DEAR PROFESSOR: When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (1982-87), there was a suspicious story going around, spread in part by the student tour guides, concerning the university chapel.
The chapel is a Gothic-looking building built of gray stone and decorated with gargoyles, while the rest of the campus is predominantly colonial red brick with white columns.Legend had it that the chapel was originally designed in red brick as well, but when the building materials were shipped, there was a mix-up with the University of Notre Dame, which was also building a chapel at the time.
Supposedly, we got their materials, and they got ours.
Rather than bothering to exchange the building materials, each school simply used what it had received, leaving each campus with a chapel somewhat out of sync with the rest of the architecture.
I've never been to Notre Dame to check this out, so I would be interested in your findings on the matter. - KIM MATTINGLY, WASHINGTON, D.C.
DEAR KIM: I assume that the University of Notre Dame has a chapel, but I have no idea what material it's built of.
It would be nice if it turned out to be a red brick colonial design surrounded by gray gothic edifices, but folkloristically speaking, it doesn't matter, since your story is a campus classic.
These switched college-building legends comprise a well-known group of tales that Professor Simon Bronner of Penn State University at Harrisburg calls "architectural folly stories."
He gives several examples of such stories in his new book "Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Campus Life."
The book's title, incidentally, refers to a list of parody meanings for three university degrees - B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. Figure out "B.S." on your own; the other two mean "More of the Same" and "Piled Higher and Deeper."
At his own university, Bronner found a similar switched-building story told about residence halls built for juniors and seniors in an area called Meade Heights.
Students complain that these dormitories are drafty and chilly, and they explain the buildings' inadequacy for a Northern climate by claiming that "there's a second Meade Heights in Georgia (or Florida)."
When the two separate housing units were being constructed, the story goes, their plans were accidentally switched. Supposedly, the Meade Heights halls that were built in the South "look like northern fortresses," while the Penn State ones are poorly suited for winter weather.
When I was collecting backward-building and sinking-library stories told on college campuses a couple of years ago, Debra Seltzer of Columbus, Ohio, sent me a mixed-up building story she heard at Oberlin College.
The library at Oberlin, she explained, is a huge concrete building with few windows. Seltzer wrote, "One campus rumor was that this is because it was actually designed to be built in Florida."
Presumably, in the South, a lack of windows would keep the sun from overheating the building, but in the Midwest that design feature merely assured that it would be dark and cold for much of the year.
The most extreme story of switched campus buildings I've heard came in a recent letter from M.E. Bolt of Lawrence, Kan., who wrote:
"I was a student at California State University at Hayward in 1972. Supposedly all the buildings there were designed for other universities, and for some reason they were all found unacceptable. But somehow they got built on the Hayward campus instead.
"One building - either art or engineering, I've forgotten which - was supposedly designed for a school in the San Fernando Valley where it's very hot. One side of the building is almost all glass, and the windows are sealed.
"The original plan called for air conditioning, but since Hayward is pretty cool, air conditioning was dropped from the plans.
"When the building was put into use, since the windows faced the sunny side of campus and couldn't be opened, the inside became hot as an oven. I heard that there were several cases of student heat exhaustion in that building every year."
Ah, the folly of those legendary college planners who, tradition says, will do anything to save a buck.