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Mystery in the Attic

July 11, 2011

For about four years my office was located in a quiet suite on the northwest end of the third floor of Dowling Hall.  Every so often, as I sat sipping my tea and typing out articles for the Docket, I would hear the hustle and bustle of the law school outside my door.  Sometimes I could hear students pacing the hall, nervously reciting their closing remarks for Moot Court, not knowing I was just around the corner.  Sometimes I could hear professors, meeting with students to review a paper and offer help with edits.  Other times I would hear laughter coming from the Career Service office across the hall.  Less often were the times I heard the noises in the attic.

For a while, I didn’t even realize we had an attic.  One day I was making my way up the back stairs by the Library when I saw someone climb past the third floor, and heard a door open and shut above me.  I was fascinated.  Of course there would be an attic in a building of this age, but it had never occurred to me before then.  Over the years I would occasionally hear footsteps above me when everything else nearby was quiet.  It was a little eerie, not knowing who was up there.  Little did I know there was a statue hidden for years in that attic, unable to be removed.

We don’t have an exact date, but we know that she was placed in the attic several decades ago.  The room was open to the stairwell, but at some point a fire wall was built, closing her into the atticwith only a small door remaining, too narrow to bring her back out again.  Fast forward to 2011.  Construction workers began demolition in the attic, removing large mechanical equipment and tearing down walls.  There, behind the door, was the statue, unharmed and showing no signs of age.  The area around her is now open and we plan to pull out the statue when we get a chance.

For those of you interested in joining me as I relive my college Art History classes, I will tell you that this kind of sculpture is known as a pietà.  Click the link to read Wikipedia’s definition.  (I know, I never would have used Wikipedia as a resource in my college Art History classes.  Shame on me.)  We don’t know the details about where she came from, when she was created, or why she was ever put in the attic in the first place.  If anyone happens to know her history, please leave a comment so I can get in touch with you.

Speaking of history, we made one other discovery in the attic:

Those are carvings and chalk writings in the walls of the attic of Dowling Hall, where people have been going to work, escape, and study for over one hundred years.  The oldest mark we could find is dated 1893.  Some of these markings may have been left by construction workers over the years, leaving their name on their project for posterity sake.  I prefer to think of the students who may have snuck up here to find peace and quiet.  I picture a young gentleman in 1893, loosening his tall collar and ascot to breathe easier as he flips through the pages of Great Expectations in solitude.  Study on, young scholar; you have kept your memory alive in this marking on the wall.

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  1. Jon permalink

    Fascinating! I don’t which is more interesting, the sculpture or the wall inscriptions.

  2. The Dean permalink

    This is wonderful history, Christina. All postings are very well written, lively, interesting and informative. Keep up the good work.

  3. As the office manager for Ss. Peter and Paul Church, next door, I can’t help but wonder if that statue was once part of the church decor. What is the statue made of? If it’s marble it probably dates back to 1908, the year the marble altar was erected. If it’s wood, it may date back to 1877 when the side altars were installed. Either way it is beautiful. Please let us know if we can help in anyway with your research, 313-961-8077.

  4. My brother and I both took classes at the Law campus in the 80’s, and we killed time after dinner (we both worked downtown) but before class by engaging in a little urban archaeology. I must admit, we played in the attic. It was one of the happiest times of my life, getting to re-connect with him as we shared our secret adventures. I really enjoyed reading about this, and I happen to know there a few more interesting things in that attic…

  5. Bob Brown permalink

    Father Muller’s history of the university states that there was at least one worship space (chapel) in the building when completed in 1890. It certainly is possible, even likely, that the pietà was in the chapel, then removed and stored during an earlier renovation when the chapel was deconsecrated and the space used for other purposes. I don’t know how large and heavy the piece is, but I think we should be able to find a more approriate home for it than a dusty attic. I also note that in addition to the 1893 scholar’s initials on the attic wall, are those of a more recent scholar and denizen of the law school–our own Tom Fante.

  6. Christina Michaels permalink

    The pictures are beautiful and even more pronounced by your wonderful story-telling. A very well-done blog-documentary! Thank you!

  7. Margo Kempinski permalink

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article and the beautiful photography. It left me wanting to read more. What are those other interesting objects in the attic that Susan speaks of?

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