St. Ignatius' secret garden showcases past
Prep school gives new purpose to old architecture
09/19/2012 10:00 PM
Even at a casual glance, St. Ignatius College Prep is a striking structure. Elegant and elaborately detailed, the campus at 1076 W. Roosevelt Road harkens back prestigious European colleges. The fact that it towers high above most of the buildings for several blocks in each direction helps accentuate it even further.
But looking closer, one realizes that St. Ignatius’s beauty isn’t entirely its own. Pieces salvaged from demolished buildings and other structures line the walls and fill the garden that encircles the campus. Many of those buildings were notable and well regarded, only to eventually fall by the wayside during various urban renewal efforts.
Thanks to the efforts of Father Donald Rowe, former president of St. Ignatius, those pieces found a new lease on life. In an effort to beautify and enhance the campus, he created something that can’t be found anywhere else Chicago.
St. Ignatius has long been recognized as an architecturally significant building. Built in 1871 by the local branch of Jesuit order, it was originally meant to function as a combination of high school and college, and it was designed accordingly.
It was one of the five public buildings that managed to survive the Chicago Fire. In 1984, the original building underwent an extensive restoration to reverse decades of deferred maintenance. The efforts paid off three years later, when it was declared a national landmark.
In 1991, St. Ignatius president Father Donald Rowe set out to further improve the campus using pieces salvaged from various demolished buildings.
“During the third quarter of the 20th century,” Rowe reflected, “‘New’ was in and ‘historic’ was out. We lost great buildings in Chicago. Pieces of them were
available at very low cost. Since we had an architecturally historic building, I decided to enrich the campus’ grounds with objects from other famous buildings that had come down.”
He believed that having those pieces of architecture around would improve the students experience and help them become better people.
“Most schools are designed as if the students were blind, with concrete block and very dull shapes,” Rowe said. “It is always a value to provoke student inquiry and to surround [them] with beautiful things to develop a sense of quality and taste.”
A massive block of cornice salvaged from the original Chicago Stock Exchange has been planted on the large lawn in the campus’ southeastern corner. According to Rowe, the University of Illinois at Chicago donated the piece, and the current Chicago Stock Exchange paid to have it moved to its current location.
The outer wall of the adjacent gym is lined with relief panels that were salvaged from the Chicago Stadium when it was demolished to make way for the United Center. The sculptures depict Olympic athletes engaged in modern sport. Rowe explained the sculptures were donated by former Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz.
Over at the southeast corner of the gym, a corn-shaped panel rests on the edge of the eastern wall. The piece came from the Corn Exchange Building, a place where in its heyday, farmers from all cross Midwest came there to sell their crops. The piece was one of Rowe’s earliest acquisitions. He was able to buy it for a few hundred dollars because the dealer had trouble selling off something this large.
When Rowe was acquiring the pieces, most of the St. Ignatius campus was surrounded by student parking lots. By mid-90s, the school moved the parking lots further away and used the freed-up space to create a garden.
Ultimately, the plans weren’t fully implemented until 2001. By that time, Rowe already retired as president. But when his successor asked him to help design the garden, Rowe was happy to oblige.
“I am not trained in this, but I read widely,” he recalled. “My design ideas came from visiting gardens here and in England and in reading books.”
The new garden wove its way around the campus. The school’s existing courtyard was also spruced up, and several salvaged pieces were added throughout. The iron-cast porch was salvaged from a private late-19th century home. Two ornate courtyard lamps were originally Belgian street lamps from the same era.
But perhaps the most impressive piece is a large statue of a medieval herald. Originally, it was mounted on the face of the roof of the headquarters of the Chicago Record-Herald. Once a popular daily newspaper, it went through several mergers and name changes before shutting down in 1974.
“If something interesting were offered to us, I would be glad to see if we could site it properly,” he said. “Otherwise, I think we have about enough to make the gardens interesting.”
Rowe emphasized that the campus is more than just something to engage the students. Visitors can see the campus garden for themselves — at least, the parts that are open to the public. The courtyard, for example, is usually closed off, though parts of it are still visible though the gate.
“Large sections are gated to keep our students safe,” he said. “But passers-by are most welcome to see what they can.”