Stovepipe and Spire

A Word from the President

Stovepipe and Spire
When once the Sunday morning newspapers were the sole source of results from college sports competition, a St. Lawrence classmate, many years and miles away from campus, found a better way to get the weekend hockey scores. In the snowbound deeps of winter, he would phone up the crew of the central heating plant at midnight. They faithfully reported the scores, and the sub-zero wind chill calculation, too.

On occasion, I stop in the boiler room for a visit, just to marvel at its clean spaces and complex machinery. I find powers of efficiency and quiet there. This is where we produce hot water for showers and sculleries; it’s the source of steam heat for all the nearby buildings, both living quarters and learning spaces.

And yet, most campus pedestrians walk past the central heating plant giving it little thought; they see past its prosaic smokestack, the second most dominant feature on the St. Lawrence skyline. Standing above it, of course, and also above every silo and grain elevator in the glacial span of a wrinkled valley, is the tower and spire of Gunnison Memorial Chapel. Until there was fire.

For a while, and with peculiar irony, the campus chimney will be the main vertical reference point of our day. This temporary fact may serve our imaginations beyond the passing nostalgia of hockey nights in Canton or a mere object of utility mostly ignored. A majority see this unheeded piece of University architecture as absolutely meaningless, making no statement at all.

When I meet with students about their hopes for a better global climate and a sustainable environment, I gain an appreciation for their command of the fresh science and how well they grasp the competing arguments of the public policy debate. So, I listen closely and then ask, How do you envision the St. Lawrence campus looking and functioning in the years ahead? Rarely, have I heard them say what I myself have already dreamed—that someday, the smokestack over the central heating plant will come down, because we had found a better way.

As I see it, the irony in recent campus events is that our stovepipe stands intact while the inflamed and beloved spire falls. The extra twist in juxtaposition: In the midst of the bell tower fire, we were simultaneously drilling geothermal wells for our new residence hall, a project designed to take yet one more step toward lowering the smokestack.
Before the sun set upon the storm-worn copper rooster for the last time, and the spire gave way in the night and fell to the ground, we had committed to an unequivocal full restoration of all the damaged parts of the chapel. Meanwhile, during an interlude of rebuilding, we must also consider the symbolic possibilities of these readily familiar horizon points now suddenly touched by unplanned circumstance.

Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of U.S. presidents, attended the Great Exposition of Paris in 1900. He was in France mainly to continue his study of medieval cathedrals and to read philosophy, but he was completely, unexpectedly, captivated by the exposition’s great hall of dynamos. Adams tried to comprehend, but could barely grasp, all the implications of immense power generated by these early turbines. “The year 1900 was not the first to upset schoolmasters,” he wrote. “Copernicus and Galileo had broken many professorial necks about 1600.”

Adams eventually translated his “respect of power” observed in the dynamo into the terms of “a moral force.”  He asserted this larger meaning as similar to the spiritual expression found in Gothic architecture as a transcendent motivating force in intellectual life. Thus, he connected the lines between forces without making ultimate functional or value distinctions—the production of high- voltage energy and the towers of Chartres Cathedral were morally analogous.

Between his visits to the dynamo and his ruminations on architectural form, Adams was reading Thomas Aquinas again, discovering wise admonitions about making sense of life in the presence of “force.” A person ought to know what to believe, what to desire and what to do. Unconsciously, pleasantly, St. Lawrence students will walk countless times across the Quad, beneath spire and stack, between these two same forces that Adams once confronted. They may not realize it at the time, but they are thinking their way through abiding questions:

What is important to me, and why? What is my plan? And what shall I do? Belief, desire and action are coordinates on all the campus walks within sight of two structures towering above an otherwise gentle vale bounding our campus.  Because oddly coupled symbols speak to us, we all take away life questions for having looked out and looked up while at St. Lawrence.

The spire will ascend anew; the rooster shall resemble a phoenix. The first glimpse will tell the whole story in an instant. It is the best story architecture will ever tell, when human ambitions soar.

William L. Fox