Ornamentation on the quad reflects UChicago’s intellectual audacity. (Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)

Looking up

Chelsea Leu, AB’14, explores how UChicago carved out an aspirational place for itself in higher education.

There’s a carving on Rosenwald Hall, just to the right of the west exit, that depicts a paleontologist’s satchel flanked by two improbably perfect ammonite fossils. A ribbon under it reads “Dig and Discover.” It’s a proud rallying cry for geologists, though the carving itself is a little outdated, installed back when Rosenwald housed the geology and geography departments.

I visited this carving a lot last summer after I graduated, when I was still working on campus at the University. Like many newly minted alums, I was also quietly panicking about my job prospects in the outside world: Why doesn’t anyone want to hire me? Why do all these entry-level positions require years of experience? Does my LinkedIn profile picture look too desperate? When the questions got to be too much, I’d wander the sunny, deserted quad, wishing I were still a student. I’d usually end up in front of Rosenwald. Staring at the carving was comforting, somehow—an Indiana limestone–sturdy counterpoint to my spastic wandering.

One sweaty day in July, I looked further up the building and noticed something different. Just below the molding of Rosenwald’s roof is a carving of a eurypterid, which I recognized from my geoscience classes as a giant ancient scorpion-like creature that swam in Paleozoic seas, devouring everything in its path. I forgot my career angst for a moment and stared at it in sheer nerdy delight. Then I thought no more of it.

Until I started noticing carvings everywhere: turtles and starfish above the doors of Anatomy, odd squirrel-like creatures cavorting on the Reynolds Club, an anguished-looking bat on Wieboldt, and, if I squinted, what appeared to be a giant crab on Harper’s west tower. In my first year, I had spotted the phrase “Lux ex oriente” inscribed on the cornerstone of Haskell. But last summer, when I crashed through the bushes next to Haskell for a closer look, I found text in Hebrew and Greek on a side of the cornerstone I had never seen. I felt just a tiny bit betrayed. What else were these buildings hiding from me?

As the sightings proliferated, so did my questions. Who came up with these carvings? Why were they there? I looked for answers the only way I knew how. After work, I’d go into the Reg’s Special Collections or the stacks to dig through old faculty papers and architectural guides to the University, reading until I fell asleep or the security guard came to kick me out.

I began sallying forth onto campus for more targeted expeditions. It didn’t take long to figure out that the carvings were informed by the departments housed in the building they adorned, now or in the past—the quad was kind of like a Disneyland of Collegiate Gothic. Eckhart Hall is decked out with the names of famous mathematicians—Leibniz, Euler, Poincaré, Cauchy—and the likenesses of Newton and Gauss stare down from just above the doorway. Rosenwald, built as a home for the geography and geology departments, is encrusted with snail shells, corals and trilobites. Under its windows, Classics has a carving of a muscled, grim-faced Hercules wrestling the Nemean lion into submission, and, higher up, representations of Aesop’s fables. One architectural guide mentioned tiny likenesses of Greek thinkers between the windows, and I managed to find a bearded, grumpy-looking, pug-nosed bust that I had no doubt was Socrates.

Fueling my enthusiasm, in part, was discovering a side of the University I had no idea existed. I had spent the last four years learning, sleeping, and half-assing final papers in the halls off the quad—I thought I knew the place. But here I was, wandering the same cobblestone paths with my head flung back, staring up until my eyes and the back of my neck ached. Most of the interesting stuff was near the top of the buildings, a place I never looked when I was a student—I spent most of my time then looking down as I booked it to my next class. Now I was seeing things I’d never seen, and experiencing emotions on campus other than despair or extreme sleep deprivation. What was this place?

As the summer progressed, my giddy infatuation with the gargoyles turned into more measured appreciation. The carvings, I admitted to myself, were kind of kitschy, dictated by the whims and intellectual leanings of long-past department heads. (Appropriately for UChicago, they were largely chosen by academics, not artists.) Sociologist William Ogburn, who in 1929 chaired the Social Sciences Division’s subcommittee on symbolism, apparently took his role very seriously. In his papers, I came across a sheet where he had scrawled a list of possible decorations for the Social Sciences Research Building, including “an ancient scroll with the word history on it.” Next to that was a short list of social scientists whose heads might grace the building’s arches. Among those who didn’t make the cut: Freud, Durkheim, and Marx.

Ogburn, a onetime head of the Social Sciences Division, was also responsible for perhaps the most contentious carving on campus. Curving around an oriel window facing 59th Street is a heavily edited quote from Lord Kelvin: “When you cannot measure, your knowledge is meager and unsatisfactory.” Ogburn was a hearty proponent of quantification in the social sciences, a view that some of his colleagues definitely didn’t share. In a 1939 symposium, economist Frank H. Knight Jr. (a teacher of Milton Friedman, AM’33) snarkily suggested that the quote be changed to “If you cannot measure, measure anyhow.” Fellow economist Jacob Viner chimed in with a suggested addendum: “If you can measure, your knowledge is still meager and unsatisfactory.”

Academic squabbles aside, the gargoyles were built as a facet of a grand public relations project deployed by the University’s first administrators. They don’t serve any practical function, so they’re more properly known as grotesques. (True gargoyles were used to carry rainwater away from the walls of medieval cathedrals.) Instead, UChicago’s stone ornaments were part and parcel of the University’s decision to design its buildings in English Gothic: the administrators wanted the University of Chicago to look as though it had always been there, churning out future Nobel laureates and know-it-all “that kids” since time immemorial. As William Rainey Harper himself termed it, he wanted a University that was “‘bran splinter new,’ yet as solid as the ancient hills.”

To that end, the grotesques were not only part of the buildings’ Gothic pastiche but also stone advertisements for UChicago’s greatness. On Rockefeller’s façade are carvings of religious figures—Moses, Jesus, Zoroaster. But the chapel is also adorned with the seals of the world’s top universities. The most unbearably meta carving on campus is a likeness of the chapel itself carved onto the building against a backdrop of Chicago’s skyline. On the other side of the archway is a representation of the city of Athens, the classical city of learning. Not exactly subtle.

So UChicago’s iconic Gothic menagerie is partly the product of the young, upstart University asserting its place among the world’s greatest, its administrators consciously cooking up an image long before admissions marketing and US News and World Report rankings existed. A hundred-odd years later, their architectural audacity seems to have worked. It worked on me at least.

Chelsea Leu, AB’14, lives and writes in California. And she misses snow.