PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARY WAYNE GILBERT
73 feet above the pavement, the Gasson clock tower is reached via
elevator to Gasson's third floor and then through a locked and unmarked
door and then by ascending a wood ladder and a four-story spiral
staircase just wide enough to admit one person at a time. An alarm
and surveillance system protects the tower and its valuable bells.
"It's a little spooky," notes electrical technician Leo
Croft, BC's unofficial guide to Gasson's tower, as he climbs in
the gloom and dust behind a recent visitor. Once, the works that
ran the clock and bells required twice-weekly handwinding of a weighted
chain that reached down to the basement of the building; but since
the clock and bells were put on automatic controls in the 1960s,
most visitors have come for the view and to leave their names in
this clear summer day, the tower is sun-filled, with views of the
Blue Hills to the southwest, and of suburban towns ranging out past
Needham, looking like toy villages. Of the four brass bells, the
largestinscribed Ego Sum Ignatiu, or "I am Ignatius"weighs
half a ton and peals the do note (F) when struck by a 24-pound
hammer. The other three bells are named for Jesuit saints Francis
Xavier (fa-B flat), Aloysius Gonzaga (sol-C),
and John Berchmans (la-D). All four sit in a wood frame
that has room to hold six or seven more bells, a specification ordered
up by BC President Thomas Gasson, SJ (1907-14), who authorized the
tower and who seems to have been ambitious about the campus's capacity
for chimes. But his budget allowed for four bells, and that has
sufficed ever since for marking roughly 400,000 hours (out of regard
for residential neighbors, the bells don't chime during the night),
and a proportionate number of half hours, quarter hours, and Angeluses
at noon and 6:00 p.m.
When Joseph Burns '67, an associate dean of arts and sciences, makes
the climb up the stairs with students from his seminar on BC history,
he tries to impress upon them the significance of a Catholic bell
tower overlooking Brahmin Boston in 1913. "The tower was a
proud statement that Catholics and Jesuits had 'made it' in Boston,"
original and ambitious plan for Gasson Hall never foresaw the building
in its present setting. Submitted by the architectural firm of Maginnis
& Walshand chosen in a design competitionthe winning
vision placed Gasson in a set of 19 companion buildings, all in
the English Collegiate Gothic style and forming a cathedral-like
shape, with the central "Recitation Building" (Gasson
Hall) standing where the avenues representing nave and transept
were supposed to have met.
Gasson remained the only classroom building in Chestnut Hill until
1924, when Devlin Hall was completed, and it therefore became a
microcosm of the University itself, housing everything from a basement
locker room to reception parlors, along with chemistry and biology
laboratories, an assembly room, and a cafeteria where, according
to legend, students ate not at tables but standing at countersa
design said to be dictated by the Jesuits so their charges could
not waste time dawdling over food or poker.
The means to build Gasson Hall did not come easy. Irish Boston was
a relatively poor community, and construction came to a dead halt
midway through the four-year process when money ran out. It did
not pick up again until President Gasson received permission from
authorities in Rome to sell the old BC athletics field, on Massachusetts
Avenue, in Boston, and put the proceeds into Chestnut Hill.
In the end, BC mounted parades, sold commemorative bricks, brought
its alumni to shakedown dinners, and redirected funds that had been
raised for a campus-based "Irish Hall of Fame." And BC
held garden parties. The first of these took place on June 20, 1908,
a year after BC bought the Lawrence Farm property. Societies affiliated
with Boston College staffed booths on the site of Gasson Hall. The
Boston College Club, the Loyola Guild, the Young Ladies' Sodality,
and a set of Church-affiliated temperance societies drew about 25,000
people "to the country," including "well-known ladies"
and "prominent laymen"according to the Boston
Pilot. Archbishop William O'Connell '81 gave an address, a
merry-go-round whirled, and the Algonquin Gymnastic Club performed
in a tent. In the evening, the grounds were illuminated by 600 colored
incandescent lights and more than 500 Japanese lanterns, while girls
in "Dutch costumes" sold candles and unspecified souvenirs.
At 9:30 p.m., fireworks were set off. "It was like a scene
from fairyland," said the Pilot.
An eye-straining puzzler to generations of Gasson 100 patrons, the
stone medallion above the room's central door seems to depict two
wolves mesmerized by a tall pot. The image is, in fact, the seal
of Ignatius Loyola's family, which protected its estate (legend
says) by placing a container of food scraps outside the gate so
that wild beasts would halt there and go no farther.
And now war broke out in heaven, when Michael with his angels
attacked the dragon. Revelation 12:7
by many the most arresting piece of art on the campus, the statue
of St. Michael triumphing over Satan was, sad to say, not designed
with the Gasson Hall rotunda in mind. Rather, it was commissioned
in 1865 by Gardner Brewer, a Boston merchant who exhibited art at
his Beacon Street home and who may not even have known of Boston
Collegefounded two years earlier and lodged in the urban ghetto
in Boston's South End.
de Chevalier Scipio Tadolinia well- regarded Roman sculptor
of the timespent nearly four years planning and executing
the project in Carrara marble, at a cost to Brewer of $20,000. Brewer
died in 1874, and his estate sold the piece to a Boston gallery.
Eventually, a BC Jesuit and admirer of the statue prevailed upon
an unknown donor to purchase it for the new campus. The statue,
which had crossed the ocean without trouble, came apart in the journey
up Commonwealth Avenue. Michael's wings, sword, and thunderbolts
all broke and were replaced with plaster for several years until
new marble pieces could be completed.
Originally designed to house large lectures and convocations, Gassoon
100a.k.a. "T-100" and "The Irish Hall"hit
the skids in the 1960s when a demand for office space caused the
University to split the campus's best-known and best-decorated auditorium
into a partition-riven set of open-roofed cubicles filled with members
of BC's financial staff. Students came to Gasson 100 to deal with
bills and delays in financial aid (BC was having cash flow difficulties
at the time). Employees lined up at cashier's windows to pick up
their paychecks. And accountants, purchasing agents, auditors, and
secretaries worked at typewriters and mechanical calculators beneath
strands of fluorescent lights that hung from the high ceilings and
by the glow of the large stained glass depiction of St. Patrick
trying to capture the attention of King Laoghaire at Tara. Thomas
O'Connor, currently BC's historian, was a member of the faculty
during those hard times and will not soon forget entering a financial
affairs office through a portal inscribed Quis Ut DeusWho
is as God?
Br. Francis Schroen (pictured at work), the tormented and self-taught
Jesuit artist who left his handiwork on nearly every important public
surface in Gasson Hall, was born in 1857 in Germany and brought
to the United States as an infant. Raised in Maryland, Schroen worked
as a housepainter and wall decorator. After he lost his young wife
to disease, he abandoned their daughter and turned to Ouija boards
and automatic writing as a way to communicate with the beyond. Believing
that Satan was sending him messages and was trying to throw him
off his scaffold, Schroen one day sought refuge in a church. In
a sense, he never emerged, and in later years referred to himself
as "a brand snatched from the burning." At age 41, he
was accepted as a Jesuit lay-brother, and he soon made a reputation
for the interior decoration of buildings at Georgetown and Fordham.
When he arrived at BC in 1913 at Fr. Gasson's invitation to "garnish"
the just-dry plaster of Gasson Hall, Schroen was greeted as a celebrity
whose "warm artistry," noted the student magazine The
Stylus, would show to good effect "under the softened light
shed through the stained glass windows" that were planned for
work over the next years included the murals in the Gasson rotunda,
in the Fulton Debating Room (Gasson 305), and in a large conference
room now used by the Arts & Sciences dean. But his most ambitious
work was The Church, the Educator of Mankind (accompanying
photo), which looms over the stage of Gasson 100. At 27 by 12 feet,
the painting depicts the apostle Peter on a throne flanked on each
side by robed triads of eminences who exemplify "the 16 profane
and sacred arts." Among the exemplars are Moses (the only non-Catholic
on the wall), who is joined by "King Edward" and "Lord
Russell" under the category of Law; Columbus, who is categorized
with Marquette and Cabot under Exploration; and Daniel O'Connell
and John Carroll, who are listed as practitioners of Patriotism
along with Sobieski (Jan, the 17th-century Polish king, and not
Leelee, the contemporary starlet). In the left background of the
painting, the silhouette of BC's Gasson Hall is on the horizon in
the company of the cathedrals of Rheims, Canterbury, and Notre Dame.
And that doesn't begin to exhaust the detail of waterways, sheep,
lambs, candlesticks, trees, heavenly lights, seals, and temples
that make the work a thickif somberstew of allegory.
Schroen went on to do work in New Orleans, Chicago, and Kingston,
Jamaica. He died in 1925 at Georgetown. No muralist touched a Boston
College wall again until the 1990s.
While it's commonly believed that BC students occupied Gasson Hall
in protest of the war in Vietnam, in fact, the occupation ("by
a small but peaceful group of dissidents," according to the
Heights) that began on April 13, 1970, was driven by mundane concerns.
On April 8, President Seavey Joyce, SJ, had announced that BC was
facing an operating deficit and would need to raise tuition by $500from
$1,500 to $2,000. Tuition had been raised by a precipitous $400
the previous year, and the students, many of them commuters who
paid their tuition from work earnings, were outraged. The undergraduate
student government declared a student strike, and a general boycott
of classes ensued. Students picketed and occupied campus buildings
off and on for 23 days, and the boycott of classes ended on May
5 (the University agreed to a compromise $240 increase), just in
time for BC students and faculty to join the national boycott of
classes over the bombings in Cambodia and the killings of students
at Kent State University.
Cara Cannella '01 is a freelance writer based in Boston. She
has contributed to Inc magazine and the Boston Globe,
and sat through many classes in Gasson Hall.
of the above images to enlarge them in a new window.
photography courtesy John J. Burns Library Archive ("Best-Laid
Plans," "Seed Money," "Chopped Shop," "Occupation
Force") and Georgetown University Library (inset, "Possessed").