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June 10, 2010 – part 1 of 2 parts

Few works of man have such a hold on your imagination as those you've almost burned down, for which reason I went to my high school reunion last fall with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Much had changed, I feared not for the better — and those fears were realized. The event entailed a tour of the facilities, and it took mere minutes to see how much had vanished — not just my youth, but an age.

I attended the Roman Catholic seminary depicted above. I didn't become a Roman Catholic priest, or even get very close, owing in part to a rash declaration in sophomore year that the deity worshipped by the class's spiritual director, a bluff old-school priest, was deceased. That's a story for another day. Despite such philosophical incompatibilities, I loved the seminary. There were many reasons for that, but among the most primal was this: it gratified my urge to explore and be awed.

You may say this is superficial. I concede that. However, I'm hardly alone. Fans of the Harry Potter movies will surely acknowledge that an essential part of the franchise's appeal is Hogwarts, the school at which Harry and his friends study the arts of wizardry. Hogwarts is a fantastic cinematic confection cobbled together from stage sets, computer graphics, and actual locations. Well, I attended such a school, only it was entirely real. It was called Quigley, after a Chicago archibishop. Though the school itself is no longer in existence, the building in which it was housed still stands at Rush and Chestnut streets.

Quigley had been constructed around the time of World War I based on Gothic models developed 700 years previously in France, with the addition of electric lights, indoor plumbing, and central heat. In all other respects, including the occasional arrest of hookers in the doorways after hours, it couldn't be easily distinguished from the originals even on close inspection. It had towers, turrets, and balconies; niches, secret passages, and hidden (well, obscure) chambers; and, I want to say, gargoyles, portcullises, and battlements, although I guess on scrutiny the last three are a figment of my imagination. But they'd have fit right in.

Quigley exemplified what I think of as ecclesiastical architecture. I don't mean the bland modern variety, filled with colorful abstract banners and notices of entry into a nuclear-free zone. I mean the old-fashioned kind, designed to impress the faithful and provide a suitable venue for the interrogation of heretics.

Ecclesiastical architecture was unconstrained by the usual concerns about economy, practicality and common sense. That's not to say it was in any way flimsy. On the contrary, religious buildings as a class — think of temples and cathedrals — are among the most enduring on earth.

But they tended to be eccentric. You had the sense Quigley wasn't meant solely for human habitation, as indicated by doors and hatchways built high off the ground, accessible only by angelic levitation or, for mortals, a ladder. The building's unearthly character was heightened by the fact that one side had been constructed later and the floors didn't line up, necessitating an Escher-like succession of staircases, landings, and other improvisations.

Add in the lofty ceilings, the Gothic detailing, and the general air of antiquity, and the impression on malleable adolescents was profound. We were issued the Young Seminarian's Manual, but had we instead been handed the Standard Book of Spells and a wand I don't think we'd have looked at them amiss. As it was we studied four years of Latin — I can't claim to have been especially adept, but even now the Latinate incantations in the Rowling books pose no mystery.

The school also fostered something that seems less prevalent now — a sense of mischief and adventure. To a considerable number of the students striding down the halls, the ornate architecture of the seminary was an invitation to scheme. I include myself in this number, but I had plenty of company. Therein lies our tale.

Quigley had various towers and spires planted in its upper stories. Two were especially prominent. What purpose they may have served even in the Gothic original I don't know. They seemed too narrow to contain bells, and lacked the observation deck appropriate to a watchtower. They placed one a bit closer to the heavens, and therefore, depending on your cosmological views, perhaps nearer to God, but it seemed to me the Tower of Babel had conclusively shown such impertinence wasn't appreciated by the higher powers. In any case, they were there.

What's more, they were the genuine article — and by this I mean they weren't stage-set, Disneyland-type towers, intended only for show. You could climb up in them, or anyway you could if the doors were unlocked and the ladders hadn't been removed, neither of which you could count on by the time we arrived — we weren't the first adolescents to get bright ideas.

One tower descended on the corner of the building occupied by the junior class. By this point in our lives we had become daring, and had acquired certain skills. Through patient deduction we established that the tower was accessible via a small door that opened into a classroom, the landing inexplicably situated three feet off the floor.

This door was initially locked, but this obstacle was temporary. I don't remember if someone picked the lock or merely abstracted the key, but one day the door was opened, allowing us to go inside.

This was — do I have to tell you? — extremely cool. Looking up you beheld the upper reaches of the tower through a series of hatchways at progressively higher elevations. Had we had some way to do so we would have certainly climbed, but there was nothing convenient. 

This limited our options. We might have been more patient, and worked up something involving robes, candles, and Gregorian chant, but that wasn't the kind of thing you could arrange during lunch hour. In the event, as I recall, those of us in the back of the class merely holed up in the tower, then at the bell opened the door, hopped down one at a time, and calmly took our seats under the gaze of a nonplused substitute teacher.

A modest effort, you may say. Certainly I achieved more startling results the following month with the starter's pistol in the Chicago Avenue subway station.

But a seed had been planted. One could see what might be done, and when the time came to plan our senior stunt the following year I resolved to do it. I enlisted my friends Mike and Dave, always game for dubious enterprises. Or perhaps my memory is defective and they enlisted me — Dave in particular was purebred Irish, and though I prided myself on the originality and flair of my projects, he came up with plenty of crap on his own. The main thing was, the seminary had another tower, or what was left of a tower. One raw day in early April we stood on Rush Street, gazed up at the roofline, and concluded: what this place needs is some balloons.

To be continued next week

— Ed Zotti
Photo by Kim Scarborough/Wikimedia Commons

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