The Twelfth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2010
Berkeley Prize 2010

Aimee Sunny

A High Price for Grandeur

"Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, "See! this our fathers did for us," for, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age." -John Ruskin

In looking at the particular task of describing cultural and social history as it relates to building, the words of architectural and social critic John Ruskin seem particularly applicable. In order to fully understand why a particular building should be preserved, you must first understand why that building exists. You must understand why, not just in the literal sense of its bricks and mortar and beams that hold it upright, but rather in the reasons for its construction and its value to the community. Brownson Hall, in my own community at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, is a building eminently worthy of preservation. However, in order to grasp the necessity of the preservation of a specific building, and to effectively communicate these ideas in the public square, we must first introduce the idea of why buildings are important to communities, and why remembering history through buildings is essential to future social and cultural development.

The process of designing and constructing our built environment, better known as architecture, is the most sociological form of art. By its nature, architecture expresses the environmental, cultural, and societal values of both place and people. Architecture transcends time and geography. It is, in a sense, universal, and yet entirely individual. It encompasses our entire world, and impacts every stage of our lives. Although architecture began as an expression of one of nature's most basic needs, shelter, in reality it represents our world in microcosm, a sociological stage upon which the play of human existence takes place. Our culture, heritage, advances or failings, and ultimately our expression of society and community are all present in our built environment. Architecture is, in fact, full of complexity and contradiction, just like those who build it and those for whom it is built.

Likely without conscious realization architecture affects our psyche. Perhaps this is why people often have drastic reactions to all forms of architecture. From the most lavish ancient church or palace, to the modern skyscraper and glass box, to the primitive grass and mud huts, we recognize our culture through what we see and experience. We also understand history through our built environment. Touring the streets of Rome or Athens, it is impossible to ignore the hundreds of years of history before your eyes. Even without formal architectural training, people understand that they are part of not just their own generation, but the broader spectrum of humanity.

This realization has led me to believe that the importance of a building is not necessarily in its bricks and mortar, but rather in its tie to the culture and value of its community. Architecture for its own sake will not sustain a lasting connection; however, architecture for the sake of community will transcend generations. If we were to view a house merely as shelter from the elements, why should it matter if we live in a historic structure or a brand new condominium? I believe the answer is, quite simply, the difference between having a house and a home, a place and a community.

Before entering the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, I was initially drawn to the quiet beauty of the campus and the school's commitment to educational excellence. During my studies, however, I have come to understand an entirely different sense of this University. It is not the exterior appearance that has made this a successful institution of higher learning, but rather the internal values of a community whose mission statement expresses "concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice." These intense words are taken seriously as students strive to be leaders in their academic community and their professional endeavors.

Because of my interests in architecture, and specifically historic preservation, I recently learned the story of the Brownson complex. Built in 1855, Brownson stands as the oldest building on campus owned by the University of Notre Dame. It was designed and constructed by Rev. Edward Sorin, a young Catholic priest and the founder of the University, and Brother Francis Patois, the lead architect and builder for the University at that time. It is constructed of pale yellow bricks that were handmade by University students and professors from the rich marl deposits of the lake only a few hundred feet away. It is three stories tall, with the lowest level half submerged below grade. The large French mansard roof is made of a light blue and purple slate and recalls Sorin's upbringing in France before venturing to America to found Notre Dame in 1842. This building also stylistically set the tone for many other buildings on campus, including several dormitories, the main building, and the student center. Architecturally speaking, Brownson has segmented arch windows with six over six glass panes. Every seventh row of bricks is a decorative, and likely structural header course. Just below the roof are the remains of a classical entablature that has been partially replaced.

The first portion of Brownson Hall was built in 1855; however, as the University expanded in successive years, the complex expanded accordingly by connecting several buildings together to form a rectangular courtyard in the center. All of these additions were completed before 1885, when the first Indiana Sanborn map already shows them as a unified, functioning complex.

Urbanistically speaking, Brownson was built with a specific function in mind. The initial portion from 1855 stands at the northernmost side of the courtyard with the successive buildings added along the East and West side of the courtyard, and finally the southern side being filled in as well. The courtyard served as the main gathering space for the university community. It also contained the private entrances to the dormitories, whereas the public entrances to the chapel, offices, and classrooms are on the exterior side of the complex.

Regarding environmental sustainability, Brownson was planned in such a way as to provide natural cooling and ventilation, with large windows and transoms on both sides of the building in order to attract cross breezes and allow in natural light. The courtyard was planted with grass and trees to provide cooling and shade. The complex also has several arched openings which not only allow passage from the courtyard to the exterior, but also works to channel wind and cool off the area. In terms of materials, Brownson's load bearing masonry acts as an insulator against the elements. Also, with the brick being made by hand only a few hundred feet away, this building has certainly earned a few LEED points!

To this point, I have mainly been describing the architectural qualities of the building, which, although commendable, are not the primary reason for the preservation of this building. As I mentioned before, the true integrity of the building lies in its origins. In his 1855 Chronicles of Notre Dame du Lac, Rev. Edward Sorin writes, “This year, which posterity will doubtless call the year of the Immaculate Conception, will always remain one of the most remarkable in the records of this mission. More than any other since the commencement of Notre Dame du Lac, it was marked by blessings and by trials, by joys and by crosses.”

True to Sorin's words, the initial building in the Brownson complex was designed and built very quickly as a direct result of need in the community. During 1855, a cholera outbreak at Notre Dame resulted in the deaths of nearly half of the professors and students. Rev. Sorin took immediate action to lower the level of the lake and to construct a building that would house an infirmary, a kitchen, dormitories, and space necessary for the Holy Cross nuns who were arriving to help run the campus. Over the coming years, the complex expanded as needed, with the number of Holy Cross nuns increasing and therefore needing more space. A small chapel was built in the southwest corner of the complex. A laundry facility and a larger kitchen were added to accommodate increasing enrollment. Eventually the buildings on the eastern side were turned into offices and space to house printing presses. Brownson has always been built, used, and reused as needed throughout the development of the University. Today, still true to that mantra, Brownson houses over 20 different offices and classrooms, and even makes room for an architecture studio. The Brownson complex, or "French Quarter" as it was once affectionately known, survived a huge fire in 1879 that destroyed the rest of campus. It was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, along with the other campus buildings built of similar style and material.

The idea of "Brownson Hall" encompasses more than just a grouping of buildings. It represents the hard work and dedication of the University's founder, Father Sorin, and his struggles to forge ahead with his promise to provide education during even the most trying times. The buildings' simple yet elegant architectural features recall a time when shelter was a necessity of survival, not an extravagance for mere show. Actually, considering the conditions in which these buildings were built, the detailing displays intense care and deliberation, and sensitivity to urban planning and environmental sustainability. Today, greater wealth and prosperity have led Notre Dame to greatly expand its campus, to renovate its existing structures, and to plan ahead for the future. While laudable in themselves, these future plans unfortunately call for the demolition of the Brownson Complex as well. Because of its location directly northwest of the famed Main Building and its Golden Dome, the University is contemplating demolition in favor of building a grander, newer "entrance" into the center of campus. Not only would this demolition erase an important part of the community's history, but I fear it might also set a precedent for future demolition of the historic campus. When people visit Notre Dame, they come to see the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Main Building and Golden Dome, and the rest of the original "heart" of the campus. The university's modern dorms and office buildings simply do not possess the same character and charm, nor an equivalent social, cultural, and historical significance as the buildings designed and built under Father Sorin.

Instead of demolition, I propose a combination restoration and renovation to the existing complex. The Brownson complex has great potential to become a true point of interest on the Notre Dame campus. Because of its rich history, particularly relating to the development of the University, I believe that Brownson could successfully become a historical archive and museum open to the public. Those wanting to study the history of the school, including students, professors, and visitors, could use the facility for research and information. I also propose a restoration of the Sister's Chapel in the Southwest corner of the complex from its current day use as a pair of classrooms, thus reinstating this complex as a place of both academic endeavor and Christian worship. Additionally, since this area once functioned as both a community gathering space and the University Kitchen, I propose the opening of a small cafe or "French bistro" fronting the courtyard. This could encourage a sense of community and a vibrancy that has long been missing from Brownson. Even with all of these functions, the complex would still likely have space for some offices and could hopefully continue to house the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, which is an appropriate way of commemorating the French roots of the University.

I do realize that these proposed renovations would be extremely costly and time consuming. However, it is important to remember John Ruskin's quote and the idea that we should build for the future, not just today. A renovation and restoration of this type would easily carry this building to serve many generations to come. Of course the building will need to undergo some structural stabilization, and a complete update of the building systems including water, electric, heating and cooling, as well as the necessary updates to allow for accessibility to all. These changes and updates would certainly take time and funding, however, a majority of the effort would be on labor intensive restoration, and not material intensive new construction. Therefore, reusing the existing building not only makes sense from a historical and sociological standpoint, but also from the perspective of environmental sustainability, recently declared a priority of the university's mission.

The true impact of our built environment on our cultural and social history cannot be adequately summed up in words, but is expressed most fully by the experiences and interactions we have with our community. It is important that as the university gathers together as a community of Christians, of academicians, and of friends that we always remember our foundational roots. Often, in both architecture and life, we encounter a cyclical progression. We are constantly moving forward, but only by learning from and remembering the past. It is important to know and understand where we've come from, how we got here, what we desire for the future, and what we must to do achieve it. Most importantly, in all of this is to understand why all of that matters, and ultimately how our future is a product of our past. Preservation or maintaining a building is in no way resisting change and the opportunity to advance ahead, rather it is encouraging growth that uses the past as a guide to a better future. According to John Lawrence, "It is to understand the present as a product of the past and a modifier of the future." Therefore, we should take the opportunity to learn from and remember our heritage as we look forward to creating our future.


Schlereth, Thomas. 1976. The university of notre dame : A portrait of its history and campus /. Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame Press.

Tyler, Norman. 2000. Historic preservation : An introduction to its history, principles, and practice /. New York : W.W. Norton

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Ms. Aimee Sunny, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA
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