings, incorporate the stadium into the University’s academic and non-football student life. The buildings will be like ivy masking the outside brick of the stadium walls.

There are, to be sure, other universities in this country that have built non-athletic facilities adjacent to, or in, their football stadiums. Ohio State and the University of Florida are among them. On its webpage, Notre Dame does not appeal to such precedents.

In assessing whether or not building non-athletic facilities next to a stadium is good, for state or private universities generally, but most particularly at the University of Notre Dame, let us turn for help to a poet and a leader with a vision. The poet is Wallace Stevens who once addressed such an issue in his “Anecdote on a Jar.” Writer David Warren recently commented on that poem: “Place a 100-storey banking tower in the middle of a town in which the highest thing was a church steeple, and it will change the nature of that town. The town will begin to surround it. It will appear to exist in a relation to that tower; and not just any relation, but a dependent relation…”

The leader with a vision is Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He joined the debate in 1943 on the layout of the new House of Commons to replace the Pugin-designed House destroyed by German bombs. He argued to retain the traditional rectangular form over proposals for a semi-circle or a horseshoe. He asserted that the rectangle would better fit the British parliamentary system of Government and Opposition. He declared, “First we shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.”

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About the Author
James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. attorney.