In praise of Carpenter Hall

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Daniel Orazio
Staff Writer

Maybe you didn’t see them; probably you don’t often find yourself on the south side of Carpenter Hall. But if you were there in early March, you saw one of our campus’s prettiest sights: Carpenter’s azalea bushes in full bloom.

You know, for a campus so widely reputed for its ugliness, ours holds a surprisingly large store of beauty. I might cite the tree-clumped lawn in front of the church, the magical effect the Mall assumes at night, or the rather astonishing view down into the woods from the back walkway of the art history building.

I think back to the azaleas. The bushes line one half of Carpenter, the side that often gives prospective students (on their way to the admissions office) their first impression of campus. I can’t think of a spot here where I’d rather those impressions be made. The bushes in full array are a sight for sore eyes, but even when merely green, they favor the building they line with no small beauty. Coupled with the patch of trees around them (including the very slender ones that spring up delicately), they lend to Carpenter Hall a most verdant feel.

The oak standing guard in front of the portico is, I know, well-suited to sub-arboreal reading, and makes for a perfect backdrop to conversations held during breaks between classes. The overhang and the many boughs combine to provide a constant soothing shade, one that proves sustaining on even the hottest of September days. That string of oaks on the other side of the pathway, leading from the building along a slight ridge, is a favorite haunt of one of the classics professors. He may be found there many an afternoon, contemplating Dallas and the Loop (there’s a wonderful prospect of the city from up there), or else sitting under one of the trees, book in hand.

This beauty – the almost grove-like quality of the place – is a chief reason why taking classes in Carpenter is, for me, such a joy. Every one of the well-windowed classrooms looks out over ample grass and abundant trees; classrooms on the north side also enjoy views of the hill that slopes down to O’Connell. My favorite classroom in Carpenter – my favorite classroom on campus – is room 220. I like to sit with my back to the door, so that I can gaze during class out the windows, at little but green boughs. Veritably idyllic are those mornings in spring when someone has opened a window in 220 and a light breeze wafts in, bringing with it quiet bird-song and gentle warmth.

Often the things that draw me to Carpenter are the very things that turn others away. I cannot hope to make them understand. There’s a crack between rooms 219 and 220 large enough to see clear through into the other classroom. Some dramatically declare it emblematic of the building’s poor quality; I find it charming. Detractors frequently remind you that the building is sinking into the earth, but they never explain how a bit of mild slanting subverts the academic experience. Carpenter’s descent seems to me as romantic as Venice’s.

Sometimes it’s the tiniest things that get me. I like the two glass displays on the first floor, one a geographic accounting of the current freshman class, the other a tribute to the creative output of our professors. There are the wallboards outside Dr. Sweet’s office that are treated more tenderly than any corkboard I’ve seen; naturally, they contain only the choicest of notices. A visit to the first-floor vending machine, which inhabits its own little cranny, fills me with an almost child-like sense of adventure. And I find it a source of continual pleasure as I walk the halls to pass by Lucy Ricci’s and Joe Swope’s (photographed) smiling faces.

Yes, I could write a 2,000-word essay about Carpenter Hall – which is to say I could go on and on. I like the building materials; I like the aged tables and chairs; I’m fond of all the silly quirks. But most of all, I love how the building lives with its surroundings. I’ve spoken of the large windows in the classrooms, but consider the staircases. While in Braniff the stairwells are narrow, windowless and cut off from the building’s core, Carpenter’s wide staircases brim with light and make a vital part of the whole.

As its staircases are tied to the beating of its heart, so Carpenter never forgets the larger picture: the birds and the sunshine, the bushes and the trees.

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